Without the luxury of spoken language, how do animals communicate with each other? Dogs use a series of facial expressions and body postures. These are often referred to as “Calming Signals”. These include:
- Breaking eye contact/turning away
- Lifting a paw
- Sniffing the ground
- Showing the whites of the eye (whale/moon eye)
- Lip licking (when not eating)
- Yawning (when not tired)
- Walking slowly
- Wagging tail
- Play bow
- Exposing the belly/lying on back
- Lowered head
When a dog shows these behaviours he is communicating that he is not a threat, and the approaching dog/person should disengage or back off. If the approaching dog/person ignores these signals, the dog will escalate to more severe behaviours like snarling, growling, snapping, or biting. Owners may not be familiar with these signals. For example, a dog rolling on his back is not actually asking for belly rubs; he is actually signaling that he is not a threat and would probably prefer if you walked away.
A dog with poor socialization skills will lack the ability to use and/or interpret these signals and will advance to a bite without warning, which is very dangerous. This is why early socialization is so important.
TOP TIP: When dog guardians return home to an upturned dustbin, a destroyed couch, or a puddle of wee on the carpet, their dog will often look at them with the “guilty look”. In actuality, the dog is showing a calming signal (known as “whale eye”) in order to avoid punishment from their person. It’s important to understand that any punishment at this point will not have the desired effect of stopping the preceding behaviour, and should, therefore, be skipped entirely. Instead, improved management and training can prevent unwanted behaviour in the future.