Remember that they're a different species from us. When we look directly at someone, we're showing respect and attention. For dogs, they blink and quickly look away if someone looks directly at them to show deference.
Here's a great link on dog body language, by a Norwegian trainer by the name of Turid Rugaas:
Calming Signals - The Art of Survival by Turid Rugaas
For species who live in packs it´s important to be able to communicate with its own kind. Both in order to cooperate when they hunt, to bring up their offspring, and perhaps most importantly: to live in peace with each other. Conflicts are dangerous - they cause physical injuries and a weakened pack, which is something that no pack can afford - it will cause them to go extinct.
Dogs live in a world of sensory input: visual, olfactory, auditory perceptions. They easily perceive tiny details - a quick signal, a slight change in another´s behavior, the expression in our eyesÉ Pack animals are so perceptive to signals that a horse can be trained to follow the contraction in our pupils and a dog can be trained to answer your whispering voice. There´s no need to shout commands, to make the tone of our voice deep and angry - what Karen Pryor refers to as swatting flies with a shovel.
The dogs have about 30 calming signals, perhaps even more. Some of these signals are used by most dogs, while other dogs have an incredibly rich ´vocabulary´. It varies from dog to dog.
Dogs use this communication system towards us humans, simply because it´s the language they know and think everyone understands.
By failing to see your dog using calming signals on you, and perhaps even punish the dog for using them, you risk causing serious harm to your dog. Some may simply give up using the calming signals, including with other dogs. Others may get so desperate and frustrated that they get aggressive, nervous or stressed out as a result. Puppies and young dogs may actually go into a state of shock.
Dad calls Prince and has learned in class that he needs to sound strict and dominant so that Prince will understand who is in charge. Prince finds dad´s voice to be aggressive, and being a dog he instantly give dad a calming signal in order to make him stop being aggressive. Prince will perhaps lick his own nose, yawn, turn away - which will result in dad becoming angry for real, because dad perceieves Prince as being pig-headed, stubborn and disobedient. Prince is punished for using his calming signals to calm dad. This is a typical example of something that happens on an everyday basis with many dog owners.
We need to learn to understand the language of dogs so that we can understand what our dogs are telling us. That is the secret of having a good life together.
How the dog is using the calming signals
The dog may yawn when someone bends over him, when you sound angry, when there´s yelling and quarreling in the family, when the dog is at the vet´s office, when someone is walking directly at the dog, when the dog is excited with happiness and anticipation - for instance by the door when you are about to go for a walk, when you ask the dog to do something he doesn´t feel like doing, when your training sessions are too long and the dog gets tired, when you have said NO for doing something you disapprove of, and in many other situations.
Threatening signals (to walk straight at, reach for the dog, bending over the dog, staring into the dog´s eyes, fast movements, and so on) will always cause the dog to use a calming signal. There are about 30 different calming signals, so even when many dogs will yawn, other dogs may use another calming signal.
All dog knows all the signals. When one dog yawns and turn his head to the side, the dog he is ´talking to´ may lick his nose and turn his back - or do something completely different.
The signals are international and universal. All dogs all over the worlds has the same language. A dog from Japan would be understood by an elkhound who lives in an isolated valley in Norway. They will have no communication problems!
Licking is another signal that is used often. Especially by black dogs, dogs with a lot of hair around their faces, and others who´s facial expressions for some reasons are more difficult to see than those of dogs with lighter colors, visible eyes and long noses. But anyone can use licking, and all dogs understand it no matter how quick it is. The quick little lick on the nose is easier to see if you watch the dog from in front. It´s best seen if you can find somewhere you can sit in peace and quiet and observe. Once you have learned to see the lick, you will also be able to see it while walking the dog.
Sometimes it´s nothing more than a very quick lick, the tip of the tongue is barely visible outside the mouth, and only for a short second. But other dogs see it, understand it and respond to it. Any signal is always returned with a signal.
Turning away/turning of the head
The dog can turn its head sligtly to one side, turn the head completely over to the side, or turn completely around so that the back and tail is facing whoever the dog is calming. This is one of the signals you may see most of the time in dogs.
When someone is approaching your dog from in front, he will turn away in one of these ways. When you seem angry, aggressive or threatening, you will also see one of these variations of the signal. When you bend over a dog to stroke him, he will turn his head away from you. When you make your training sessions too long or too difficult, he will turn his head away from you. When the dog is taken by surprise or take someone by surprise, he will turn away quickly. The same happens when someone is staring or acting in a threatening way.
In most cases, this signal will make the other dog calm down. It´s a fantastic way in which to solve conflicts, and it´s used a lot by all dogs, whether they are puppies or adults, high or low ranking, and so on. Allow your dog to use it! Dogs are experts at solving and avoiding conflicts - they know how to deal with conflicts.
Going down with front legs in a bowing position can be an invitation to play if the dog is moving legs from side to side in a playful manner. Just as often, the dog is standing still while bowing and is using the signal to calm someone down. These signals often have double meanings and may be used in many different ways - often the invitation to play is a calming signal by itself because the dog is making a potentially dangerous situation less tense and diverts with something safe.
Recently, in a puppy class with a mix of puppies, one of them was afraid of the others in the beginning. The others left him alone and respected his fear. In the end he would dare to approach the others. When he did, he went into a play bow as soon as one of the other dogs looked at him. It was an obvious combination of slight fear of the others, as well as wanting to take part in the playing.
When two dogs approach each other too abruptly, you will often see that they go into a play bow. This is one of the signals that are easy to see, especially because they remain standing in the bow position for a few seconds so that you have plenty of time to observe it.
Sniffing the ground
Sniffing the ground is a frequently used signal. In groups of puppies you will see it a lot, and also when you and your dog is out walking and someone is coming towards you, in places where there´s a lot going on, in noisy places or when seeing objects that the dog isn´t sure of what is and find intimidating.
Sniffing the ground may be anything from moving the nose swiftly down toward the ground and back up again - to sticking the nose to the ground and sniff persistently for several minutes.
Is someone approaching you on the pavement? Take a look at your dog. Did he drop the nose down toward the ground, even slightly? Did he turn his side to the one approaching and sniff the side of the road?
Of course, dogs sniff a lot, also in order to ´read the paper´ and enjoy themselves. Dogs are pre-programmed to use their noses and it´s their favorite activity. However, sometimes it´s calming - it depends on the situation. So pay attention to when and in which situations the sniffing occur!
High speed will be seen as threatening to many dogs, and they might want to go in to try and stop the one who is running. This is partly a hunting behavior and is triggered by the sight of a running human or dog. If the one running is coming straight at the dog, it involves a threat and a defence mechanism sets in.
A dog who is insecure will move slowly. If you wish to make a dog feel safer, then you can move slower. When I see a dog react to me with a calming signal, I immediately respond by moving slower.
Is your dog coming very slowly when you call him? If so, check the tone of your voice - do you sound angry or strict? That may be enough for him to want to calm you down by walking slowly. Have you ever been angry with him when he came to you? Then this may be why he doesn´t trust you. Another reason to calm you may be if the dog is always put on a leash when coming when called. Take a look at your dog the next time you call him. Does he give you any calming signals when coming? If he moves slowly, you may need to do something different in the way you act.
"Freezing" - is what we call it when the dog is stopping while standing completely still, sitting or laying down and remain in that position. This behavior is believed to have something to do with hunting behavior - when the prey is running, the dog attacks. Once the prey stops, the dog will stop too. We can often see this when dogs are chasing cats. This behavior, however, is used in several different