Calming signals and stress

Calming signals

“Calming signal” is the term used by Turid Rugaas, author of On talking terms with dogs, to refer to the movements and body language dogs use to maintain the social hierarchy and resolve conflict within the pack. Turid Rugaas has been studying how, by using various body postures, dogs calm themselves and other dogs in situations of stress.

Cover of "On Talking Terms With Dogs: Cal...

Cover via Amazon

Dogs also use calming signals in reaction to stressful behaviour by their owner. These have often been misunderstood in the past. For example, looking away can be a calming signal. Trainers have interpreted this as a refusal to pay attention, and have responded by punishing the dog. Rugaas is now teaching people to imitate canine signals and use them to better understand and communicate with their dogs.

Here is a pic of Valley (my second German Shepherd, and Chance’s great-grand-mother) who was a bit of a blond stress-head. It’s interesting how often lip-licking is captured in photographs. Partly because it happens quickly and people don’t catch it in real time, and also because dogs can get anxious about being looked at intently when they are being photographed.

Calming signals can be given by the more dominant or confident dog as a way of saying “don’t worry, I’m not going to attack you”; or they can be used by submissive dogs or dogs feeling threatened as a way of saying “don’t attack me, I’m not going to challenge you” or by one dog who wishes to communicate (in effect) “cool it, guys” to other dogs. The natural calming signals used instinctively by dogs include:

• moving slowly
• moving in an arc rather than approaching head on
• sniffing the ground
• sitting or lying down
• licking the lips
• turning the head aside
• blinking, averting eyes, turning away
• yawning
• placing themselves in between conflicting parties

For some pictures of how to read a dog’s body language, see:

Knowledge of calming signals comes from observations of dogs interacting, an approach to animal behaviour known as “ethology”.


Stress is the body’s response to demands placed upon it. It is one of our survival mechanisms. However, prolonged, severe stress can make us unable to function, and will have destructive mental and physical consequences. Dogs may experience stress in training.

Dogs react to stress in much the same way as people do. Various writers have described two “personality types”. John Fisher  (in Think Dog) and Wendy Volhard used the term “positive stressers” and “negative stressers”.  Some people react to stress by screaming and hurling plates across the room. Others withdraw physically and emotionally, turn off or go and lie down.

William E. Campbell refers to Pavlov’s research, which  showed that some dogs are excitable – they tend to “go crazy actively, outwardly”, while “inhibited dogs react inwardly when they are emotionally unbalanced, becoming ‘depressed’.” This corresponds to the description of  “positive stressers” and “negative stressers”. Positive stressers get hyped up, negative stressers shut down.

Signs of stress include:

• yawning
• lying down, becoming lethargic, “de-energised” (negative stressers)
• slow performance in obedience exercises
• becoming active, “leaping around like a lunatic” (positive stressers)
• pupils dilated (“eyes like saucers”, usually a sign of fear)
• muscle tremors
• excessive panting
• drinking water
• loss of interest in food
• loss of interest in playing with toys
• salivating
• runny nose
• sweating – especially through the pads of the paws
• urination or defecation, diarrhoea
• scratching
• self-mutilation

• physical crowding of the handler, going behind the handler
• jumping up for reassurance

Of course, the presence of a sign may be due to other causes. However, the occurrence of several signs, or their occurrence only in certain situations, should indicate that they are stress-related.

A dog will frequently scratch itself when confused during training. This a sign that your dog does not understand what you want and is beginning to get mildly stressed.

When dogs are stressed in social situations, they may give calming signals, behaviours and body language which serve to defuse stressful situations and avoid conflict.

Boogie DOGGIE LANGUAGE Large Poster

Boogie DOGGIE LANGUAGE Large Poster (Photo credit: lili.chin)


Stresser is an informal term for a dog that displays or experiences stress. It is used in the expression “this dog is a positive (or negative) stresser”, and should be distinguished from stressor, a factor that causes stress.


A stressor something that causes stress. It should be distinguished from “stresser”, as in the expression “this dog is a positive (or negative) stresser”, where the stresser is the dog experiencing stress.

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