Ever approached a dog that seemed chill enough only to be growled at? Ever been bitten by your own dog? It’s scary enough when it happens, but what is even more frightening is that you possibly didn’t see it coming at all.
We may think we know our animals, but sometimes their body language can be subtle. Fear is a basic survival instinct and has many forms. Let’s explore them.
A few tips beforehand:
- Read the whole body
While studies find that participants “particularly found the face useful (including ears, eyes, and mouth)”, it is important to take other body parts into consideration, like the tail.
- Read the situation, too
We may not always anticipate a source* of fear for dogs. Human babies and children may seem innocuous to you, but they move suddenly and make loud, high-pitched noises which can frighten a dog.
- Different genes, different signs
How do you read a pair of ears if they’re permanently floppy? Different breeds have different body types, which includes elasticity of skin, length of hair, perk of ears, and pitch of tail. If a genetic trait makes it difficult to tell, look at the other body parts and behaviours.
*Here are a few specific situations that may cause fear
Being left alone – they may think you’re abandoning them, be reluctant to separate from you, experience loneliness or boredom once you’re gone.
Road trips – they may remember past nausea, nasty new noises, not enjoy a new, confined space, or be alarmed by suddenly changing scenery.
Strange sounds – this could be thunder, wind, rain, traffic, fireworks, Christmas carol singers, loud friends, partying neighbours, music, or sounds from animals they don’t know.
Strangers – other dogs, cats, animals, and people can frighten a timid pooch. They’re your best friend, remember, not necessarily everybody else’s!
You – It may surprise you, but your angry mood can trigger anxiety in your dog, and newly adopted doggles might need time to learn to trust you. If they’ve suffered abuse, they may need even more time.
Signs of stress and fear in dogs
The Spruce lists these signs that may indicate fear:
- Flattened ears
- Tail tucked between the hind legs
- Lip licking
- Hackles raised (hair on the back of the neck)
- No eye contact/ looking away
- Frequently scratching themselves (despite your fancy flea treatment)
- Clinging to you (or the owner)
- Loss of control over bowels or bladder
- Submissive urination
- Dilated pupils or seeing the whites of a dog’s eyes (be careful, some breeds’ eyes show the whites normally)
Situation and symptoms
Common at the vet (which includes reception): nose licking, panting, low ears, grooming, crying, and yawning.
Common around fireworks: trembling or shaking, barking, hiding, and seeking out people. Here are ways to reduce the impact of fireworks on your poor pooch’s sense of safety.
How bad is it? Psychology Today notes that the dog may show distressed behaviours in extreme cases, “ranging from pacing and destructive chewing to growling or snapping at individuals who are the source of its fear, or even at its owner or other family members.”
What to do:
- Give the dog some room.
- Give the dog time to get used to a new stimulus.
- Give the dog safe, over-the-counter, anti-anxiety meds like Calmeze™. Always, ask your vet for their advice first.
- Invest in puppy school/ monitored socialisation.
- Consult a qualified animal behaviourist. Punishing fear rarely achieves anything other than creating more fear.
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