By Suzanne Engelberg, PhD
Have you ever noticed that dogs seem to slow down when we’re in a hurry and need them to speed up? Instead of quickly coming when we call, they give a leisurely yawn, sniff the ground a bit, and then saunter over to see what we want. They may even lick their lips in anticipation of the treat we have for them. Or they may completely ignore us, looking away and pretending they don’t hear. My dog Danny and my ODH foster ChiCha are stars of delay. When I’m running late for an appointment ChiCha is invariably outside in the yard. She can’t hear well so she doesn’t respond when I call her, and she’s tiny and the color of garden mulch so it takes a little while to find her. Danny doesn’t have those excuses. He’s a medium-sized dog whose hearing is fine. He also has great dog social skills—the skills to clearly communicate with dogs, and to calm almost any anxious dog he meets.
I discovered that there’s actually a reason why Danny and many other dogs slow when we need them to rush—they’re trying to calm us down. It doesn’t take a genius to know when we’re stressed, but it does take a genius to do something about it. That’s where our dogs come in.
To dogs, slowing down is a type of calming signal, a way of diffusing tension. For example, when Danny sees a small dog coming toward us on our walks, he slows his pace and sometimes even crouches a bit. As we get closer he may look away and slow down even more. Each of these signals is Danny’s way of telling the other dog that he means no harm so there is no reason to be stressed.
Just as humans use human language to try to communicate with dogs, dogs use dog language to try to communicate with humans. It doesn’t always work well. How often have you observed this scenario? A person sees a cute dog she’d like to pet, so she walks right up to the dog, faces him head on, and reaches her arm out to pet the dog’s head. The dog stays just out of reach, looks away, licks his lips, and does everything else to politely tell the human that he’d like to be left alone now. The human, thinking the dog doesn’t realize how great it will feel to be petted by her, tries even harder to connect with the dog, looking him in the eyes while moving closer, reaching her hand out too high for the dog to see while talking a little louder than before. The dog is doing his best to communicate with the human, but the human doesn’t know dog language so doesn’t understand how many different ways the dog is trying to respectfully say, “Please stay away from me.” If the human persists, a knowledgeable dog parent will intervene by either saying something to the person, or gently leading their dog away.
Dogs also use these same calming signals to calm themselves in stressful situations. Slowing down, yawning, looking away from something intense, etc. are ways to slow down their physiology so they can feel more at ease.
How does all this relate to those times our dog dawdles when we’re trying to rush? From a human perspective our dog is stubbornly insisting on making us even later. From a canine perspective they’re trying to tell us to chill out because our stress is stressing them. At that moment their yawn isn’t leisurely, they don’t care what the ground smells like, their slow walk is not a saunter, and they’re licking their lips from stress not anticipation of a treat. All they care about is helping us calm down.
So the next time you notice a dog using any of these signs, slow down, take a few deep breaths, yawn, and look away. You can even lick your lips. Since you’re speaking the dog’s language, he will understand you. When I do this with Danny he is much more cooperative, which helps me leave sooner rather than later. Of course I need to remain calm, or I’d be giving him mixed messages—telling him there is no reason to be stressed while also stressing him. With practice I’m getting better at it. In fact I’ve started using Danny as my stress barometer. When he starts using calming signals, I know I’m more stressed than I realized. I breathe deeply and remind myself that stressing out my dog will not help either of us. I also remind myself that he’s just trying to help.