Canine Body Language 101: Calming Signals

Do you ever wonder what your dog is saying to you or to another dog? Pets have an amazing ability to communicate without using their voices. Just like with people, it’s important to look at body language while also listening to get a better picture of what is being said.

Calming signals are the way that dogs communicate when they feel stressed, afraid or uncomfortable. They are a canine’s non-confrontational way of solving a conflict without having to display aggressive behavior. Calming signals can be used two ways; between dogs to calm each other and as a self-soothing behavior to calm themselves. Due to varying physical attributes, some dogs may display more subtle calming signals while others may be more obvious. It is also important to take into consideration the context of the body language. One action doesn’t always mean the dog is experiencing a specific emotion. Taking in the dog’s entire body language will give you a better reading as to their state of mind.

All of the following signals can be considered normal when not used in context.

  • Looking or turning away 
  • Blinking
  • A raised paw  
  • Yawning
  • Sniffing     
  • Moving on an arc
  • Scratching     
  • Submissive grin (aka: Smiling)
  • Lip licking    
  • Stretching
  • Sneezing      
  • Any combo of the above

Now look at how a dog displays several different types of body language, perhaps at the same time, to communicate what they are feeling:

  • I’m alert – my body weight and ears are forward. My tail is low. My hackles are raised (pilo-erection). My paw may be raised.
  • I’m scared or nervous – my body weight is low to the ground and I’m crouching. My tail is low or tucked and my ears are back. My mouth is closed or I may be panting. My gaze is averted and my head is down. I might lick my lips and I may even growl.
  • I’m giving you a peace offering – I turn my body or head away from you. My ears are turned out or back and I may lick my nose. I may also yawn.
  • I’m no threat to you – I turn my body away from you while I’m standing or sitting down. I may begin displacement sniffing.
  • I’m trying to calm another dog down – I play bow (downward facing dog for you yogis out there). I’ll use the butt to nose meet and greet position with a loose, wiggly body. I’ll roll over and show you my belly. (Sometimes I display this behavior to humans if I want a belly rub.)

Canine Body Language 101: Calming Signals

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Copyright 2013 Connecticut Humane Society