Appeasement Gestures in Dogs: What They Are and What You Need to Know | Pupford

April 11th, 2023

Filed under Pet Parenting

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For creatures who don’t speak our language, dogs are really great at communicating with us. The challenge comes in knowing what to look for when our dogs are trying to tell us something – which unfortunately people can get wrong from time to time.

We see this a lot when it comes to appeasement gestures.

If you’re asking yourself what appeasement gestures are, then that’s exactly why we are tackling this topic today!

And even if you have heard this term before (or calming signals, or cutoff cues as they’re also known), it’s important to dive deep into what these are and why they matter.

It’s essential for pup parents to recognize (and understand) appeasement gestures in their dogs to better know when they’re feeling stressed, threatened, or anxious.

That way our dogs and everyone around them can stay safe and happy. And isn't that the foundation of what we want for our dogs at the end of the day?

Today we will cover:

  • What appeasement gestures are
  • Examples of appeasement gestures
  • Why it’s important to understand appeasement gestures
  • Tips for better understanding your dog’s gestures

We’ll get started in just a minute, but we want to test your knowledge a little. Don’t worry, you’re not being graded.

These are common misconceptions that can sometimes lead to dangerous situations. But with a deeper understanding of stress signals and appeasement gestures, you can know how to look past these myths and uncover the truth about how your dog feels in a given situation.


a dog licking their lips or nose is an appeasement gestures

Let’s start with an understanding of what exactly appeasement gestures are.

Appeasement gestures are cues a dog gives when they're feeling stressed or uncomfortable. Your dog may show them in one of two scenarios:

  • They feel threatened by someone or something and want to show they are not a threat in return, in hopes of getting the threat to back off.
  • As a distraction in the face of something that makes them uncomfortable or afraid.

Basically, these gestures are your dog’s way of saying they don’t want to engage in confrontation and of asking an identified threat to stop.

You may also hear the term “cutoff cue” or “calming signal,” which are just other names for appeasement gestures.


appeasement gestures are calming signals in dogs when they are stressed

Sometimes it's difficult to identify appeasement gestures because they are often mislabeled as everything from your dog being tired to them being silly and playful.

Here are some common behaviors that often are actually appeasement gestures:

  • Licking their lips or nose
  • Yawning
  • Sneezing
  • Grinning
  • Scratching
  • Turning their eyes or head away
  • Lowering their ears
  • Lowering their head
  • Sniffing the ground

For more signs to look out for, take a look at Signs of Stress in Dogs: 12 Body Language Signs and Symptoms. 

Let’s take a look at some examples of appeasement gestures in action:

  • You are out walking your dog and are approaching another dog. That dog averts his gaze and licks his nose as you pass by in order to let your dog know he is not interested in confrontation.
  • Your dog is getting overwhelmed and stressed during a training session when they are not grasping what you are asking of them, so they scratch a lot between repetitions.
  • You find out your dog has gotten into the trash can and gives you what you think is a guilty look. In reality, they are responding to your raised voice and angry tone with an appeasement gesture because they are extremely uncomfortable.
  • A stranger approaches your dog and since your dog is uncomfortable with this person, they put their ears back and lower their head.

While on their own these may look like typical dog behaviors, in the context of having a perceived threat around, they can be a sign that your dog is stressed or anxious.


a dog scratching themself can be a sign they are stressed and trying to calm down

As their advocates, it’s important we understand when our dogs are showing these signals to keep them comfortable and safe. (You can learn more about this in our article Are You Being an Advocate for Your Dog?) 

Let’s revisit the last example in the above section, where a stranger approaches your dog. Remember in that example how your dog put their ears back as the stranger got close to them?

That person may interpret ears going back as an invitation to pet, meanwhile the dog just sees a threat getting closer and closer to their head. A possible result? A bite.

So often after a bite or similar incident, people will say “it came out of nowhere.” But that’s not usually true. The reality is that dogs will give us signals in an attempt to get the perceived threat to go away – people just don’t always know what those signals look like.

The main danger of mislabeling appeasement gestures is that people could be caught off guard by aggressive behavior that they claim came out of nowhere, when in reality the dog gave many signs.

PS – the reason that example escalated was because the stranger was not appropriately greeting the dog. There are ways to properly greet a dog, which you can learn about here (and more importantly learn how NOT to greet a dog).


learn how to understand your dogs body language

So how can we become better at reading our dog’s cues and gestures?

The key is taking the time to learn dog body language.  

Becoming fluent in your dog’s body language helps you know exactly when they are uncomfortable so you can properly advocate for your dog and help them become more comfortable.

Our Dog Body Language Course in the Pupford Academy can help you understand the different body signals your dog gives, learn how to recognize stress signals and appeasement gestures, and know what to do when they show different body language signals.


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