Do Dogs Use Body Language to Calm Us Down?

Are lip licking and looking away signals of discomfort and expressions of peace in the domestic dog?

Guest post by Georgina (Gina) Bishopp (Hartpury College, UK)

Do dogs use body language to calm us down? What it means when a dog licks its lips (like this one) and looks away
Photo: StudioCAXAP

A study by Dr. Angelika Firnkes (Ludwig Maximilians University Munich) et al., 2017 has found that the domestic dog uses appeasement gestures both when feeling threatened and during greetings with humans. For the first time it has now been shown that dogs will use at least two of these signals, the lip lick and look away, to appease their human social companions. Turid Rugaas (2005) had previously described a set of behaviours in dogs, including the lip lick and looking away, through years of working as a behavioural consultant, that she described as ‘Calming Signals’. Rugaas (2005) explained that the dogs would use these ‘Calming Signals’ when feeling uncomfortable and attempting to prevent aggressive responses from their conspecifics and humans. For the first time scientific research has supported this theory in relation to dog-human communication as described by Rugaas.

Many of these behaviours can also be described as appeasement gestures and have been shown to occur during close range dog to dog interactions, (Mariti et al., 2014), almost exclusively when dogs are interacting, (Gazzano et al., 2010). Furthermore, after an aggressive interaction the receiver of the aggression was more likely to show one of these ‘Calming Signals’ and when this occurred aggressive displays from the receiver decreased, (Mariti et al., 2014; Gazzano et al., 2010).

116 dogs over the age of 13 months were accompanied with their owners to perform a standardized behavioural test, (Firnkes et al., 2017). This sample size is good compared to a lot of dog behaviour research where samples tend to be a lot smaller. The human testing the dogs was unfamiliar and subjected the dogs and owners to various stimuli.

The situations that the dogs experienced were either environmental (such as passing a jogger), involved contact (i.e. person walking directly towards dog), or were threatening (i.e. threatening stare at the dog). It is worth noting that the contexts described as threatening were kept safe by using leads and muzzles, and all of the stimuli were very realistic and likely to be experienced by many dogs during their lives (such as a person kicking away a football).

Looking away occurred significantly more in socially direct situations, such as the ‘friendly salutation’ or ‘threatening stare’ stimuli, suggesting that this behaviour is used as a social signal. Lip licking also occurred in a similar way, however did not occur as often as was expected during the ‘threatening screaming’ and ‘physical threat’ [the test human pretended to strike out at the dog] situations. Both did however occur more frequently during friendly interactions after an initial threatening situation, again supporting the theory that these behaviours are used to signal peace and conflict avoidance.

The theory laid out by the authors of this paper for the lack of lip licking and looking away during the very threatening situations is that it is possible that by this point the dogs believed that appeasement was no longer appropriate. Instead they showed clearly submissive behaviour such as the flattened ears, a drawn-in tail and bent joints. This study highlights room for future research to explore the possibility that these behaviours are not intended as signals but are in fact physiological stress responses to the threatening stimuli. This is due to lip licking also occurring during stress responses in dogs to human threat in previous studies.

In this way, I think when a dog looks away or licks its lips they are not signalling to you that they want you to completely back away but are looking for a response that indicates that you too are not looking to aggress. In this way the better human response may be to reduce potential threat through looking away themselves and lowering to the ground, so as not to arch over the dog. In this way the assumption is not being made that dogs showing these signals are overtly stressed by the stimuli or do not want to engage with the stimuli, however that these dogs want to interact with the stimuli in the most peaceful way possible.

Either way, these behaviours are clearly important elements of healthy dog communication with both conspecifics and human caretakers and should not be ignored by those interacting with these animals.

Have you ever experienced lip licking or looking away in your dog? How do you interpret this behaviour?

About the author:

Photo of Georgina (Gina) Bishopp
My name is Georgina (Gina) Bishopp and I am a 23-year-old MRes Animal Behaviour and Welfare student at the University of West England, Hartpury College campus. Since graduating from my first degree (BSc Animal Science with Care and Management) I have worked for the Blue Cross and am now at the RSPCA, primarily working with dogs and cats. I own a horse and have ridden since a child, experiencing every different kind of horse training and management as I have tried to understand which method is best for the horse. Now I use a blend of tradition and new age techniques, and only those that are supported by current scientific understanding of horses themselves or other mammals (including the dog). My academic focus has primarily been with companion animals, primarily dogs, and equines, however my interests are very broad and extend to wildlife and zoo animals welfare as well.

Other posts by Georgina Bishopp: The importance of science in horse training.

Gazzano, A.; Mariti, C.; Papi, F.; Falaschi, C; Forti, S. (2010). Are domestic dogs able to calm conspecifics by using visual communication? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 5 (1).
Firnkes, A., Bartels, A., Bidoli, E., Erhard, M., (2017). Appeasement signals used by dogs during dog-human communication. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research.
Mariti, C.; Falaschi, C.; Zilocchi, M.; Carlone, B.; Gazzano, A. (2014). Analysis of calming signals in domestic dogs: Are they signals and are they calming? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(6).
Rugaas T. (2005) On Talking Terms With Dogs Calming Signals. Legacy by Mail, Inc. USA.

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