If you live with a dog, you have probably noticed that they express themselves using body language.
However, do you know what all the different body postures mean?
Unfortunately, a majority of people do not understand when their dog is anxious or fearful. Sadly, these fearful dogs often get mislabeled as “aggressive”, “stubborn” or “dominate” and the resulting training these mislabeled dogs receive can often do more harm than good. Therefore identifying stress and anxiety is important.
The initial signs of distress are equivalent to a human saying “I am not sure about this situation”. The discomfort can be as simple as the dog is in a new place or is meeting a new person.
Signs That Your Dog Is Mildly Anxious or Fearful:
- Yawning even though he is not tired
- Panting when he is not hot
- Drooling when there is no food
- Not wanting to eat a tasty treat
- Shedding hair all at once
- Looking away or avoiding a situation
In many cases, a dog can become comfortable in the situation if they are allowed to explore and are not forced to interact right away. But if we ignore these signs, the dog may be forced to exhibit more extreme body language to express his discomfort in the situation.
Signs That Your Dog Is Moderately Anxious or Fearful:
- Ears folded back against head
- A low growl
- Slight snarl or lip curl
- Wide eyes with a “hard” stare
These signs are often expressed when the mild signs of anxiety are being ignored. We can translate these signs as the dog saying “Please leave me alone, I am really worried about this situation”. If we respect the dog’s fear and give them space they will often relax and we can work through the situation. But if we continue to force the dog to stay in the uncomfortable situation, the behavior may escalate even more.
Signs That Your Dog Is Extremely Anxious or Fearful:
- Barking at a person or object
- Lunging toward a person or object
- Frozen in place, not responding to anyone or anything
- Running away from a situation or object
When a dog gets to this level of fear or anxiety, he or she often finds himself in “survival mode”. When they reach this level of fear, they are no longer “thinking.” They are just reacting with natural instinct. This is also known as the “fight, flight or freeze” behavior. If a dog gets to this level, he or she is extremely anxious or afraid.
In “fight” mode a dog may bark, growl or snap in attempt to ward off the perceived danger. In “flight” mode the dog may attempt to hide or run away. Finally, in “freeze” mode the dog may shut down and become generally unresponsive.
To understand this level of fear, imagine that you were being chased by a hungry lion. If you were being chased by a lion, your only thoughts would be about survival.
If we have not been paying attention to the previous stress behaviors, it is easy to misinterpret these fear based behaviors. A dog may bark and lunge when they are in “fight” mode out of fear, but an inattentive handler may mistakenly label the dog as “aggressive” or “dominate”. If the dog freezes shutting down and becoming unresponsive, a handler may mislabel the dog as being “stubborn”.
But once the dog is in “survival mode”, no learning can happen. Therefore, attempting to train a “stubborn” dog that is actually frozen from fear will be ineffective. Moreover, continuing to keep the dog in the fearful situation may do more long term harm than good.
When we properly understand our dogs’ body language, we can begin working with anxious and fearful dogs when they are only mildly or moderately anxious. This understanding is the first step in learning to train them with empathy and compassion.
Shannon has been a pet lover all her life and a dog trainer for over 20 years. She has spent her life observing, caring for and training animals of all kinds. She has worked in the Bird Department at Marine World Africa USA, and worked as an handler and trainer for an African Serval Cat at Safari West, a private zoo in Santa Rosa, California. She has participated in behavior studies including observations of bald eagles and addax antelope through the San Francisco Zoo and Safari West.
Her education includes a Biology Degree, specializing in Zoology from Sonoma State. She is a Registered Veterinary Technician, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (Knowledge Assessed), a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.
Shannon is currently serving as President for the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians.
Shannon’s dog training philosophy revolves around force free, positive reinforcement, however, her ultimate goal is for healthy happy relationship between pets and their people. Diet, exercise, environment and training all play a significant role in achieving this goal.
Shannon is currently the owner of Ventura Pet Wellness and Dog Training Center in Ventura, CA where she works with anxious and fearful dogs privately as well as teaching agility classes (Venturapetwellness.com). Shannon has also started a training website called Truly Force Free Animal Training (trulyforcefree.com).