Calming signals is a term brought forth by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas (2005) to describe behaviors that dogs display when trying to calm down a situation. In animals living in groups, it’s important to have ways of communication that can pacify a potentially tense situation. Ongoing conflicts between the individuals would weaken the pack by increasing the risk for injuries and interfere with potential cooperation. But are calming signals truly signals and are they really calming? Some of these signals, such as lip (or nose) licking, turning away or yawning are also expressions of stress in the dog. So is there a difference between calming signals and stress signals? Are we simply using different ways to describe similar behaviors? New studies on the subjects have attempted to better understand the function of these behaviors (Gazzano & al., 2010; Mariti & al., 2010; Mariti & al., 2014).
As social animals, dogs have evolved complex forms of communication through body language and vocalizations. Some signals are threatening, such as growling, barking, lunging or showing teeth and are intended to keep others away. Other behaviors, like a sort of “language of peace” according to Rugaas, are intended to keep calm between dogs and avoid or cut off conflicts. This second category of behaviors is what she calls “calming signals” and is used during interactions with other dogs or with people.
About 30 behaviors can be defined as calming signals. Here are a few of the main ones:
- Lip (or nose) licking
- Sniffing the ground
- Turning away/turning of the head
- Play bow
- Walking slowly
- Sitting down
- Walking in a curve
- Wagging the tail
Dogs are most likely to use such signals when they’re uncomfortable with a situation and according to Rugaas, when they’re communicating their discomfort. A person bending over a dog, direct and prolonged eye contact, yelling, confusion or feeling trapped will typically trigger one or the other of those behaviors.
Many of the “calming signals” fall in one or the other of the following categories of behaviors also referred to as:
- Displacement behaviors: when animals are conflicted between two drives, for instance if they want to approach an object but are unsure at the same time, they will sometimes engage in a behavior that has nothing to do with the situation. Scratching, sniffing the ground, self-grooming or nail biting are some of the many forms of displacement behaviors. Studies in animals and humans have shown that these behaviors are directly related to the levels of anxiety experienced (Maestripieri & al., 1992; Troisi & al., 2000). In baboons for instance, when an individual is close to a dominant baboon, he/she will increase the amount of self directed behaviors (Castles & al. 1999).
- Appeasement gestures: these behaviors are meant to offset any potential threat by another animal. Submissive behaviors, play bows, looking away and smiling are displayed in an effort to assure the receiver of no harm intended. An obvious example of this type of behavior is when a dog rolls on his back or lowers his head in sign of submission as his owner scolds him for peeing on the carpet. In humans, appeasement gestures are very similar and we’ll appease others with a constricted posture, lower head movement and gaze avoidance (Keltner, 1995).
- Stress signs: Lip (or nose) licking, yawning, shaking off, whale eyes, head movements have been identified as signs of stress. Just like dogs, we too tend to have darting eyes and head swivels when anxious (Perkins, 2012). It’s possible that some of these behaviors help increase the animal’s ability to gather information and assess a situation. Other signs, such as yawning or shaking off are mostly a physical response, a way to decrease the levels of anxiety.
As we can see, the different behaviors, referred to as ‘calming signals’, are not specific to dogs, but are expressed in often very similar ways across the animal kingdom. Since we too have our own form of such behaviors, we can use our own experience to try to understand what happens in the dog’s mind. It seems that at the very least, we should distinguish between behaviors that are mostly reflexes, physiological responses to a stressful situation, and behaviors that are conscious and deliberate attempts to communicate about our internal state and intentions.
In an attempt to assess if calming signals are really signals and are indeed calming, three recent studies from an Italian research team have videotaped the encounters of multiple dogs (Gazzano & al., 2010; Mariti & al., 2010; Mariti & al., 2014). Each dog met 4 other dogs: a familiar female, a familiar male, an unfamiliar female and an unfamiliar male. The encounters happened off-leash in a fenced in area for a duration of 5 minutes. Over 3,000 behaviors were recorded and the team examined 21 signals described by Rugaas: ‘turning head’, ‘looking elsewhere’, half-closing eyes’, ‘turning on other’s side or back’, ‘ licking nose’, ‘freezing’, ‘moving slowly’, ‘play bow’, ‘sitting’, ‘sitting and turning on other’s back’, ‘laying down’, ‘yawning’, ‘sniffing the ground or wall’, ‘approaching the other dog curving’, ‘waving low tail’, ‘cowering’, ‘licking the other dog’s mouth, ‘blinking’, smacking’, ‘raising a forelimb’ and ‘low urination’. Calming signals were significantly more frequent when the dogs were interacting. In the case of aggressive behaviors, such as barking, growling or snapping, the dogs were more likely to display at least one of the analyzed behaviors. When a calming signal was expressed there was a significant decrease in the chances of aggression. The authors concluded that calming signals do indeed play a communicative role and confirmed their calming effects on the receiver.
In biology, the term signal is used to define traits or behaviors that change the behavior of the receiver in ways that will benefit the signaler (Bradbury, 1998). In the case of calming signals, we can say that yes, calming signals do indeed convey information that will calm down the other dog, allowing the situation to relax. But as always, things are never black and white and many if not all signals are also expressions of stress. What we still don’t know at this point is if these signals are truly displayed by the dogs in a conscious attempt to calm down a situation. Some of these behaviors are mostly expressions of automatic functions and even if they influence how dogs interact, we still need more studies to truly understand their role in the dog’s communication repertoire.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.
Bradbury J. & Vehrencamp, S. (1998). Principles of Animal Communication. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland.
Castles D. L., Whiten A., Aureli F. (1999). Social anxiety, relationships and self-directed behaviour among wild female olive baboons Animal Behaviour 58: 1207-1215.
Gazzano, A.; Mariti, C.; Papi, F.; Falaschi, C; Forti, S. (2010): Are domestic dogs able to calm conspecifics by using visual communication? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 5 (1).
Kelner D. (1995): The signs of appeasement: Evidence for the distinct displays of embarrassment, amusement, and shame. Journal or Personality and Social Psychology 68: 441-454.
Perkins, A. (2012). A facial expression for anxiety’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. January.
Maestripieri, D.; Schino, G., Aureli, F. (1999). Social anxiety, relationships and self-directed behaviour among wild female olive baboons. Animal Behaviour 58: 1207-1215.
Mariti, C.; Papi, F.; Ducci, M.; Sighieri, C.; Martelli, F. (2010). Domestic dogs display calming signals more frequently towards unfamiliar rather than familiar dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 5 (1).
Mariti, C.; Falaschi, C.; Zilocchi, M.; Carlone, B.; Gazzano, A. (2014). Analysis of calming signals in domestic dogs: Are they signals and are they calming? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 9 (6).
Rugaas T. (2005): On talking terms with dogs: Calming signals. Legacy by Mail, Inc. USA.
Troisi A., Belsanti S., Bucci A. R., Mosco C., Sinti F., Verucci M. 2000 Affect regulation in alexithymia – An ethological study of displacement behavior during psychiatric interviews. Journal Of Nervous And Mental Disease 188: (1) 13-18
Hi, Dr. Catett!
Great blog! I’ve been sharing some of your posts on Facebook and Twitter since I discovered it the other day!
I think the clearest way to tell if a dog’s “communicative” expressions are formed with conscious intent would be to determine if the signals are produced only when the other dog or animal or human can see them, i.e., receive the information.
For instance, many years ago while I was out walking my Dalmatian Freddie (1992 – 2007), we met up with the owner of a dog who, the instant she saw Fred, began lunging and barking at him. The owner explained that her dog “hated” Dalmatians due to a bad experience.
Meanwhile, Freddie reacted by turning his back on the dog. And the instant his back was turned the other dog “bared her teeth” at him.
I was a bit shocked. I had always thought that “teeth baring” was done to show aggressive intent. But clearly in this instance that couldn’t have been the case.
Then I began to notice that some of the dogs I knew would “bare their teeth” when you gave them a toy or a bone. In other words, their lips would curl back as they took the object in their mouths. It occurred to me that the “teeth-baring” behavior might simply be an unconscious reflex, designed to get the dog’s soft flesh out of the way of the teeth so that the dog doesn’t “unintentionally” damage it.
A few years later I met a pit bull named Augie, who seemed to lack this reflex. His owner said he couldn’t give Augie toys or bones, and had to monitor him closely at the dog run to make sure he didn’t start chewing on sticks. Poor Augie had bitten through his own flesh several times, which had cost the owner a lot of money in vet bills.
Then, when Turid Rugaas came out with her book on calming signals, I paid close attention to how dogs exhibit these micro-expressions and noticed, again, that they’ll often exhibit these “signals” when the other dog or person can’t see them.
My training philosophy is based on a form of drive training called Natural Dog Training, where we see all behavior in terms of attraction & resistance and tension & release. So your statement — “if they [dogs] want to approach an object but are unsure at the same time, they will sometimes engage in a behavior that has nothing to do with the situation.” — indicates to me that the dog is probably experiencing more resistance than attraction. This is also revealed in the way dogs will sometimes move toward another dog or their owner in curvilinear fashion rather than in a straight line. (One of the ways to tell if your dog’s interest in playing fetch is beginning to flag, for example, is when, instead of bringing the ball back to you in a straight line, he begins to show a slight curvature in his approach.)
In looking at Rugaas’ signals through this lens, and noticing that dogs exhibit these micro-expressions when no one can see them, it seems pretty clear to me that there’s no conscious intent involved. And since dogs don’t seem to have a sense of self awareness (their brains don’t come equipped with Von Economo neurons, eg.) it seems unlikely that these expressions are produced with intent to communicate.
Of course that doesn’t mean they aren’t signals.
PS: I don’t suppose there’s any way for me to access the studies you’ve cited without draining my bank account? Just asking…
Oops! Sorry I mis-spelled your name!
Merci Docteur, voici enfin une analyse objective de cette étude et des “Calming Signals”. La question essentielle reste effectivement à élucider : s’agit-il vraiment de “Signaux” volontaires ou plutôt “d’Indices” involontaires pouvant influencer le comportement du vis-à-vis? Il s’agit certainement de comportements à valeur apaisante mais votre classification éthologique semble plus pertinente.
I am very much enjoying your writing and the research you reference–thank you so much for sharing your learning and insights and experience!
If you are open to topic suggestions, there are a few that I’d sure love to get your thoughts about. They include:
* exploring the ongoing debate about whether e-collars that are used on vibration or noticeable at a level that generates only and ear flick have been shown to be either helpful or harmful to a dog’s learning;
* any research you have about the impact of poor timing on positively-reinforced dogs’ stress levels;
* research that shows evidence that improperly conducted socialization with puppies is (or is likely to be) more harmful than not providing socialization. (My own thought is that in the rush to provide massive amounts of exposure and socialization to puppies (as has been the rage in recent years), may people are over-stressing their puppies and quite possibly setting a foundation of distrust and fear about the world—the exact OPPOSITE of what the human is trying to accomplish. I’ve see a lot of this, but don’t have any research or scienctific data to support my views. Would welcome your thoughts!!
Again, thank you so much for your sharing and writing!
Great posts! Since reading Turid Rugaas’ book I see calming behaviors often used successfully between dogs in my care. Completely fascinating.
I am going to share some anecdotal evidence that I do believe dogs signal consciously. When my Doberman Pinscher is playing with other dogs, occasionally the other dog will stop and “shake off”, calming signal or “sniff”, displacement behavior. My Doberman will always reciprocate these actions. If the other dog “shakes off” so will Lydia and then a play bow is offered and the play begins again.
I can’t help but to think, while watching this, that Lydia understood perfectly what was being said to her and she made a conscious decision to show the other dog that a) she did indeed understand and b) offer her own signal to let the other dog know she was still just playing, she meant nothing seriously.
Her incredible ability to communicate as made her an invaluable asset when reintroducing and re-socializing otherwise unsocial dogs.
The three ‘papers’ from the Mariti et al group are only conference abstracts. They do not contain enough detail to draw any conclusions as to the adequacy of the study or studies they report. The same group did publish a full report of a study on these issues in Italian (Gazzano, A., Zilocchi, M., Ricci, E., Falaschi, C., Bedini, M., Guardini, G., Mariti, C., 2014. I segnali calmanti nel cane: Da mito a realtà scientifica? Calming signals in dogs: From myth to scientific reality? Veterinaria 28, 15–20.). The method of that study was completely inadequate to test the ‘calming signals’ hypothesis.
hello Dr. i’m Dany and my english is not very good so i’ll try to be concise. Love this Blog!, congrats and respects. i’m a vet from Chile and my conclusion of this study is that those are signals that helps the dog to calm him/herself. So they’re calming signs but not to control the situation and the other dog, but to control their own behaviour. This is just putting together this article and everything else that i known about behaviour and ethology, i’m in love with this field and looking forward for specialize.
Thanks for share your knowledge.