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Calming Signals: Understanding What Your Dog is Trying to Tell You

Calming Signals: Understanding What Your Dog is Trying to Tell You

Dogs communicate in myriad ways beyond barking and tail wagging. More subtly, canines use "calming signals" - special behaviors to signal discomfort, anxiety, or the desire to avoid confrontation. Knowing how to spot and interpret these calming signals is key for dog owners seeking to understand their pet's non-verbal language.

This guide examines common calming behaviors in dogs, the context for when they are used, and how owners can respond appropriately to provide reassurance. Gaining fluency in translating your dog's signals allows you to address issues proactively and reinforce good behaviors that lead to a happier, less stressed pet.

Why Do Dogs Use Calming Signals?

In nature, dogs have evolved to live cooperatively in social groups with clearly defined hierarchies. As pack animals, dogs must communicate constantly to maintain social structures and defuse potential conflicts.

Calming signals allow dogs to signify peaceful intentions and de-escalate perceived threats from more dominant members of their pack. They help avoid fights and arguments that could otherwise result in injury.

These behaviors persist in domesticated dogs as well. Your pet will use calming signals to communicate with both other dogs and human members of their "pack". Recognizing situations where your dog may feel uneasy or threatened allows you to pick up on these signals and respond appropriately to reassure them.

Most Common Calming Signals in Dogs

While individual dogs have their own unique communication styles, several calming signals are widely observed across the canine species.

Lip Licking

Excessive lip licking is one of the most frequent dog calming behaviors. As a dog licks its snout, it stimulates nerves that release endorphins inducing a sense of well-being. Lip licking increases when a dog feels nervous or senses tension. Watch for repeated lip licking especially in overwhelming situations like encountering strangers or other dogs. It signals a need to moderate stresses.

What to Do: If you notice frequent lip licking, remove your dog from the trigger situation or provide ample space from the perceived threat. Offer praise and treats for relaxed behavior.

Turning Away/Averting Gaze

Dogs see direct eye contact as challenging or threatening. Turning their head away avoids confrontation and signals peaceful intentions. Dogs also briefly look away during play to self-handicap and prevent escalation.

What to Do: Don't force your dog to make sustained eye contact, which can provoke anxiety. Initiate occasional eye contact during play or training, then release.


Open-mouth yawning doesn't necessarily signal sleepiness in dogs. More often it releases nervous energy and acts as a self-calming mechanism when dogs feel on edge. Excessive "fake" yawning can indicate distress.

What to Do: If you notice unusual yawning when waking your dog or during stressful situations, try providing more space or relaxing the setting. Have patience allowing your dog to self-soothe.


Dogs shake or scratch themselves as an outlet for nervous energy and to distract themselves from stressors triggering anxiety or uncertainty. Sudden scratching also grabs attention and disrupts interactions.

What to Do: Address the root cause of stress through training and counterconditioning techniques. Provide reassurance through calmer environments and routines.

Play Bows

The play bow calms interactions by initiating play mode. By bowing down and sticking their rear in the air, dogs stimulate play while avoiding eye contact. It acts as both an invitation to play and a way to defuse tensions.

What to Do: If you perceive your dog is play bowing to calm itself, redirect by engaging in calmer play using toys or treats to reward relaxation.

Slow Blinks

Slowly blinking helps indicate a dog is comfortable, as eyes are shuttered and vulnerable during extended blinks. It's a sign of contentment and trust. Rapid blinking, however, signals elevated stress.

What to Do: When you notice your dog slowly blinking, return the gesture to reassure them and strengthen your bond. It taps into this innate calming signal.


While often used to gather information from scents, dogs also intensify sniffing and licking behaviors to self-distract when anxious. The repetitive actions soothe them.

What to Do: Allow your dog adequate time for sniffing and licking during walks or play. Providing a "sniff break" helps them regulate stress.

Ground Sniffing

Dogs may suddenly become very interested in sniffing the ground or an object on the ground when experiencing uncertainty. By shifting focus, they calm themselves and avoid interactions causing anxiety.

What to Do: When you notice sudden ground sniffing in a tense situation, give your dog space rather than forcing them to refocus on the stressor.

Sitting/Lying Down

Sitting or lying down helps relaxed dogs signal they are not a threat and diffuses potential conflict. Remaining low avoids intimidating postures. Dogs may also lay down when play becomes too intense.

What to Do: Allow dogs exhibiting this calming signal a chance to relax. Don't force them to stand or interact before they're ready.


A dog may suddenly freeze when presented with a new or stressful stimulus, sitting statue-still. Immobility calms the dog by allowing more time to evaluate threats before deciding how to respond.

What to Do: Avoid physically moving your dog or otherwise escalating the perceived threat. Let them determine when to relax and resume normal behavior.

Moving Slowly/Fluidly

Dogs move in slow, fluid motions to prevent startling others and avoid conflict. Exaggerated elongation and stifling of movement signals peaceful aims. Erratic, sudden movements can stimulate aggression.

What to Do: When your dog moves slowly and fluidly, match their energy and provide ample personal space rather than crowding.

Other Calming Behaviors

In addition to the aforementioned signals, dogs display other subtle behaviors to decrease stress and defuse perceived threats from humans or other animals. These include:

  • Licking: Sudden, repetitive licking provides self-soothing through taste and touch. It demonstrates innocuous aims.
  • Panting: Rapid dog panting releases warmth and signals peaceful intentions, since threatening dogs tend to hold breath before attacking. However, also ensure proper ventilation.
  • Blinking: Exaggerated, frequent blinking avoids or interrupts eye contact that stimulates reactivity.
  • Shaking Off: A full body shake as if shaking off water releases tension in the muscles and calms dogs.
  • Whale Eye: Visible eye whites signal discomfort, communicating a need for more space.
  • Nose Licking: Licking the tip of nose or lips stimulates nerves that initiate calming.
  • Head Turning: Rotating the head aside or down avoids direct eye contact while remaining present.
  • Sneezing: Sneezing can function similarly to nose licking to self-soothe and reduce rising tensions.

Every dog has their own distinctive way of blending these signals into their communication style. Paying close attention is key to interpreting your pet's unique calming language.

When Are Calming Signals Used?

Understanding the context where dogs deploy particular calming behaviors offers additional insight into their state of mind:

Greeting Other Dogs

Dogs use an intricate mix of calming signals when greeting unknown dogs to avoid conflict and signal peaceful aims, including blinking, lip licking, head turning, and sniffing. They avoid direct approaches and prolonged eye contact.

Meeting New People

To mitigate potential threats when unfamiliar humans approach, dogs may exhibit ground sniffing, yawning, shaking off, or freezing behaviors. This signals the need for caution.

Reprimand or Punishment

If reprimanded or punished by owners, calming signals like blinking, lip licking, yawning, or averting gaze communicate the dog's distressed state and desire to pacify the human.

Scolding by Dominant Dogs

When scolded or threatened by dominant dogs, more submissive individuals display calming signals to de-escalate, including licking, blinking, head turning, and avoiding eye contact.

Reaction to Loud Noises

In response to sudden loud sounds that cause anxiety or uncertainty, a dog may freeze, pant rapidly, scratch excessively, or intensely sniff the ground. These divert their attention from the startling stimulus.

Children's Interactions

Children often scare dogs through loud voices and erratic movements. Dogs use calming signals like freezing, withdrawing, and slow blinking to signal discomfort.

During Play

Friendly play between dogs involves regular calming behaviors to avoid escalating aggression. Taking breaks, sniffing ground, sneezing, play bows, head turning, and shaking off prevent over-arousal.

Veterinary Visits

The unfamiliar smells, confinement, and handling at vet clinics causes unease in many dogs. Lip licking, yawning, panting, ground sniffing and freezing are common ways they signal their distressed state.


Being handled extensively, restrained or prodded during grooming can feel threatening. Whale eye, lip licking, sniffing, shaking off and sneezing are typical calming responses.

Tuning into context offers clues into which situations dogs find most distressing and helps owners address the root causes of anxiety. Recognizing these scenarios prevents misinterpreting calming signals as mere quirky behaviors.

Accurately Interpreting Calming Signals

While many calming behaviors in dogs carry common meanings, it's important to consider context and individual factors to confirm intent:

  • Consider the dog's unique personality and temperament - shy dogs display signals more readily.
  • Note the surrounding environment, stimuli and potential stressors present when signals occur.
  • Keep track of frequency - repetitive lip licking usually indicates higher anxiety than occasional licks.
  • Look for combinations and sequences of multiple calming behaviors that reinforce intent.
  • Ensure the dog is physically healthy. Some signals like excessive panting may indicate medical issues.
  • Remember the same behaviors can also reflect joy and excitement when appropriate, like vigorous tail wagging.

Spending time learning your individual dog's communication style will make their calming signals easier to detect. Retaining an observant, contextual mindset avoids incorrect interpretations.

How to Respond to Calming Signals

Once aware that your dog is exhibiting calming behaviors, you can respond appropriately to address their worries and reinforce relaxed states of mind:

Remove or Reduce Threats

If a particular stimulus is triggering the calming response, proactively remove your dog from the situation or create more space from the perceived threat. Don't flood them by forcing them to remain engaged.

Provide Reassurance

Offer verbal reassurance and calming pets. But avoid overly intense physical comforting that could stimulate excitability. Give your dog space to self-soothe if required.

Relocate to Calmer Setting

Where possible, move your dog to a more peaceful environment to facilitate relaxation. Their safe den-like areas are ideal for defusing stress.

Employ Counterconditioning

Use positive reinforcement counterconditioning techniques to gradually rebuild positive associations with triggers that provoke calming signals. Introduce these stimuli slowly at a non-threatening distance.

Initiate Play

If your dog seems receptive, try initiating calm play or engage in training using high-value food rewards. This redirects them into positive modes of interaction.

Practice Obedience Commands

Running through familiar commands and praise paired with treats reinforces your leadership and provides mental stimulation to distract from unease.

Allow Sniffing/Exploring Opportunities

Provide chances to sniff around on walks and engage in exploring behavior which helps soothe dogs. Don't rush an anxious dog past their comfort zone.

Responding to calming signals by addressing root causes of stress and providing reassurance and outlets for tension helps reinforce your dog's good behaviors while preventing issues from escalating. Always reinforce your dog's calming signals with praise and support. Punishing these natural behaviors will only elevate your dog's distress. With compassion and active engagement, you'll build a greater bond with your four-legged friend.

Why Understanding Calming Signals Matters

Recognizing your dog's calming signals allows you to truly appreciate their broad range of non-verbal communication and view the world from their perspective. You gain insight into situations that cause them stress and can intervene proactively.

Strengthening your ability to understand and respond to your dog's calming behaviors results in many benefits for the health and happiness of your pet:

Avoid Escalation of Threats

Picking up on calming signals allows you to de-escalate perceived threats before a dog switches to aggressive responses like growling or biting out of fear.

Reduce Anxiety and Instability

Dogs that feel understood experience less stress, avoiding complications like destructive behaviors, loss of appetite, and poor health.

Reinforce Desirable Behaviors

Acknowledging your dog's calming signals through praise or treats conditions them to use these socially acceptable behaviors more often.

Improve Training Outcomes

You can adjust training approaches to your dog's comfort zone, using signals to identify when to pause and relax. Pushing a distressed dog is counterproductive.

Strengthen Bonding

Responding to your dog's communications, including calming signals, deepens your pet's trust and intensifies your bond and willingness to cooperate.

Create Stability

Tuning into your dog's state of mind allows you to create more stable routines. You can anticipate situations that provoke anxiety and minimize negative experiences.

Avoid Punishing Natural Reactions

Misinterpreting calming signals leads owners to sometimes punish dogs. Recognizing their intent prevents this harm and protects trust.

While each dog has a unique personality and communication style, making the effort to understand common calming behaviors creates a more intuitive, cooperative relationship between owner and pet. Your dog will feel more secure knowing their signals are acknowledged. And you'll become more in tune with your pet's needs and emotional states so you can provide responsive care and training. Observing and honoring your dog's calming signals is a fundamental building block in constructing a healthy, lifelong human-canine bond built on mutual understanding and respect.

Useful Products for Traveling With Anxious Dogs

Since unfamiliar environments and routines often trigger anxiety and uncertainty in dogs, traveling can stir up calming signals like yawning, shaking off, and panting. However, certain products can help create more stable, comforting experiences for uneasy travelers:

Travel Backpacks and Bags

When on the move, sturdy dog backpacks like the Ultimate Dog Backpack provide a safe den-like space for your dog to retreat when feeling overwhelmed by new sights and sounds. Breathable carry bags like the Doted Dog Weekender allow your dog to relax in your lap on flights rather than confined in cargo.


The wide range of calming signals used by dogs provides vital insight into how our four-legged companions perceive the world around them. Yawning, lip licking, averting gaze, sniffing, scratching, slow blinking, play bowing and dozens more subtle behaviors constitute the rich calming vocabulary dogs use to signal their internal states and defuse conflict. Each dog puts their own spin on these signals. But paying close attention to context offers clues into when your pet is feeling uneasy or anxious. Dog owners who put in the time to become fluent in translating calming signals reap rewards in the form of less stressful, more engaged pets who feel understood and secure. Responding appropriately to diffuse tensions also strengthens your bond with your dog built on trust. Make it a habit to watch for situations that trigger calming behaviors. Then you can take steps to reassure your dog while minimizing their discomfort. When calming signals are acknowledged, dogs become more confident. And the entire pack enjoys greater happiness.

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