Turid Rugaas was really the first person to make us actively aware of the existence of the way dogs use calming signals between themselves. The subsequent interest has certainly led to the improvement of how we, as people, try to communicate with our dogs. However, a word of caution should be added to this – we are humans, and cant (simply because our facial features are so vastly different!), communicate in the same way dogs do when using these signals, so one always need to be careful when using them. Keep a close eye on how your dog is responding and if there’s a look of general confusion. You know you’re lacking upright ears, a snout, a tail or something important like that!
However, there is some really valuable information that can be extremely useful when working with dogs. Turid has drawn attention to certain appeasement gestures such as lip licking, sniffing, how dogs use their bodies to signal, eye contact and ways that they approach each other. Each signal has its own meaning and helps to convey the message to the other dog of “I mean you no harm, it’s alright to relax”.
Watch your dog the next time he encounters another dog. These signals are so subtle that people often miss them! Usually polite dogs will approach slowly at an angle. Rushing straight up to another dog can be interpreted by the other dog as a threat, and may elicit a defensive response. Once the two dogs have met, there will be a general sniffing of the bum area under the tail, and then one of two things will happen: either dog may issue a play invitation in the form of a bow, or they will go about their own business. Even play is filled with over exaggerated signaling, such as mouths wide open, over exaggerated body movements etc, all aimed at reassuring the other dog that whatever is taking place is play motivated and should not be taken seriously. When the play gets too boisterous or arousal starts to escalate, you will then see one or both dogs stop, have a good shake and engage in some sniffing or something similar to indicate that it was getting a bit rough and things needed to calm down. The problem comes in when one of the dogs is not as good at reading canine signaling as the other, and that’s where play can often end up in a fight.
When I’m doing aggression rehabilitation using a dog that’s got really great signaling skills, you can actually see the response in the other dog. Of course, not all dogs automatically know these signals, as they are learnt by watching the dam and rehearsed over time on other dogs. Some dogs are more fluent in “speaking dog” than others, just like some humans are better at communicating with other people. Next time you’re watching your dog interacting, look for signals that say “ok, time to relax a bit” and if the other dog doesn’t respond, feel free to distract them to prevent any trouble.
Even though we are still learning about dogs and the signals they use every day, its always fascinating to watch them. For such a long time there has been inaccurate information about how dogs behave and what they think, and by observing our dogs a little more intently we are bound to learn much more than we can imagine about them!
by Karin Landsberg (Certified Animal Behaviorist)