Calming signals – what they are and why you need to know them
Your dog deserves that you know this.
Have you ever thought about how lucky we are to have the ability to communicate our desires, demands and meanings by using words? Dogs do not have this ability, which is why they have developed their own way of communicating.
Their way of communicating is essential. Without it, dogs cannot avoid conflicts within their pack. They need communication to hunt and when raising their young. At least, that is what dog trainer, Turid Rugaas, says.
The dog’s life insurance
Rugaas has devoted most of her life to dogs. She has travelled the world as a dog trainer, author and is the woman behind the renowned dog term ‘calming signals’.
Rugaas’s discoveries regarding calming signals in dogs have cleared the way of how the world now sees how dogs communicate. Keep in mind that Rugaas isn’t a scientist, and there is a lack of scientific evidence. However, her life-long experience as a dog trainer is just as valuable to the dog community.
What does calming signals mean?
According to Rugaas, calming signals is something dogs use when they attempt to deescalate a potential conflict. She refers to the signals as ‘a dog’s life insurance’ precisely because it can help save a dog’s life.
Sometimes the signals are obvious. However, there are also subtle signals that humans might not register as easily. After reading this article you might start to notice new things about your dog.
Why is it important that you learn about calming signals?
Generally, dogs have more than 30 different types of calming signals, Rugaas says. Maybe even more. By learning these signals, you can become a better dog owner, which will improve your dog’s quality of life. The key to a perfect dog/human relationship is mutual understanding.
Calming signals work well between dogs because they have practised this behaviour for millennials. It has become their language. It becomes more challenging for the dog when it tries to use the same communication tool to an oblivious human.
If no one understands the dog when sending these signals, or if someone misunderstands the signals for disobedience and punishes the dog for trying to communicate, it might lose its ability to signal other dogs.
The best way to learn about the dogs calming signals is to try to understand them.
The signals you should know
Below is a list of examples that Rugaas refer to as "calming signals".
- Turn their head away
- Freeze (suddenly stops moving)
- Licking (licks their snout or lips a lot)
- Lays down on their belly with their head in front of their legs
- Smells the ground
- Lifts a paw
- Itches itself
- Slowly wags their tail
- Walks around an approaching dog
- Front legs down, behind legs up
In what situations do dogs use calming signals?
Suppose your dog shows any of the abovementioned signs around other dogs. In that case, it can be because it is trying to deescalate a situation. Below is a few examples of when dogs might try to use calming signals:
- When someone is angry (For example, the owner)
- Direct eye contact
- Arguing and shouting
- When someone directly approaches the dog
- When the dog is excited
- When the dog is confused
- When someone hugs the dog
- When it feels trapped
- When it feels scared
If the dog does not use calming signals
Most dogs behave according to Rugaas theory about calming signals. However, there are exceptions. If a dog has previously been punished for using calming signals, it might stop using them.
Suppose a dog tried to deescalate a situation by using calming signals but still got attacked by another dog. In that case, it might also stop using it as a way of communicating.
If the dog is too stressed, it might not think rationally and therefore will not try to deescalate anything.
What does science say about calming signals?
When Turid Rugaas first referred to the phenomenon as ‘calming signals’, it was not made any scientific research on the subject. It is a term she has invented through her life-long experience with dogs.
Whether or not calming signals is a part of a language developed between dogs over time or is an intuitive response to stress has not been proven. However, in 2017, a study was conducted, and the results indicate that calming signals affect dogs.
The study needs further research, but it acknowledged the term ‘calming signals’ as something that plays a big part in how dogs communicate.
The study was done by the Department of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Pisa. The data collected was by studying the behaviour of 24 dogs. The dogs got paired together and filmed by the scientists.
In total, they observed 2130 calming signals. Over 109 instances of aggressive behaviour occurred during the study, in which 67% of the instances were followed by calming signals, between the dogs.
In 79% of those instances, the conflict got deescalated due to the communication between the dogs.
If anything, the basis of this study indicates that calming signals are indeed true.
There was one instance during the study where one of the dogs did not respond to calming signals. The aggressive behaviour continued despite various attempts to deescalate the situation by the other dog. But does this mean that this type of signalling isn’t universal for dogs? Not necessarily. The same often happens in the human world, where one part has no interest in conflict. Still, the other part wants to escalate the situation.
The scientists concluded that ‘the results indicate that calming signals can play a role in how dogs prevent aggressive behaviour’.