Note: Always consult with a trainer or animal behaviorist whenever you have questions about how your pup is acting!
"Calming signals" is a term that was developed by Turid Rugaas, a world renowned dog trainer from Norway. She knew that dogs rely on body language to communicate, and realized that dogs have 30+ ways to avoid potentially threatening situations and to calm their nerves. Calming signals are great for dogs to communicate with other dogs, but humans don't always understand what a dog is doing.
Here is a list of some of the most common calming signals that you may have already noticed your dog doing!
Head Turning/Avoiding Eye Contact
Dogs do this when they feel uncomfortable, or when they feel threatened by another dog or person. A classic example of this is when we say a dog looks "guilty". Really the dog is just super uncomfortable with your tone or body language and is trying to diffuse the situation by looking away. This is usually paired with your dog putting his ears back, too.
This can range from a little tongue flick to a full-on lick over the nose. Dogs do this when they are anxious about a situation or sometimes when they are super excited (assuming they aren't eating or just had a yummy treat!).
Freezing or walking very slowly
This is one that most people would recognize as something is off. If another human or dog is approaching, your dog may be unsure about them. If you just called your dog, he might not be sure about what is going to happen when he gets to you (i.e. he might get in trouble). If you are approaching a dog and he freezes or walks slowly, you can slow down, and avoid eye contact. Some body language is actually universal and the dog will likely realize that you aren't a threat.
We see this very often in play, and the bowing dog is showing the other dog his intentions - "I just want to play!" Sometimes dogs will also do this when a situation becomes too overwhelming to try and lighten the situation.
I'm talking about yawning when you know she isn't tired. This happens a lot when a situation gets stressful, or with some dogs when you try to take their picture.
A dog that sniffs a lot at the dog park or sniffs around the room, avoiding everyone else and/or the other dog in the room probably feels uncomfortable. Some level of sniffing is normal and expected, but when that's all your dog does, it's likely to be a calming signal trying to tell other dogs and humans, don't pay attention to me, I’m not a threat
Curving around another dog when meeting them
A dog coming straight at another dog is rude, so dogs generally give each other a wide berth when coming in to meet or say hi.
When you see your dog doing one of these behaviors, look at the whole picture - what is the rest of your dog's body doing? Look at his tail, ears, eyes, everything, to figure out how she really feels. And then look at what you might be doing or what is in the environment to determine what is making her uncomfortable (if it isn't obvious).
If a dog's calming signals are ignored over time, sometimes a dog will move to aggression, or the complete opposite and shut down. Those are extreme examples of course, but it can happen. In most cases, paying attention to your dog's calming signals will give you a heads up about your own behavior and strengthen your bond when he sees that you respect (and care) when he is uncomfortable.