Listening To Our Dogs
Do you ever get nervous or feel out of your comfort zone in certain situations? I do when walking into rooms full of people I don't know and having to start conversations with strangers. Being a little of an introvert I have noticed things that I do to calm myself in these situations. I feel better holding a glass, preferably wine ;) though even if my drink is empty I will still hold on to that glass possibly for comfort. What does this have to do with dogs? They have calming signals and behaviours they communicate when in uncomfortable situations to either solve conflict, warn us before a growl or bite, calm themselves down or the other thing/dog/person. Dogs communicate using their bodies and it is beneficial to know and watch for these signals to help our dogs out throughout their lives.
Head Turn or look away: Have you pointed your phone or camera at your dog and as soon as you take the photo your dog turns their head? This isn't your dog being stubborn they are calming themselves from the foreign object that we are placing in front their faces. They may also do this when meeting another dog to let them sniff each other or redirect their gaze as not to give direct eye contact. The head turn can be a full head turn or a look away with just the eyes.
Nose licks and tongue flicks: This may be a quick flick of the tongue or a long nose lick. This calming signal is one of the more difficult to notice though can be used with other signals such as the look away. Dogs may do this when other dogs are running up to them or when they are approaching new objects such as the large blow up lawn decorations at Halloween and Christmas.
Sniffing: This is a swift nose to ground and back up again movement that can happen multiple times. Dogs will usually sniff while keeping an eye at the thing/dog/person approaching them. You may see this on walks when approaching people and dogs and at dog parks when dogs are meeting each other. Dogs do this to calm themselves and the other dog. Dogs sniff in general to learn about the world thus it's important to tell what context this is happening in.
Blinking and eye softening: This is another hard one to notice happening as blinking is a normal body function. Dogs are non confrontational animals and will communicate with other dogs to ensure peace. Softening eyes as to avoid hard direct eye contact can tell another dog that they are non threatening. You can do slow blinks to help calm your dog in situations they're feeling fearful or stressed.
Yawning: This will be an exaggerated yawn with possibly making some noise as well. Dogs will do this to calm themselves when in uncomfortable situations, when they are stressed, fearful or worried. You may see this when a vet is handling them, us hugging them or introducing them to new situations. You too can yawn to calm your dogs down when you see them in these circumstances.
Curving: Dogs naturally meet and greet each other with a curve and avoid direct greetings. When dogs are off leash you will see them greet each other this way then sniff from neck to bum. While on leash it can be stressful for dogs to meet head on with tension on leash, it's a good habit to keep the leash loose and let them curve if meeting on leash when passing each other.
Scratching: When a dog is feeling stressed or frustrated in a situation they may stop and suddenly start scratching themselves. Scratching is another to take into context though good to watch for and noticeable. You may see this when you are training your dog and they need a break.
Freezing/Slow Walk: Dogs will freeze or do a very slow walk when unsure of something. This can be seen when introducing new objects or when approaching other dogs. They will also freeze to let another dog sniff them to let them know they aren't a threat. If you use a tone of voice that your dog is uncomfortable with they may move slower to calm you down as well.
These are just a few as there are up to 30 calming signals dogs use. How can we assist our dogs in these situations when we observe these signals? Ensure your dog is able to feel comfortable and associate every situation as a positive for them. If it is ended on a negative your dog may have a continuous negative association long term. This may be removing them from the situation or moving them far enough away from the trigger that they can focus on you. Place treats on the ground or have them take it from your hand. Be calm yourself and move slowly. If your dog is communicating these signals with other dogs let them. This is how they communicate with each other and we do not want to take that away.