Dog communication is often very subtle but sometimes it’s glaringly obvious too! We spend most of our waking hours observing dogs interacting and we still learn something new almost every day. Most communication between dogs is about trying to peacefully share space with other dogs. The vast majority of communication signals are used to ask for more space from other dogs (and people) and a smaller set of signals are used to invite dogs (and people) to come closer and interact. Dog communication can be tricky to interpret as exactly the same signals can be used to both ask for more space and to invite dogs to come closer and to confuse things even more, some signals aren’t even intentional at all, they are ‘just’ caused by stress! The key to picking the meaning out of this minefield of information is to look at the dog as a whole for extra clues and to look at the signals in context but, as with everything, the more you practice interpreting dog communication the more fluent you become.
One of our favourite signals is a head turn, or ‘look away’. Imagine travelling to a foreign land and only being able to say please and thank you (or two pints of beer!), the doggy equivalent of this would probably be a head turn! It’s a very versatile skill. It’s so important that it’s normally the first skill that our teaching dogs will demonstrate and teach to dogs we are working with.
Savvy dogs don’t normally make much eye contact with each other. Staring for more than about a second is normally considered rude by other dogs (unless they are best friends and then normal rules do not apply!). That’s why a head turn is so crucial- it means that tricky situations can often be avoided as it breaks eye contact. Imagine two dogs walking directly towards each other on the lead down a narrow path (any reactive dog owners nightmare!). Polite dogs would never walk directly towards each other, they’d do a big semi-circle if they were approaching. If we take away the dog’s ability to arc by keeping them onlead they can still manage to get past each other politely if they can avoid too much eye contact. A perfectly timed head turn (or two) can really help a dog get through a situation like this.
Here a young puppy offers a head turn to a much older lurcher bitch (Beama)- this is normal and appropriate communication.
‘Super-communicators’, like our teaching dogs and other highly skilled dogs, will often perform a head turn every few seconds during a conversation with another dog, it ensures there is no prolonged eye contact but also acts as a sort of doggy punctuation, putting in pauses and breaks.
Here’s a few uses of a head turn in doggy conversations:
1. ‘I’m no threat’ – a head turn is a great way for a dog to signal to another dog, especially a less confident dog, that they mean no harm and either have a friendly, or just a neutral intent. It’s a great ice breaker and the other dog will often respond with a head turn too, it can be the start of a lovely conversation between new friends. You should expect to see a relaxed body and face if a dog is using a head turn in this way.
Here’s Gracie teaching dog using a prolonged headturn to put a very anxious collie puppy at ease by avoiding any direct eye contact.
2. ‘Just’ due to stress- sometimes if dogs are feeling stressed or unable to cope with a situation they will try to avoid interacting by turning their head away. “Lalala I can’t see it”! Dogs using a head turn like this need help to get away from the situation and also help to make them feel more comfortable about whatever is worrying them, it’s a sign that they aren’t coping well. You’d see other signs of tension in the dog too – perhaps a tightness of the mouth, visible whites of their eyes (whale eye), or a wrinkled forehead. They’d usually angle their body away too. A headturn may not indicate a high degree of stress even if it is used as avoidance, a polite and mutual conversation can follow if they other dog offers communication in response that puts the more anxious dog at ease.
3. An invitation!: Head turns can be used as an invitation for another dog to approach and enter their personal space. It’s particularly used in play and can be combined with a high relaxed tail wag. You’d normally see a soft, relaxed body in the dog offering the invitation and you’ll often see a ‘double head turn’ where the head turns to one side and then the other.
A head turn here is used by the collie to invite the Chihuahua to interact and it has the desired result- play!
Here Elsa teaching dog and Rollo lurcher use head turns to instigate play and to give breaks. Head turns are great during play to provide pauses.
When is a head turn not a head turn? If dogs are interacting and the head is turned away but the eyes are still pointed towards the other dog then it can be a bit of a warning sign! It may indicate that the interaction has gone wrong and is edging towards confrontation. It’s probably not the time to hang around and look but if the mouth open or closed is important as the ‘message’ is always stronger if the mouth closed! If the head is turned and the situation is becoming tense then you would normally also see tension along the dogs spine and muscular tension too, perhaps also tension in the face rather than a soft, relaxed face.
Here Gracie teaching dog interacts with a terrier, note the paw lift in response. Gracie’s head is turned away but her nose and eyes are still directed towards the other dog. a good response to this would be a head turn, or even just averting of his eyes, from the terrier.
Have fun watching your dogs!
Laura McAuliffe & Penel Malby 2015.
Part of this article was previously published in Dogs Monthly magazine.