Behaviour and Training

Inside the mind of a canine companion

A new series in which we dive deep into the canine mind. Today - we look at calming signals and how to recognise them

Welcome to my new psycho-analytic regular column on my canine companions Bruno & Milly. A column to give a view into the mind of “mans best friend”, this is bound to be a good read.

People think I am slightly nuts when I say she smiles or when they see me essentially having a full blown conversation with a dog. Basically, my belief is that dogs are quite similar to people. They may not be able to speak english and in fact they may not even understand the language. People often wonder if dogs actually love us or if that is a myth and they are motivated by their desire for food. Well, in the last year, I’ve undertaken a certificate in Canine Psychology, something which I hope to look deeper into and develop as a potential career path.

The work of some of the top professionals in Canine pyschology, canine neurology, and canine communication, has long fascinated me and It’s probably fair to say that I’m close to obsessed with the amazing work that Professionals like Gregory Berns, MD, PhD have undertaken to research exactly why dog’s love us.

I believe that dogs do love humans provided they are treated right by those who are meant to love them.  I believe that both my dogs loves me for more than just food. I see it in their eyes when I walk in the door in the evenings. Of course right afterwards, Bruno does go to his bowl and looks at me as if to say “it’s still empty”. I see the excitement in Milly’s face when I utter the word Walkies. I see her smile when she sits in the car staring out the window. The phrase “a dog is a mans best friend” is without a doubt one of the most accurate phrases ever uttered.. Over the coming months, I will attempt to gauge Bruno’s reactions to various scenarios by examining things such as her eye contact, her tail wagging, her smile, her reaction to words such as food or walkies and most of all her calming signals.

Calming signals are the communication signals which dogs use to communicate with other dogs as well as humans. The trouble is that humans most often misinterpret calming signals as signs of guilt or signs of fear. Both Bruno & Milly has often displayed many of these calming signals towards me. Whereas in the past, I would have seen these as a look of guilt, I actually now realise they are in their own way looking for me to calm down and it’s actually quite funny because when I see that sad guilty looking face, it actually makes me say things like “I can’t stay mad at you”.

Suppose your dog is after eating your entire roast chicken dinner which you had left on the counter for just a moment while you stepped into the next room to retrieve a bottle of wine for dinner. You come back to the kitchen and to your utter shock, the chicken has vanished. You look down and your dog is sitting there with a face on him that looks like Uh-oh I’m in trouble, the dog immediately looks guilty to you and is turning their head away in shame. At which point you begin to raise your voice and scald the dog for his bad behaviour. The dog is cowering, again appearing to look guilty, licking his lips and maintaining his safe distance.

While this may look like Guilt to you, it is In fact a programatic condition within the dog. The dog is used to you having previously scaled him and he is attempting to use body language to calm you. The reason that we see these body actions as a sign of guilt is because we don’t understand the language that is calming signals.

Today, I am going to touch on 5 of the most common calming signals that dog’s will use to communicate with their humans:



  • Yawning:
    • The yawn as a calming signal, is usually accompanied by other signals such as lifting the ears, and tilting their head. You should not confuse this type of behaviour with the typical yawn when dogs wake up. The signal indicates discomfort or confusion as to what you’re asking. So if you see a dog yawn when it’s nowhere near nap time, take a minute, step back and revisit how you engage with your dog in this case. Try speaking in a calmer manner, or try to let your dog know there is no reason to be in a state of discomfort.
  • Licking:
    • One of the most common calming signals. and also it can be one of the hardest to pick up on despite the fact that dog’s do this all the time. Other than when they have been drinking water, dogs will lick their nose to indicate that they are looking to avoid any stress or problems. This is quite often done their head down or sideways. It means they are asking for a break from training, walking or physical activity. It can also mean that they want some space from you. So if you have done something to piss your dog off, or make them feel stressed, and you see them start licking the lips, calm the situation down, by backing away and giving them a bit of space. Later, when you’re both calm, your dog will come to you when he has had his space.
  • Turning their head away
    • It is very likely that at certain times when you are trying to get closer to your dog, they can turn their head away from you. This gesture indicates discomfort and indicates that they want to be left alone Usually this is accompanied by other signs like shortness of breath, lifted ears and licking their nose. If they give off this signal in front of other dogs, it can very often indicate that they want to be quiet and not have any issues.
  • Nudging your Nose
    • This is a very positive sign that shows the dog seeks our attention and affection. It shows the dog likes us and wants to be loved by us This behaviour arises first of all when the dog is a puppy and interestingly, it is the same gesture used when they want to feed from their mothers. Dogs will hold onto this signal as they grow older to request attention from their humans also.
  • Remaining Still and alert
    • If a dog stays still while you’re telling them off or punishing them, they are not showing submission or showing obedience. They actually feel helpless because they don’t know what to do, how to react or where to hide from you. This situation is dangerous and negative for the dog and their training. Do not scold your dog harshly or use violence. Not only can it have a negative impact on the dog but also on your relationship with your dog. When a dog feels helpless around you or wishes to hide from you, it indicates a lack of trust on both sides. You should help your dog to feel safe, and not feel the need to hide from you. This builds the relationship between you both and it makes life a lot easier.

There are many more calming signals that dogs present and the fact that each dog is different also means that there are some calming signals that as humans, we are not aware of just yet.

I will be continuing to bring these short columns over what is sure to be an interesting few months ahead. By researching various topics, articles and research papers of canine psychology and canine neurology, I will attempt to understand exactly what goes on in the minds of Bruno and Milly and how to better communicate with them and in turn become a better owner.


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