The Language of Fear

The face of fear isn't always easy to see. Risa is not a fan of pet stores. Can you see the fear?

I was watching a trainer work with a fearful dog over the weekend and I was a bit disappointed with what I saw. The trainer seemed to zero in on the dog’s tail position as the sole way of determining the dog’s emotional state. This trainer removed the dog’s tail from a tight tuck between the dog’s legs in a way to decrease the fear. However, the trainer totally ignored the rest of the dog’s behavior which clearly stated she was still uncomfortable despite her tail no longer being tucked.

This got me to thinking about how many different ways dogs show fear. Some ways that seem counter-intuitive as well.

(FWIW, I have removed Risa’s tucked tail from between her legs to try and calm her down somewhat. That whole “if you can’t make it, fake it” sort of thing. Though I find it is less effective than actually training a dog to be less fearful in that situation by using a classical conditioning and/or desensitization protocol.)

Tails

Most people recognized a tucked tail as a sign of fear. Especially if the tip of the tail is touching the underbelly! But that’s the extreme version. There are many other, more subtle signs that I think many people overlook.

Risa is extremely fearful of thunderstorms but I rarely see her tuck her tail tightly during them. If you look at her tail closely, however, you can see that the base of her tail is held tight to her body, sometimes with the rest of her tail off to the side slightly. I have also see her with her tail tucked tight to her side (if she’s laying down). I noticed the dog that the aforementioned trainer worked with doing that: laying with the tail at her side but still tucked tightly. While the tail is not between the legs, it is still tense and is a sign that the dog is uncomfortable.

Uncertainty can also be expressed in a stiff, low, quick tail wag. Especially if the wag is more towards the left side of the body. With reactive dogs (whose behaviors are also based in fear), a high tail flag can also signal fearful behavior. (A tail that is ‘flagging’ is a tail held high over the back and usually wagging stiffly.)

Panting

The differences between types of panting. Which Risa looks more comfortable to you? (Thanks to my friend, Tena, for the photo on the right.)

Ahh the doggie version of a smile. Most people see a dog with an open mouth, panting as a relaxed dog. But it’s not quite that simple.

Dogs who pant out of fear do not look the same as dogs who pant out of excitement or excessive heat. Firstly, if it’s not warm at your location and if the dog hasn’t recently been exercised, panting could be a fearful response.

If a pant is based in fear, you’ll often notice the commissures (the corners of the mouth) are pulled back tightly. You may also notice a bit of a wrinkle there (though Risa wrinkles there no matter how she feels). The panting may also be far more rapid than usual and tends to produce excessive saliva. Risa is far more drooly and wet-mouthed when she’s afraid versus after a heavy session of exercise.

Ears

On the left, you can see how tightly pinned back Risa's ears are. She is very uncomfortable. On the right, however, her ears are held back more loosely.

Ear position, like tail position, is a fairly easy way to gain insight into how your dog feels. Most fearful dogs will pin their ears back when they are afraid. There is a visible difference between ears that are simply being held back versus ears that are pinned back. You can see the tension in pinned ears. Depending on the conformation of the dog you’re watching, the ears may even be close to touching when they’re pinned.

There may be some variance as well. If a dog is noise phobic, for example, they may put their ears forward upon hearing the sound and then immediately pin the ears back. Even the ‘alert’ appearance of the ears may differ from a usual alert look. Again, with reactive dogs, the ears may come forward and ‘lock on’ to the stimulus. Remember, reactive dogs often develop a “get him before he gets me” response so their body language becomes more characteristic of a confident or belligerent dog.

Eyes

A relaxed dog often has what is referred to as ‘soft eyes.’ The lids are relaxed and might even be partially closed. Fearful dogs often have very wide open eyes. Their gaze may be unfocused and you may even be able to see the sclera (whites of the eyes) in what’s known as a “whale eye.” Their eyes may also dart back and forth around the room looking for the source of their fear or a good place to run and hide.

Body Posture

Fearful dogs often slink around, crouched low to the ground. You may notice that their spine is curved upwards in the middle with their head and tail held low. Muscles are clenched tight and the body is stiff.

Barking

I've often been told you have less to fear from a barking dog than one who silently stares at you.

A fearful dog’s bark is pretty easy to distinguish. It’s usually a series of rapid-fire, short, staccato barks. Bah-roo-roo-roo-roo-roo-roo!!!

Growling

A growl is a vocal way that a dog let’s you know they’re feeling uncomfortable. It’s designed to increase distance; a way for your dog to say “back off.”

Fight or Flight

When given the choice, most fearful dogs simply run away when they’re scared. But, every dog is different. While one may flee in terror another may decide to confront the fear in the hopes of scaring it away.

Risa is definitely a ‘flight’ dog. She’ll run if given the option. But many of her responses to fearful stimuli represent the ‘fight’ side of the equation as well. With many reactive dogs, they’re placed in situations where flight is not an option. Being on leash or in a confined area eliminates the option of fleeing. So, instead, they use aggressive behaviors to try and increase the distance between them and the scary thing.

Shaking/Sweaty Paws

If it’s not cold out, it’s likely that shaking is fear-related. (Though some small dogs, like Chihuahuas, shake naturally.) Sweaty paw pads can also be sign of extreme fear.

Pulling on the Leash

With a dog who has proper leash-walking behavior, pulling on the leash can be a sign of anxiety. While Risa is far from dragging me down the street when she’s in a new area on leash, I feel a lot more tension on it. Even after giving her a couple reminders to not pull (usually the “be a tree” method), the pulling continues. Because I know it’s anxiety-related, I usually just let it go. As her confidence has increased, the leash pulling has decreased.

This is not an all-inclusive list but does go to show that you really have to take in the entire dog and their behaviors to determine how they feel at that moment. You cannot simply look at one part of their anatomy and determine their inner state of mind. Along with that, we will never truly know what our dogs are thinking and some dogs are easier to read than others. Risa, for example, reads like a well-loved book you’ve turned the pages of more times than you can count. But some dogs read more like a mystery novel!

Listening to your fearful dog is the first step in rehabilitating one. Once they know you’re listening and that they can communicate their fears to you, things go a lot easier.

About Jamie

I'm just a traditionally-trained artist with interests in dog training. I currently teach classes at the local obedience training club (tricks, freestyle, and Rally-FrEe) and I also teach classes professionally for an organization who helps veterans train their own service dogs.
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