Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Five subtle signs of fear in dogs often missed by humans

Everyone thinks they can identify a fearful dog, and they’re partially right. Most people have no problem identifying a dog who is so fearful that he or she is about bite or take flight, but what about identifying fear in your dog before the situation escalates to being dangerous?
This is where most people fall short.
The classic signs of fear that most people know are actually classic signs of intense fear. At this point, you may see a dog whose hackles are raised, body is crouched, tail is tucked, body shivering, ears back, whites of the eyes showing. The problem is, once the dog’s fear has ballooned to such extremes, the dog truly is dangerous. Catching fear when the dog is just beginning to feel fearful is key to reducing the dog’s fear and making the situation safe.

This week, I'll give you five subtle signs most often missed by humans. It's not an exhaustive list, but it's certainly a start. My first two are included here and I'll post one more each day this week.

1) Averting their eyes.
Looking away from whatever is making them uncomfortable is a way for dogs to say, “I’m not threatening you, but I am uncomfortable with you. Please give me some space.”

2) Shifting their body away from source of fear.
Whether it’s a person, another dog or an inanimate object, a dog is sending a very clear sign that he is apprehensive when he shifts his body so that his head is facing away from whatever he is fearful of.
I often see this displayed during “first meets” with a new person, and it almost always follows an eye aversion.
Envision this: You meet a dog. You reach down to scratch the underside of the dog’s neck. The dog avoids eye contact with you. You don’t notice. You sit down to be closer and “make friends” with the dog in that ignorant human manner that we have. The dog doesn’t get up, but does shift it’s body so it’s front paws and head are now facing away from you; it’s back now facing the front of your body.
Most people don’t read this at all, and depending on the dog’s bite threshold, these communications can very well be the only signs you’ll get before that dog turns around and bites you, considering you persist in trying to “make friends” with dog and don’t listen up and give him or her an inch of space and moment of time to acclimate to you in a more dog-mannerly fashion.
Between dogs, you may also see a dog’s body take a half-moon shape (standing broadside, front and back paws slightly more forward than the dog’s torso) upon meeting or even during play. This curvature of the dog’s body tells the other dog a lot of information — I’m stopping here, please stop too, I’m uncomfortable, please keep your space, I’m nervous about you and apprehensive to decrease the social distance between us.
Of course, dogs may also use this posturing with humans, but in my real world experience, I’ve spotted it much more often between dogs than between dogs and humans. Eye aversion and body shifting is more readily used by dogs trying to communicate with humans, in my experience.


  1. Excellent topic Karen! Thank you for writing about an issue that is so relevant to every pet parent. With the warm weather finally here we are all walking our dogs more and encountering new people along the way. Knowing how your dog is feeling in these encounters is so important...

    I look forward to what's next! :)

    All my best,

    Nicole Herr
    Herr Pet Training

  2. Thank you Nicole and Lynn!

    For anyone reading this thread, Nicole and her husband are my favorite local trainers for their excellent knowledge and experience dealing with tough behavioral issues. Check out their training philosophy: http://www.herrpettraining.com/about/training-philosophy/