What does it mean?
In a general sense, the word appease is associated with a couple of definitions that apply to the canine appeasement discussion:
(1) to please someone or make him or her less angry by giving or saying something desired
(2) to make a pain or a problem less troubling; to bring to a state of peace, quiet or calm.
More specifically, appeasement behaviors in dogs have been defined in an additional two ways:
3) postures and attitudes exhibited by a dog to calm himself or herself and others in situations of potential conflict3
4) signals such as yawning, moving in an arch, lifting a paw, licking the lips, laying down and looking away4 that occur in agonistic encounters and that decrease the probability of the agonistic behavior continuing at the same or
a higher level.
It should be noted that proof of any true appeasing effect is rare,5 and the signals being evaluated are not just of emotional arousal but also the physiological processes that contribute to
the stress response.6 The co-varying patterns of emotional arousal (often called a nonspecific stress response) and physiological responses may
reflect different neurobehavioral responses to stressful or distressing situations.6 (See Table 1 for a list of nonspecific signs of anxiety.)
Table 1: Nonspecific signs of anxiety
Examining behavior patterns
In a study seeking to examine the co-varying patterns of behavioral arousal and stress and its underlying physiology, the
response of dogs to different types of contact with humans was evaluated using 28 client-owned dogs.8 All of the tests were videotaped, and the video was analyzed to measure the frequency and duration of each behavioral response.
Nine different human and dog interactions were performed for 30 seconds each, separated by 60-second rest periods (see Table
Table 2: Behaviors exhibited by humans toward dogs
The dogs' responses were grouped in three categories: redirected and social approach behavior (sniffing or licking the floor
or playing with inanimate objects), displacement activity (yawning, stretching) and appeasement gestures (flicking the tongue,
lifting the paw). Freezing and withdrawing—passive and active behavioral responses to an uncomfortable situation, respectively—were
also noted but not included in the three main categories. The behavioral data were analyzed along with cardiac response data
(heart rate and heart rate variability) obtained from a Polar Systems heart monitor.
Analyzing the results
Appeasement gestures (flicking the tongue, licking the paw) differed statistically in duration and frequency among the sequences
(see Table 2) and were primarily seen during the paw and muzzle test sequences. Displacement activities also differed significantly
among the test sequences and were highest during the shoulder, ground and tail sequences. Dogs showed redirected behavior
for a longer period of time and more frequently if being petted on the shoulder, chest, paw and tail. Heart rate differed
significantly among the test sequences and was highest during the muzzle, neck and collar sequences.
The authors concluded that being petted on the head, shoulder or paw resulted in the dogs' initiating an increasing number
of appeasement gestures and redirected behaviors and engaging in them for longer durations. Simply put—where you choose to
pet a dog matters.
Petting dogs and holding them around the head (neck, muzzle or collar) resulted in an increased standard deviation of normal-to-normal
R-R intervals (SDNN), indicating that both sympathetic and the parasympathetic effects on heart rate were affected by location
of petting. Dogs manipulated in such regions may feel more entrapped and less able to make behavioral choices. Furthermore,
appeasement gestures (lifting a paw, looking or moving away, licking the lips) were positively correlated with heart rate,
some of which might be due to the motor activity involved in these behaviors.
In this case, the appeasement gestures exhibited by these dogs in relation to the SDNN and heart rate measures are more in
line with definition 4 above: signals, such as yawning and licking the lips, may decrease the probability of an agonistic
behavior continuing. However, appeasement gestures also were negatively associated with root mean square of successive heartbeat
interval differences (RMSSD) and RMSSD/SDNN ratio, suggesting that the lower the vagal tone and sympathovagal balance (reduced
vagal tone and balance are thought to be markers of increased stress), the more common the appeasement gestures. If these
gestures are more common when stress levels are higher, definition 3—postures and attitudes exhibited by a dog to calm himself
and others—may be more appropriate. This explanation may especially fit if the change in vagal tone was associated with dogs
tolerating gestures they disliked, as the authors suggest.