Appeasement gestures, stress signals, calming signals, displacement behaviours……so many words and so much terminology. It can feel overwhelming with all these words flying about, trying to keep up with all their meanings. Here, we’re going to break these words down slightly, look at the difference between them and what they really mean. I would always recommend brushing up on your canine body language knowledge, to help you better understand the behaviours you see and thereby responding appropriately to them. Your puppy would thank you for learning if he could!
Puppies communicate…..they communicate with each other and with us. This communication is done through the performing of behaviours, our job is to as accurately as possible interpret these behaviours in the context they are shown. We all know the importance of adequate and appropriate socialisation, and one of the biggest parts of socialisation is your puppy gaining social skills that he will take through his life. One of these social skills is your puppy learning to interpret other’s behaviours correctly, and how to respond appropriately. Conversely, we want our pup’s to learn how to perform these behaviours in certain situations. Sounds easy right? It can be, but there’s lots of factors to consider.
Appeasement gestures (sometimes known as calming signals), are as the name suggests, behaviours which appease another individual, or pacify any given situation. A pup’s way of communicating ‘I am no threat and I mean no harm’. Appeasement behaviours may be quick blinking, very quick and small lip licks, play bowing, muzzle/ear licking of another, averting gaze, or a stomach flip exposing the belly. A well socialised and socially fluent dog will respond accordingly to these gestures. There are MANY other appeasement gestures so do get in touch if you’d like more information about them. But having a brief idea of what behaviours you’re looking for and what they mean is always useful.
Stress signals are slightly different to appeasement gestures, these behaviours help to relieve feelings of stress and will aim to appease or pacify a perceived threat. You may see these sorts of behaviours in the vets, dogs who are uncomfortable in a particular environment will often display these signals. Examples may include yawning, small lip licks, head turning, low tail carriage, and whale eye (averting the head but eyes still looking forward to the object of perceived threat, hence showing the little whites of the eyes).
Displacement behaviours, are again slightly different. These are self-calming behaviours and will be displayed when a pup is trying to redirect attention from himself, onto something else. These behaviours are often used as an outlet for excess or pent up energy and frustration too. These behaviours may include pacing, scratching, sniffing the grass, sneezing and ‘shaking off’. Often a dog who isn’t entirely sure about the situation they are in will have a ‘shake’, it’s a very noticeable and obvious behaviour. This shake can often be seen after an initial ‘meet and greet’ with another puppy/dog.
With ALL of these behaviours it is ESSENTIAL to look at them in the context they are performed! It’s absolutely crucial. These signals can also mean other things, for example your dog will lick his lips after his dinner, he’s not stressed he’s just eaten! Your dog may yawn after/mid nap, he’s not worried he’s just tired. Make sure you look at the wider picture and not single out any one behaviour and scrutinise it in it’s own right.
When looking at these behaviours consider the following:
- body positioning?
- environmental factors – where are you? what situation?
Whilst it’s important to know about all of these behaviours, it’s just as important to be aware of relaxed puppy behaviours too. For example a soft facial expression, relaxed ear positioning, a wiggly bum(!), mouth slightly open with a relaxed ‘floppy’ tongue, tail wagging in a circular movement. Look at ALL of these things, not just the one behaviour of ‘sniffing’ or ‘lip licking’ etc.
It is very important to remember not to overanalyse! I believe it is good practice to educate yourself on all sorts of doggy behaviours to better understand your puppy/dog, but don’t look for problems that aren’t there. These behaviours are performed during communication, we want and indeed encourage our puppies to develop fluent and appropriate social skills. These behaviours certainly don’t always indicate an overtly unhappy or stressed dog, these behaviours may also be temporary ie. in the vets, they do not necessarily indicate long term unease so don’t worry yourself needlessly, just concentrate on enjoying your puppy and giving them lots of positive experiences.
If you are seeing these behaviours and are unsure of what they mean or have doubts about the context they are seen in, I’m more than happy to offer advice.
For any more information about any of these behaviours or anything else I’ve discussed just get in touch!