Just because dogs can't tell us what they're thinking or feeling doesn't mean that they can't communicate with us. Instead of speech, dogs often use body language to give people or other animals clues about how they feel. Appeasement gestures are an example of this type of dog communication.
Types of Appeasement Gestures
There are a number of things dogs do that are considered appeasement gestures. The following are examples of appeasement gestures:
Reason Dogs Use Appeasement Gestures
Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist, came up with the term "calming signals" to refer to the appeasement gestures dogs make. This is a fitting term, as most dogs use this type of body language to calm a situation down. Dogs use appeasement gestures when they are feeling stressed, uncomfortable, or fearful.
Dogs use appeasement gestures such as yawning or lip licking to let a person or another animal know that they come in peace. For instance, a dog who is being approached by another dog may avert his gaze and lick his lips. This lets the other dog know that he has no intention of fighting with him. You may also see your own dog do this if you scold or punish him. The dog is simply trying to communicate that he is no threat to you.
Dogs may also use appeasement gestures, or calming signals, to buy themselves some time. My own dog, Toby, is a good example of this. Whenever I begin training Toby to do something new, the amount of scratching he does makes it seem as if he'd spent the morning rolling in a field of poison ivy. The truth is, however, that Toby gets a little stressed or anxious when it's time to learn something new, a feeling most of us can identify with. When he isn't 100% sure what I'm asking him to do, he uses scratching as a distraction. Once he understands the new command, however, the scratching stops (unless he's actually rolled in a field of poison ivy, which is not out of the realm of possibility when it comes to Toby).
How to Respond to Appeasement Gestures
How you react to a dog's appeasement gestures depends on the situation. In the above example with Toby, the answer was to push right through, using lots of positive reinforcement and a happy tone of voice, until he began to understand what was being asked of him. Once he understands, his anxiety, and thus the appeasement gesture, goes away.
If, however, in addition to the scratching, he began to lick his lips and yawn, it would be a fair assumption that he was feeling a higher level of stress than usual. In this case, it's a good idea to step back from what you're doing, and give the dog a chance to relax.
The same is true in the case of a dog who offers appeasement gestures in the face of scolding or punishment. Continuing to scold will only increase the dog's stress and anxiety, so it's a good idea to take a step back and find a new way to approach the situation rather than risk making your dog afraid of you.
There are also some cases in which anxiety can cause a dog to become aggressive. By no means should you expect that every dog that yawns in the face of a threatening situation is about to bite. You should, however, realize that as a dog's anxiety level builds, so may his feeling for the need to defend himself. If you are approaching a dog you don't know well, and he is offering an appeasement gesture, it's a good idea to back up and give him some time to become more comfortable. This eases the dog's anxiety and keeps you safe from a dog bite at the same time.