Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why Yawns Are Contagious: Calming Signals in Dogs and How We Can Use Them

We all know that dogs can’t talk (whether or not we care to admit it is another thing altogether).  What they do rely on is body language – lots and lots of body language.  While we might approach a stranger and say, “Hey, I’m new here. It’s nice to meet you,” a dog might walk up to another dog in an arc with a slow, circular wagging tail, its ears back and drop into a butt-up, front down stretch.  They are both ways to express “I’m friendly and mean no harm.”

Calming signals are just what they sound like.  They are behaviors offered by a dog in an attempt to keep a situation calm.  We aren’t completely sure if they are used by one dog solely to calm another dog, solely to calm themselves, or a combination of both.  My feeling is that the latter is true, especially since calming signals are often both offered and returned.  We can help our dogs feel comfortable by learning what their calming signals are and respecting them, and even by responding in kind, repeating their gesture as best we can (tail wagging obviously excluded).

Before getting into what calming signals can be, I want to emphasize that context is important.  Think of how a person telling another “you fool!” can be issued as an insult or an expression of teasing affection.  Context is important, regardless of species.  For example, ears held back on a dog’s head can be a calming signal, a sign of fear, or even just the physical nature of the breed. 

You may or may not notice calming signals with your own dog.  Unless you recently adopted your dog or have a new puppy, chances are your relationship is fairly established.  Your dog may not feel the need to offer these signals on a regular or frequent basis.  Unfortunately we can also extinguish calming signals in our pets, even without intention.  If a dog offers calming signals that are repeatedly ignored or corrected, eventually they will stop trying.  Think about people – if your partner brought you flowers after a fight and you always responded with snide comments about wasting money or stinking up the house, chances are your partner would stop buying flowers – at least for you!  Since we are frequently our dog’s entire world, our response (or lack thereof) to their behavior is critically important.

Calming signals may include:

·         “Look aways” (turning the head to the side, away from the other dog or person)
·         Yawning
·         Sniffing (becoming very interested in not much of anything)
·         Paw raises (raising one of the front paws off the ground)
·         Shake offs (can be a slight shake off or entire body, as if wet)
·         Scratching (like they are itchy – a sudden case of “fleas”)
·         Blinking
·         Lip licking (or nose licking)
·         Moving in an arc (approaching or leaving in a semi-circle, not a direct path)
·         Sitting or lying down
·         Stretching (particularly into a play bow position, though not quite the same behavior)
·         Making a “soft face” – ears back, soft eyes, etc.

There are a few signals that you may want to try, either with your dog or a dog you are just meeting.*  They can help a dog feel more comfortable, and may even be offered back to you.

Blinking is pretty universal between species – go for slow, deliberate blinks (not fast fluttering). Lip licking is also simple to duplicate.  Again, make it slow and obvious. You can actually lick your lips or even just stick your tongue out a few times.  “Look aways” involve turning your head to either side, away from the dog. You may then look back, without making eye contact, then look away again.  A paw lift is a little more difficult (largely since we don’t have paws and walk on two legs, not four).  But if you are feeling daring you can try it with one arm, holding it as if you were imitating a hurt paw. 

You may have figured out now how yawning can be contagious.  Offered as a calming signal between dogs, or even from dog to human (and human to dog), a yawn is much more than feeling sleepy.  It can be offered back and forth, and maybe that's why we feel the urge to yawn when someone near us yawns.

For additional information on calming signals, read On Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas.  Rugaas is an internationally acclaimed dog trainer from Norway who has done extensive studies on calming signals in dogs.  You can visit her website at .  A good visual example of using calming signals with dogs can be found in KikoPup’s collection of YouTube videos ( ).  While you’re there check out her other videos – Emily has produced a goldmine of how-to videos on clicker training everything from cool tricks to problem behaviors.

 Video: KikoPup's How To Communicate With Dogs in Their Own Language

* Offering calming signals doesn’t make it safe to approach an aggressive dog.  When in doubt, keep your distance.

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