15 Calming Signals and What to Do When You See Them

Dog Training


Kayla Fratt


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dog calming signals

I pick at my nails when I’m uncomfortable. My boyfriend blinks a lot when he’s trying to calm me down. My dog licks his lips when he’s nervous.

We all have our own calming signals.

These signals are part of our body language.

Some are predictable across species, while others can be characteristic of an individual. They help us communicate to others that we’re uncomfortable. They also can be used to calm ourselves down, as a coping mechanism.

What’s A Dog Calming Signal?

A calming signal in dogs is a way for a dog to communicate that he’s uncomfortable.

It’s a bit confusing because calming signals have dual purposes – they are indicators of stress, but are also often used to calm the stressed individual down.

Why Do Dogs Use Calming Signals?

Dogs use calming signals to say:

I’m not a threat, please don’t hurt me.

I’m stressed out, let’s go.

That was scary.

I’d like this situation to change.

I’m trying to calm myself down here.

Some signals are meant to clearly communicate meaning. Other signals may be more self-serving, a stress release. Many are both!

Humans use calming signals, too. Some of them even overlap with dog calming signals.

nervous person

Examples of human calming signals include:

  • Lip licking or chewing
  • Looking away
  • Picking at nails or hair
  • Fiddling with objects
  • Stretching
  • Pacing
  • Scratching

Some of these human behaviors also look like boredom. This might be because acting bored or disinterested can help you feel less stressed.

Fake it ‘till you make it, right? The same goes for dogs, as you’ll see below.

Recognizing Dog Calming Signals + How to Respond

As a dog owner, it’s important to know and recognize calming signals in your dog as well as others.

Recognizing a calming signal is the best way to help de-escalate a situation for your dog before he becomes even more uncomfortable.

In my job as a shelter animal behavior technician, I use calming signals to keep myself safe.

A dog that’s showing me a ton of calming signals is very uncomfortable and probably is closer to being pushed over the edge and biting.

If I see calming signals, I need to back off and try something new.

At home with my own border collie, I use calming signals to help change his opinion about situations here’s nervous about.

My dog Barley shows a lot of calming signals around fast bikes, so I started to train him that bikes equal treats. I helped him learn that bikes are good and his fear around bikes has greatly reduced.

Are Calming Signals Bad?

Calming signals aren’t always a bad thing, and don’t always indicate an issue. They’re a way for dogs to communicate.

Many dogs will use calming signals during rough play with other dogs.

Good playmates will use calming signals to ensure that play stays fun. The calming signals help reaffirm between playmates that “this is all in good fun.”

Next time you’re at the dog park, keep an eye out for dogs using calming signals, and watch to see how other dogs respond. Socially savvy dogs will also use calming signals to make other dogs feel more comfortable by mirroring their calming signals.

In short, calming signals are an incredibly useful thing for you to be familiar with as an owner.

Your dog can’t tell you that he’s nervous with words, so you need to pay attention to his body!

It’s far easier to learn dog body language than it is to teach your dog English (although determined owners can sometimes teach their dogs to say “I love you”).

Dog Calming Signals 101: What to Look For

Now that we know that calming signals are important, so let’s explore some examples of dog calming signals.

It’s important to note that most of these behaviors can be seen at other times too, when they’re not being used as calming signals.

It’s key to pay attention to these behaviors in context.

For example, I’m not worried if my border collie is lip-licking a lot after I feed him peanut butter. But if he lip licks every time he sees a guy carrying an umbrella, I know we need to work on desensitizing him to umbrellas!

Dogs will show a variety of these behaviors, and not every individual will show the full repertoire. Some dogs may have their own calming signals that aren’t listed here.

Get to know your dog’s go-to behaviors so that you can just watch for those!

Lip licking. This is my border collie’s go-to for calming signals. It may just be a little tongue flick, or it can be a full-fledged mouth wipe.

licking lips

Facial expressions. This one can be hard to catch. Some dogs furrow their brow. Many dogs will have a ‘tense’ face. This just means that the muscles in their face are tense, rather than relaxed. It can take a trained eye to see!

tense face

Ear position. Many dogs will pin their ears backwards when they’re stressed. Get to know where your dog’s ears sit when they’re relaxed (it can vary depending on your dog’s breed and specific type of ear shape). Once you know his ‘normal,’ you’ll be better able to notice when it’s abnormal.

tucked ears

Yawing. Many dogs yawn when they’re uncomfortable. If it’s not nap time, pay attention to those “stress yawns!”


Paw raise. I see this one a lot in tiny dogs. Some dogs just lift their paw a little off the ground, others will pull their front paw all the way to their chest.

paw raise

Whale eye. Normally, we can’t see the white of our dog’s eyes. If you see the whites of your dog’s eyes, she’s probably uncomfortable. Dog trainers call this whale eye or moon eye.

whale eye

Shake off. Dogs often shake off after petting or during rough play. This stress release probably helps them loosen up a bit. If your dog is always shaking off after you pet him, he probably doesn’t like the way you’re petting him!


Dandruff. This one isn’t a good sign. Dogs that are really stressed will start showing dandruff on their bodies out of nowhere. This often will show up around the chest or shoulders, particularly if the dog is wearing a harness. Dog dandruff shampoos can help for skin-based issues, but random, unexplained dandruff can be a stress signal.

Sweaty paws. Sweaty paws are also a pretty bad sign. Either your dog is way too hot, or she’s very stressed out! You’ll be able to see sweaty paw print marks where your dog was standing or walking.

sweaty paws

Looking away. In doggie language, it’s polite to avert eye contact. Direct staring is usually a threat! Dogs will look away to be polite or to de-escalate situations.

looking away

My border collie often barks at the door, then promptly looks away from me, staring at the ground. It’s his way of saying, “please don’t hurt me.” I guess his last owners weren’t fond of his barking.

Scratching. Dogs that are playing and suddenly scratch intensely around their neck probably are showing a calming signal. They’re de-escalating a situation, not actually fixing an itch. Scratching is often paired with a shake-off afterwards.


Tail position. This one can be nice and clear. A dog with a tucked tail is not a comfortable dog.

tucked tail

It’s important to note, however, that different breeds will look different with a tucked tail.

A dog whose tail is normally arched high over its back like a pug or akita will look very different from a dog whose tail normally sits low, like a chihuahua or a hound. A pug’s tail probably won’t ever go all the way between its legs, no matter how scared the dog is!

Panting. Dogs pant when it’s hot, but did you know they also pant when they’re stressed? If your dog isn’t hot or exercising, pay attention to the panting!


When we first brought Barley home from the shelter, I don’t think he stopped panting for 48 hours. He was just too stressed!

The tongue positioning can also help identify stressed panting vs heat panting. Usually a loose, floppy side tongue is more due to heat than anxiety, while a panting dog with a stiffer, more drawn-back tongue is more likely to be stress-related.

Low body postures. Dogs crouch when they’re scared. They might also arch their back or just lower their head – they’re trying to be smaller and less threatening.

low body

Sniffing. Yes, sniffing can be a calming signal! Some dogs look away from the scary thing and then become very interested in a smell on the ground.

This can help calm them down and also shows they’re not a threat. Context is key to identifying this one!


What Should I Do When I See a Dog Calming Signal?

Remember that your dog isn’t being “guilty” if you see these calming signals after you scold her.

There’s a hefty collection of YouTube videos showing guilty-looking dogs after a dive into the kitchen trash can, but really the dogs are simply using their calming signals to de-escalate the situation, since they can tell you’re upset with them.


Barley shows calming signals when I interrupt him from digging in the yard. It’s not because he’s “sorry.” He just doesn’t want to get in trouble, so he’s showing he’s not a threat. Scientists don’t think that dogs are capable of feeling guilt.

That said, calming signals are not to be ignored. If your dog shows calming signals surrounding a certain situation, like the vet, you’ve got a job to do! You can work on counter-conditioning and desensitization in order to help make your dog feel more comfortable and ease your dog’s anxiety around vet visits.

If you can leave the situation, do so. Ignoring your dog’s calming signals and forcing them to “just deal with it” will erode their trust in you and make their fear worse. Listen to your dog’s calming signals and do what you can to make them more comfortable by giving them treats, bringing along a toy, or creating distance between them and the scary thing.

Never, ever punish a calming signal. Your dog is telling the world, in his own subtle way, that he’s uncomfortable. If you punish him for being polite about it, he might resort to being rude next time.

Comply with your dog’s calming signals so that you don’t force him to escalate next time. Dogs that feel they have no other option will bite in order to keep the scary thing away!

Remember that socially savvy dogs using calming signals in the context of play are doing a great job and should be praised. At my job, I often praise fearful dogs when they show a shake-off. They’re a coping mechanism in some cases, so it’s good to see them!

What’s your dog’s signature calming signal? What makes them nervous? Tell us in the comments!

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Written by

Kayla Fratt

Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through IAABC and works as a conservation detection dog trainer.

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  1. Amy Cullinan Avatar
    Amy Cullinan

    I rescued a dog from the Texas/Mexican border a month ago. He was found as a stray. The vet thinks he is around 2 yrs old. Sadly, he is afraid of life. Just afraid of literally everything. He does not growl, bite or show his teeth. He is very sweet but very scared. We give him his space almost all the time but lately we have been bringing him over to us on the sofa every once in a while . He will relax and fall asleep. Otherwise, he chooses to lay in the corner in the hallway off of the kitchen. He would stay there forever if we let him. After walks I keep him on the leash for a few extra minutes and walk him around with me in the kitchen and family room. We do give him treats. Sometimes he will take it from us and other times he won’t. In that case we put it down and he will then eat it. He has shown some improvement and will wag his tail and sit up once in a while when he sees me. I just don’t know if what we are doing is right or not. We are trying to go slow and give him time. It’s just so frustrating.

    1. Ben Team Avatar

      Hey there, Amy.
      It’s hard to provide detailed advice from afar, so don’t hesitate to reach out to a certified dog behavior consultant if you’d like some professional help.

      That said, it certainly sounds like you’re taking the correct general approach. Give him plenty of space, keep things calm and reassuring, and slowly build up that trust. It may take months, but he’ll likely adjust over time.

  2. Ella Avatar

    Thank you for your reply.
    He doesn’t reject me all the time. The only time he doesn’t come to me is when he needs to go out for his last peepee (never had this issue before, it’s my dog’s new issue). Sometimes he come after calling his name few times and others, he just stays in his bed and sleep (as if he is ignoring me) is can he be afraid of me? But as of now, he has been going to his last peepee without any issue. But he does not allow me to wash his paws. He goes out 4 times a day and I wash his paws all the time. Now that last peepee issue is gone, he wont allow me to wash his paws after his last peepee. Other 3 times, he allows it. Do I need behaviorist trainer?

    1. Ben Team Avatar

      Hey, Ella.
      You may want to speak to a canine behaviorist about your pooch — mostly because it sounds like you’re dealing with a few different issues.

      Honestly (and I’m neither a trainer nor behaviorist, nor have I even seen your dog), it sounds to me like he may just be sleepy/grumpy for his last pee break. Especially if he normally allows you to wash his paws when returning inside.

      Best of luck!

  3. Ella Avatar

    When I see calming signals, is it best to walk away showing my back or walk away with a moonwalk? When my dog shows his teeth I used to walk away showing my back but some trainers (on youtube) said it will give an impression that the dog won but instead I should step forward. When I stepped forward, my dog looked away. And when I allow him to move around, he will do whale eyes, lower his body, and goes to his bed. Like today, he would not allow me to put on his leash. My dog is 5 yrs old and he behaves like this a few times a yr. Why is a dog suddenly behaving like this? He goes out for the bathroom/walks 4 times a day. Morning, never had an issue (i think bc he needs to go). lunchtime is a walk so he is excited. Before dinner and before sleep, he sometimes rejects. When I call him for peepee time and he runs, no issues. But I call him and he does not respond right away, that is when he rejects the leash and starts calming signals. Is it best to just do what you mentioned above?

    1. AdminLogin Avatar

      Hey Ella! If you see your dog displaying calming signals, you’ll want to back off and give them space. Whether you turn around or not doesn’t really matter. Folks that are saying not to show your back because it shows the dog has “won” are spouting ridiculous, totally outdated nonsense about dominance theory that’s been 100% debunked by science. Please don’t listen to people who say those things, they really don’t know what they are talking about!

      When a dog is showing calming signals, they are nervous and afraid. Backing off and giving them space is the appropriate action to show the dog that they are safe and that you aren’t going to force them to do anything they don’t want to. Usually it makes sense to back off stepping backwards simply so you can continue to keep an eye on them and monitor their body language.

      Stepping towards the dog is putting spatial pressure on the dog. You are being the aggressor, pressing forward into his space and making it harder for him to escape if need be. This is basically a challenge. Your dog sounds like he is backing down, but stepping towards your frightened dog is a problem because A) He one day might decide not to back down and might feel he HAS to resort to biting to get you to back off and give him space and B) it’s using intimidation and fear tactics on your dog, which is really bad for your relationship.

      If you’re calling your dog and he is refusing to come to you, it sounds like he might be really scared of you. I’d suggest working on building up your relationship and teach your dog he can trust you – we have some great info on teaching a scared dog to trust you here.

  4. Tish Avatar

    Hello! Ur teaching on “calming signals” is great* but i have a 12 yr old chow/german shep mix that is unsocialized. I didn’t realize i was doing him harm because we’re older “stay homers”. To do anything like bathing or cleaning his ears is horrific to us both to say the least. I love him so deeply & it tears my heart out for him to behave like he’s being severely abused. It damages my relationship with him just to try to take care of him. Any suggestions?

    1. Ben Team Avatar

      Hey, Tish.
      It can definitely be challenging to bathe some dogs, and many dogs don’t really like having their ears cleaned. Ideally, you’d get your pup used to these procedures at a young age, but that’s clearly not possible for your pooch.

      Given that, your best bet will be to go very slowly and establish a positive association between your pup and bathing or ear-cleaning time. For example, you may want to start by just having your doggo get in the bath tub (don’t even turn the water on). Once he’s inside, throw him a “pooch party” by showering him with praise, telling him he’s a good boy, and giving him a few super tasty treats. A few days later, do the same thing, but this time, just turn the water on a little bit — just enough to get his paws wet. Give him plenty of praise, and then let him get out.

      Continue making these baby steps and praising him for his progress. Eventually, you should be able to give him a proper bath without much trouble. And you could use the same principles for ear cleaning.

      Best of luck!

  5. Moe Avatar

    My neighbours dog has started to shake and pant whenever I go over for coffee. I have been going over for months and the dog just started doing this in the past two weeks and we dont have any idea why. The dog will come to me and greet me at the door but then starts panting and shaking. She won’t leave my neighbours side and has to be sitting on her and trying to lick her the whole time I am visiting. Any ideas on how to handle this sitiuation


    1. Ben Team Avatar

      Huh. That’s pretty weird, Moe.
      Is the dog completely comfortable with you? Does she greet you enthusiastically? Wag and smile when you show up? Etc.?

      1. Moe Avatar

        Yes she greets me at the door tail wagging and jumping up on me. We just can’t seem to see why. Before she has sat on my lap and jumped up beside me on the couch by the last two weeks she still greets me at the door but when we sit down that is when the panting starts.

        1. Ben Team Avatar

          That’s really strange, Moe. It’d probably be a good idea to video her the next time you visit, you could then show it to a behaviorist to try to figure out what’s going on.
          Let us know what you find!

  6. Dana Avatar

    My baby girl was very abused by a woman, we rescued her about 3months ago. She is very scared of men though. About a month ago she left the yard and I stomped my foot at her catching her leg when she crossed the door then she skid across the the floor knocking over a tv table onto her. Her and I were very close then then, now she is terrified of me and shakes, licks, rolls on her back, every time she’s not shes ear me unless my fiancé I soho home. When it is her and I she will not leave the bedroom. She has all the calming signs. What can I do?

    1. Ben Team Avatar

      Hey, Dana. So sorry to hear about your struggles — that’s a heart-breaking story.
      Aside from trying to rebuild the trust you have with her (which, we understand you did not intend to damage), it’s probably wise to work with a private trainer.
      Given your pup’s traumatic past, professional help is likely advisable.
      Best of luck! Let us know how it goes.

  7. Ed Avatar

    Hi, I have a Lab/Cocker pup of 11 Months who we adopted about 4 months ago. We are first time dog owners so still getting to know the ropes and learning to understand each other. He exhibits a lot the signs that you list above, i was wondering can the signs not be linked to stress but messages that he is looking for something. For example licking the lips being that he is hungry, or yawning because he is tired? Just wondering if i should be very worried because he would definitely do a lot of yawning, shaking, itching and licking throughout the day without any obvious signs of what could be distressing him. How should i react if he yawns and i dont know what the stress factor is and therefore dont know how to address it? thanks alot, your site is a great source of information for newbies like us.

  8. Doug Taylor Avatar

    Excellent article, Kayla. Owning a dog is a responsibility and life-long commitment, so it’s important to learn how to ‘read’ ones dog. If there are other signals to look for, such as ear position et al, I’d love to see an article devoted to that. Thank you!

  9. Erica Avatar

    We have a female border collie/blue heeler with anxiety. Her most common signal is trotting around the house, nose to the ground, whimpering. She will do this for hours. Her other one is obsessively licking us. We have tried several anxiety remedies. Mostly we try to ask everyone around her to be very calm and mellow. The pheromone gel seems to help some. I think we’ll get the wall diffuser. We would love to have her just sit with us, but she wants to climb up and lick every time.

  10. Dan Avatar

    My maltipoo, 1 1/2 years, is sceptical abt putting on clothes/ leash to go out and its a catch me if you can game everytime to get him. Once he has it on, he is quiet and remains still until he is out of the door and is excited as can be.
    Other dogs are happy to see leash which = going out.
    Am not sure what’s wrong.

    1. Kayla Fratt Avatar

      Interesting. It sounds like he probably doesn’t like putting the clothes on. Have you tried using a different harness or a plain collar to see if he reacts differently?

  11. Hank Avatar

    Just got a lab puppy and she would scratch all the time after being nervous. I thought but was her way of trying to get her new collar off. She also does the sniffing thing, nose to the ground 100 mph lol. She does these when she gets very nervous like when she hears another dog barking. After reading your super helpful article I just let her do these things and continue to praise her. My questions is this, when she is sniffing around do I stop her after a period of time or just let her go until she says it’s time? Thanks for everything

    1. Kayla Fratt Avatar

      Great questions, Hank! I’d focus on trying to let her sniff as much as she needs, but also setting up the environment so that it’s not as scary for her when possible. For example, you can move away from the barking dog or toss treats to her when she hears a dog barking so she learns that Scary Dog Barks = treats. That will help her calm down faster!

      1. Hank Avatar

        Outstanding idea Kayla, you are the best.

        1. Kayla Fratt Avatar

          Any time, Hank! Stay tuned for our upcoming puppy socialization guide, it will be super useful for you and your new pup!

  12. Cynthia Daniell Avatar
    Cynthia Daniell

    I have a female lab-border collie cross. I got her from a shelter, she was 9 weeks old. She had Parvovirus. Ever since I brought her home she would roll rocks in her mouth. She would hunt for them. I thought it was because of teething. I bought all kinds of toys and chew items but she always chewed and rolled rocks in her mouth. Oh, her name is Pepper. She is now 6 months old and still eats rocks. She threw up a rock a couple of weeks ago. This morning she threw up 6 rocks. Now I’m worried. She is super sweet and very smart. I don’t know what to do.Sincerely Cynthia

    1. Kayla Fratt Avatar

      Cynthia, that’s pretty serious. I’d get her in to see a vet to discuss seemingly compulsive eating of non-food objects. This is really scary stuff, as any surgeries to remove rocks from her stomach are potentially life-threatening.

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