Our canine friends become stressed for the same reasons we do, says On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. First and foremost, that means situations where they do not feel they can cope but also instances in which they feel the threat of pain or discomfort.
They show it by exhibiting calming signals — signals that, to another dog, are invitations to relax because no harm is meant. If you see these calming signals in your dog, try to figure out what you can do to limit his stress. It shouldn’t be too hard. Often, we are the cause of stress in our pets, pulling them along, not walking them enough, exhibiting anxiety about things going on in our own lives (they very much want us to be in a good mood), and so on.
Here are five signals that the book explains are signs your dog is feeling stressed and is aiming to bring calmness to a situation.
Head turning. When two dogs meet, they usually both look away for a second before greeting each other. It’s a way of coping with any awkward feeling. Some dogs will turn their heads when you try to take a photo of them. It’s their way of saying that having a camera (which they don’t understand the use of) pointed at them is making them uncomfortable. You can turn your own head if you sense that you are making your dog feel tense.
Softening the eyes. This means lowering the lids and not staring. Many dogs find direct facial contact unnerving, so other dogs will look at them a bit furtively to de-stress them. You can do it, too. Dogs “learn” us and know we don’t mean harm when we look at them directly, but in a stressful situation, a dog might appreciate the respect you show by not looking at him straight on. We need to learn them, too.
Licking the nose. This is not necessarily a signal that’s comfortable for people to try, but a dog may use it when anxiously approaching a dog coming from the opposite direction — either one very quick flick of the tongue up to the nose, or several. The dog is trying to show its deference to the other.
Freezing. This one you probably know. Stand stock still when an aggressive dog is threatening, and your stillness may calm him. Dogs anxious about being mistreated by an approaching dog sometimes do it to keep a more aggressive dog from going into fighting mode.
Splitting up. Just like for humans, literally putting one’s body between two beings is a signal — a signal that things are getting too heated and conflict must be kept at bay. Dogs use splitting up in all kinds of ways, to diffuse all kinds of conflicts. A dog may try to get between you and someone you’re hugging, just like a small child who feels left out or a little jealous. The conflict he is diffusing is his own inner conflict about how much he counts to you. Of course, dogs also get between two other dogs — and even sometimes people — to keep a fight from escalating. You can do it, too. If your dog is feeling anxious about another animal, get between them; that will make your pet feel protected.