Dogs are social animals and have many different ways to communicate both what they need and what they're feeling. Not only do dogs use vocalization, but much like humans and other animals, they also use body language. Also known as displacement behaviors, so-called calming signals help dogs maintain a healthy social hierarchy and avoid fights with each other.
These ritualized signals assist in resolving conflicts among dogs without fur flying. Dominant dogs use these gestures to demonstrate they mean no harm, and subordinate dogs use the same signals to appease the alpha dog, so it won’t mistakenly attack.
The 'Peacekeeping' Language of Dogs
Dogs and puppies also use calming signals on people when they feel threatened and need the person to feel calm. For instance, when your dog leaves a mess on the carpet, and you get upset, even though your puppy may not understand what he’s done wrong, he may appear to show guilt.
But he’s not actually feeling guilty; your dog is using appeasement and displacement behaviors to try to get you to stop yelling at him.
Some dog calming signals are obvious: they'll walk slowly or freeze when someone new approaches to show they're not threatening, or they'll bow (front legs extended) in front of a person they want to appease. Here are some other common signals dogs use to make interactions with humans more pleasant.
Why Dogs Avert Their Eyes
Among dogs, direct eye contact is considered threatening behavior. But a pet dog will look directly at a person. As long as his expression doesn't seem stressed or agitated, this is fine. If it's a dog you don't know, assume direct eye contact will be considered threatening.
If a dog is averting its eyes, especially if it's your dog or another dog who knows you well, this is signaling one of two things: Either the dog is nervous around you for some reason (perhaps it senses you're angry), or it's signaling submission.
When Dogs Approach on a Curve
Like avoiding eye contact, dogs won't approach another dog or human they don't know straight on. Instead, they'll walk in a curve, to indicate they are not aggressive and mean no harm. This is a behavior most humans don't usually observe, but curving, as it's called, is a very clear signal to other dogs that all is well.
Yawning Dogs Aren't Always Tired
Much like humans, dogs yawn when they're sleepy or fatigued. But dogs also yawn in social situations when they want to tell another dog (or a human) to calm down. If you encounter a new dog who seems nervous or uncertain around you, try yawning at them. Don't look the dog in the eye while doing so, as this will come across as aggressive (see above). You may notice the dog yawning in response once it feels at ease.
Nervous Dogs Lick Their Lips or Noses
When a dog licks its nose or the area around its mouth (dogs don't really have lips), it's trying to settle itself down. This is a behavior you'll see if your dog is feeling uncomfortable or uncertain in a social situation, such as meeting a new dog or person. A human may take a deep breath to dispel butterflies in the stomach; when a dog feels similar mild anxiety, it will lick its nose before it proceeds.
What it Means When a Dog Wags Its Tail
Usually, we interpret tail-wagging as an indication that a dog is happy or content. This is true most of the time, but not always. If your dog is feeling nervous or submissive, he may hold his tail lower or tuck it between his back legs. He may still wag his tail in this position, but you'll notice it's wagging more rapidly than when he's merely showing contentment.