Dog Body Language

Calming signals

Dogs don't talk to each other or us in English or any other language, they communicate by body language instead. Wolves and wild dogs, the experts in canine body language, always try to avoid conflicts with each other and aggression is their very last resort in resolving situations. What they do instead is use a repertoire of calming signals to help everyone feel safe and to indicate that they do not want any confrontation. If the calming signals don’t function to convey the message, dogs will start to show fear and stress behaviours, and ultimately aggressive behaviours, which escalate in intensity the more emotionally aroused the dog becomes.

These signals include:

Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas has a book called On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, which an absolute MUST read for everyone who has or is planning to adopt a dog.

Stress signals

The most common stress signals in dogs are:

When do dogs use calming/stress signals?

Dogs try and use calming signals both with other dogs as well as us humans. Dogs who meet other dogs by approaching from behind/the side, turning their head away, sniffing the ground, licking their lips, yawning, turning their side to the other dog show very polite communication skills. There are a lot of dogs, though, who don’t posses such polite language skills, they approach other dogs head-on with a direct stare. This can result in conflicts with some dogs. Learning to read these subtle body language cues is imperative so that we can understand the emotional state of our dogs and intervene before they become too stressed and may resort to aggressive behaviours. Also when approached by people many dogs exhibit calming signals and/or stress signals. It is important for us to learn their language because dogs don’t enjoy being approached head-on or being patted on the head, and us ignoring their body language is a common cause for dog bites.

Articles on body language:

The right and wrong ways to approach a dog

Because we humans are primates and are used to doing everything with our hands we try to use this approach to communicate with dogs as well. Way too often this leads to miscommunication between the two species and people getting bitten. Behaving aggressively towards an aggressive dog will only lead to higher risk of injury. Learning about calming signals and respecting growling as a warning sign come a long way in preventing injuries.

Dr. Sophia Yin has excellent articles on how to approach dogs the right way and how to avoid getting bitten:

Doggone Safe is an organization dedicated to preventing dog bites. Their whole website is packed with information, here are some selected ones: