Turid Rugaas, a dog behaviorist from Norway, points out that dogs, as pack animals, have highly-developed ways of avoiding and diffusing conflict and aggression. Dogs therefore use "Calming Signals" to reduce stress for themselves and others they interact with (including humans). Calming signals include: Yawning, looking away, lip-licking, moving slowly, circling, sniffing the ground, becoming "distracted", sitting or lying down. Some of them are also the "appeasement display" behaviors that are developed to turn away aggression and threats of aggression
Head down and sniffing: This dog shows a sudden interest in smells on the ground, indicating that she is not in any way a threat to other dogs or people.
Dogs use calming signals with each other to defuse a stressful situation. These appeasement signals DO have a communicative function to reduce the arousal level of the other dog or calm the dog down:
*turning the head away or averting the eyes
*turning completely away
*sniffing at the ground (very common)
*quick licking of the lips
*freezing in place
*moving excruciatingly slow
*sitting or laying down
*play bow position
My husband and I teach classes at home: puppy training, clicker training, and agility. I have lots of experience watching for "calming signals." I also watch for them while working sheep. Look at the list above again. If you haven't seen any of those behaviors while watching dogs work sheep, then you haven't been watching very closely. :0)
I now have a dog (Yoko) that uses sniffing as a calming signal when on her sheep. Not exactly a signal I'd like her to use, but one I have watched her use. I also see her turn her head away and avert her eyes when confronted. I have seen her freeze in place and I have seen her move excruciatingly slow. How do I handle those signals? I try not to give her a voice of disapproval...just the opposite. I give her a soft, hey, hey, hey, there, there now. I just try to get her thought processes back on the task at hand with a reassuring voice. Sometimes I say nothing.
Sometimes these calming signals work very well for the sheep dog. Kilt is the best pen dog I have ever seen. She turns her head away, averts her eyes, and hugs the fence of the pen. This way there is very little chance of sheep feeling threatened. She has a very calming affect on her stock in the pens. (That's about the only time she has a calming effect on them!)
I watched an open dog at a trial do his outrun and stop short and circle the ground sniffing. The sheep were already putting pressure on him. This dog was trying to avert the pressure and calm himself. Of course, the handler started screaming at the dog. It didn't have a whole lot of affect on the dog. The dog continued sniffing until it was ready to meet the sheep. I know it was frustrating for the handler. You could here it in her screeching voice.
We have all seen "clapping" dogs. Sometimes due to a strong eye; other times due to stress. And, we have all see the dog turn completely away from the stock. It's an interesting subject. It's interesting to watch; just sometimes it's very frustrating to know what to do about it. I think coming down on the dog just brings on more stress. I try to reassure the dog that everything is going to be okay.