The Body Language of Stress and Fear in Dogs
The Importance of Recognizing Fear and Stress in Dogs
As humans, we are used to look for evidence, and often when there is lack of evidence we automatically deduce things, but often our perceptions may be wrong. When it comes to fear in dogs, it is not unusual to hear a dog owner say something such as " oh, don't worry, my dog is fine, you can pet him, see, he is doing just fine" while a dog trainer may see a whole different picture. The fact is, when a dog is stressed or fearful, there are evident and less evident signs of such emotions. The evident ones are pretty easy to spot, they are obvious even to the least experienced eye. The less evident ones are subtle, often barely noticeable, or they may be seen but may not be readily associated with fear or stress. This guide will help you recognize the obvious and less obvious signs of fear.
Why is recognizing subtle signs of fear and stress important? There are many good reasons to learn how to "scan" your dog's emotions. Let's take a look at some:
- Reading your dog for stress and fear plays a crucial role if you ever will need to engage with the help of a profession in a dog behavior modification program.
- Reading your dog is crucial so you can prevent your dog from going over the threshold. To learn more about threshold, you may find this article helpful: "A guide to threshold levels in dogs"
- Reading your dog helps you recognize problems before they become bigger and more difficult to manage.
- Reading your dog gives you a better understanding of your dog's emotions and will help you bond better with your dog.
- Reading your dog helps you avoid putting him in a situation he is not comfortable with.
These are just a few of the many benefits, but there are many more. As seen, it is well worth the effort learning how to recognize these obvious and less obvious signs. However, consider that just as in humans, every dog is different so each dog has its own "language". Your dog may be more likely to manifest one sign, while another dog may be more likely to manifest another, so interpret these signs with a grain of salt; just because your dog is not showing one sign doesn't mean you can automatically deduce he is doing fine, there are many other signs!
What is Fear in Dogs and Why Does it Happen?
Generally, the most evident signs of fear are recognized when the fear is intense enough to create obvious physical manifestations. What is exactly fear? And how does it cause physical manifestations? Fear is an emotion linked to survival; indeed, when an animal deals with a perceived threat, it most likely reacts to move away, hide or fight if confronted or there is no escape route. This basic survival mechanism often stems from a response to a stimulus perceived as frightening, the sensation of pain or danger.
When a dog deals with something perceived as fearful, the flight or fight mechanism is activated which causes several physiological changes. The heart rate accelerates, the muscles become tense, the breathing rate increases, and the blood flows to skeletal muscles as the body is ready to take action. The brain structure responsible for the activation of these reactions is the amygdala which secretes hormones that create a sense of alarm and alertness. The hormones released are: epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. These hormones are therefore responsible for the signs of fear we see in our dogs.
Evident Signs of Fear in Dogs
These are the signs most people readily recognize in their dogs, and therefore, are the most obvious, yet, many people may not recognize them as fear. For instance, several aggressive dogs are often confused for being mean and vicious, when they are simply fearful or stressed.
- Cowering/Moving/Backing Away/ Hiding
These dogs are going to "flight mode" by trying to make themselves look as small as possible, almost as if saying "I am a harmless being, please leave me alone". Typically, they will shrink, with their body carried low, head down, flattened ears and tail between the legs. Often, the dog moves away as it cowers or hides behind the owner's back. It is a myth hard to debunk that a dog that is cowering has a history of being abused. Often, the dog simply is genetically fearful, has not been socialized well during puppy hood, or has learned that cowering keeps him safe so the dog keeps on engaging in this behavior to self-protect himself.
While some dogs go into flight mode by cowering and escaping from the threat, others prefer to go into "fight mode" by acting fearful aggressive. These dogs rather than backing off will move forwards, lunging and possibly barking, showing teeth and growling. They may also try to make themselves look bigger by erecting the fur on their shoulders, keeping the ears forward, keeping the tail up, and puckering the lips. While the cowering dog going into flight mode was saying "I am small, please be nice to me", this dog is saying "I am big and wish to scare you away". This "bluff' behavior is reinforcing since the people or other dogs back off when they see the dog aggressing in this way.
When a dog is scared, you will see them visibly shake as if cold. It is not unusual to see some small dogs shake when they are at the vet's office. Some high-strung dogs are prone to shaking when nervous or scared.
Less Evident Signs of Fear and Stress
There are several subtle signs of fear in dogs. These are signs that are often missed and that often require an attentive eye. Other times, these signs are not perceived as a sign of fear but of something else. Let's take a look at a few of these.
If your dog is yawning, he is likely not tired, but rather trying to release tension. This is one of the several "calming" signals listed in Turrid Rugaas' Book on Calming Signals.
Dogs pant when they are hot, when they are in pain, when they are exercised and when they are scared or tense. If your dog is panting and there is no obvious reason and the context may be frightening or stressful, there s a good chance your dog is stressed.
- Licking lips
The fast lip flicks are the dog's way of saying "I am getting uncomfortable". You see them in many pictures because dogs may be uncomfortable in being photographed or the camera flash may have scared him.
- Whale eyes
This occurs when your dog's white of the eyes show. It is often seen in dogs who turn their heads but want to keep an eye on what is going on as they do this.
- Dilated pupils
This is a physiological response to the flight or fight response. If your dog's pupils become large as pancakes, your dog likely saw or heard something very frightening.
- Leaving sweaty paw prints
Dogs do not sweat from their skin and arm pits as humans do. But they do sweat from the paw pads. Often, you see this when your dog is lifted off the examination table.
- Submissive urination
When you dog is intimidated by your tone of voice or imposing posture, he may pee submissively to tell you "I respect you, I mean no harm". To read more about this read "Dog submissive urination'.
- Anal gland emission
When dogs are particularly scared, their anal glands may excrete a brownish discharge that has a characteristically strong smell of fish. I used to get a good whiff of this smell, when dogs at the vet's office were scared from a procedure. Other dogs that perceive this smell may get nervous too.
- Displacement behaviors
These are out of context behaviors, such a sudden itch, or a sneezing fit taking place when the dog is getting a bit uncomfortable. In training classes, you also may get a dog that suddenly has an urge to drink from the water bowl right when he is asked to do something he is not too comfortable with.
- Refusal to take treats
When your dog is too scared, his appetite will lower and he may be unable to take treats. Yet, some dogs when scared will quickly gulp them down. If you need to do behavior modification, you need to find a distance or way to make the feared stimuli less intimidating so learning can take place.
- Walking in a zig-zag motion
If your dog is scared, he may walk in a zig-zag motion rather than next to you. He may also be sniffing the ground as he tries to calm himself down.
- Scrolling the fur
No, your dog's fur is not wet, in this case, the dog is seen scrolling the fur after something a bit stressful happened. It's as if the dog would scroll the fur so to forget the happening and then move on.
For more information on stress and calming signals you may find this article an interesting read: Dog Calming Signals
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2012 Adrienne Janet Farricelli