Fear is my favorite subject. When you consider how many problem behaviors stem from fear you’ll realize how important it is to better understand it. The more we know about fear the more we can do to help our animals overcome it. Even for the most rational humans, fear can be debilitating, so it’s no wonder why it can be so hard on our pets.
There are all kinds of body language cues that you can observe in your dog that can help you identify when they are afraid or anxious. Identifying what scares them is the first step toward getting over it.
Fearful Body Language
It’s easy to misinterpret your dog’s behavior especially in situations where they just seem out of sorts. Subtle body language can be difficult to identify at first, but with a little practice, you’ll be an expert.
Subtle fearful or anxious cues are:
- Lip licking/Drooling
- Out-of-context grooming
- Decreased appetite
Once you see them listed, these cues seem not so subtle! Out-of-context grooming can include licking and chewing. If this kind of anxiety goes unchecked, your dog might suffer hair loss and lick granulomas, which are difficult to stop once they get started! Hypervigilance is usually misinterpreted as excitement but is really your dog looking for the danger they sense and more importantly, a way out!
Other cues are much less subtle:
- Restlessness and pacing
- Vocalizing (whining or barking)
- Changes in social behavior
- Hiding/escape attempts
- Destructive chewing or digging
- Physiologic signs
These are much easier to identify for most people. Physiological signs often include trembling, excessive panting and drooling, increased heart rate, inappropriate defecating or urinating, and vomiting.
Hiding and escape attempts can be dangerous if your dog hurts themselves in the process or bolts out of your house (god forbid into traffic).
What You Can Do
Once you recognize one or more of these cues in your dog, you should attempt to find the source of their fear or anxiety. Once you do, you should do your best to remove your dog from the situation, but in a way that doesn’t reward their fear.
Okay, I know. That seems like a tall order. What I mean by that is, since the fear response is the body’s way of removing itself from a threat, if you help your dog remove the threat (by taking it away or removing your dog from the situation – negative reinforcement) the fear response will be strengthened since it was successful. The best thing you can do is distract your dog while removing them from the situation.
Now that you know what scares your dog, you can work on counterconditioning and desensitization. Learn more about counterconditioning here.