Many signals that dogs put out are very subtle to the human eye because they are so different from primate body language. Often dogs show us these signals to let us know that they are uncomfortable or stressed. Conflicts arise when we humans fail to recognize these signals or we misinterpret the message our dogs are trying to convey.
Recognizing and understanding canine body language is critical when trying to manage multi-dog households. Perhaps more importantly, understanding the messages your dog is trying convey can help you forge a better relationship with your dog and help you and your dog navigate through situations that make him/her uncomfortable. Here are a few common signals that are important to be on the look out for:
This is a behavior dogs will often perform when they are under stress or unsure of what is happening around them. What distinguishes this behavior from a dog “licking his chops” is that it is more frequent and more like a tongue flick. It is a behavior that Turid Rugaas terms a "calming signal" (see book reference below). A "calming signal" is a behavior that dogs display to each other to prevent or reduce the risk of conflict. It is a way for a dog to try to defuse a situation and calm the other dog (or person) down or even to calm themselves down.
In the photo above, my male Akita just came into the house to find my dad’s dog sleeping on his bed and also blocking his path. He paced back forth several times in front of her licking his lips before he finally walked past my dad’s dog and found another place to sleep. My Akita is not very confident and tries to avoid conflict as much as possible so the lip licking not only shows his discomfort approaching the new house guest but also his attempt to walk by her in close quarters without triggering a reaction or make her feel threatened.
In the videos below, the dogs show this behavior in response to the camera being too close to them:
One of the more common signals a dog will emit is the head turn away from another dog or person. This is another behavior that Rugaas considers a "calming signal." I most often see this behavior when a dog is being approached by another dog or human and the dog is not quite comfortable with what is happening or when the dog is trying to show the other dog that he/she is not a threat. In the picture below, my shiba inu is not very comfortable with my dad’s dog and is turning her head away from her to avoid direct eye contact, which can be threatening to another dog.
|The dog on the left is emitting a calming signal to avoid
confrontation with the dog on the right.
Another scenario where I see head turns is when a dog or puppy is being hugged or kissed by a human being and the dog is not comfortable with this show of affection. Hugging for a primate is a normal expression of affection but is not comfortable for most dogs. Often accompanying the head turn in this scenario are other calming signals such as lip licking or yawning (see below). This is probably one of the most common situations where humans fail to read the signs of the dog’s discomfort and if ignored can lead to a growl or dog bite to the face.
|This dog is doing both a head turn and lip lick
In the picture above, my shiba inu is not comfortable with someone taking a picture so close to her when she is on her bed. She is displaying both a head turn and lip lick. When you see this behavior in this type of scenario, it is best to give your dog more space.
|This dog is merely tolerating being hugged. Note the head tilted away from the person.
The ears are also tilting backwards.
It is important to respect these signs and reduce your pet's stress and discomfort by not putting them in situations that make them uncomfortable. Working at a dog’s comfort level helps build a more trusting relationship. One way to do this is to approach an unsure dog by turning the side of your body to the dog. Hovering, hugging and direct eye contact can be intimidating to a dog and can provoke a dog to growl or bite. Most dogs are comfortable approaching a human when the person's side is facing them and the person's head is slightly turned away (a calming signal). This is especially true of fearful dogs.
|This dog is more comfortable being held but then my face is also not close to hers and I am not hovering over her or trying to make direct eye contact. Note the relaxed expression and mouth.
Colleen Pelar who has written several excellent books on raising children with dogs has the following videos on her website demonstrating the stress and calming signals dogs exhibit when they are being hugged or kissed. When you watch these videos, try to identify the calming signals. The videos can be found at:
Another "calming signal" is a body turn. Often when dogs approach each other one or both will turn their bodies rather than approach head on. If one dog approaches and the other turns away very deliberately, the dog is signalling that “I am not a threat.” It can also be a sign that the dog turning away does not feel comfortable or does not want to interact.
|Mitsu (dog on left) keeps her body and head turned away.
Sometimes in class I see dogs doing body turns or head turns (usually accompanied by lip licks or yawns) away from their owners. Usually I will ask the owner to give the dog a break from training for a few minutes. The dog is not trying to ignore the owner or being obstinate, an example of when dog behavior is often misinterpreted, but rather the dog may be stressed or is uncomfortable with something that is happening around him.
The interesting thing about calming signals is that humans can reflect a calming signal back at a dog. For example, turning your own head or body from a dog that is exhibiting a calming signal (yawning, lip licking or head/body turns) can help put them at ease.
Sometimes dogs will yawn for reasons other than fatigue. This is another behavior that Turid Rugaas terms a "calming signal." Yawning can occur when a dog is stressed or uncomfortable. Try yawning back at your dog when you see this behavior and see if your dog relaxes.
The pictures below show dogs who are relaxed and comfortable with what is happening around them. The mouth is relaxed, not tensed and the eyes are soft.
|Relaxed mouth, relaxed face, ears in normal position
|Relaxed mouth, soft expression, ears in normal position
In contrast, dogs who are on guard, nervous or uncomfortable usually have a tight, closed mouth or tense face. The look in the eyes may be hard or intense and the ears may point forward rather than be relaxed.