Recognizing Fearful Body Language

Recognizing Fearful Body Language

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
  • Yawning
  • Scratching
  • Out-of-context grooming
  • Decreased appetite
  • Hypervigilance/Scanning

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

26 Comments

  1. kelly

    I find the topic of body language in dogs, fear and fear aggression very interesting. Thank you for sharing the signs and this important message to those that don’t always know what to look for.

  2. Such a great topic. Knowing your dog is so important since a lot of these behaviours can also mean other things. I find I can tell in my own dog the difference much better than in other dogs.

  3. Rachel

    This is great info so dog parents know what to look for. Thank you! And that would be pretty scary to see the stay puft marshmallow man in your house!

    • Amber

      I’m on the lookout for that costume! I think I’ll have to settle with making a collar and hat for our snowman this year 🙂

  4. Hindy Pearson

    Great post, and such an important topic to share. We’re pretty sure my dog Jack was abused in his previous home, and I always make people aware of his signals and what they mean.

  5. I learned a few years ago that lip licking/yawning was a sign of fear. I don’t think I ever would have figured that out on my own. Now that I know that, I am better able to help calm my dog down when she is anxious.

  6. This is really an important point, fear can look like aggression and be catastrophic for pets in a shelter situation. Recognizing fear aggression can mean the difference between life & death in a shelter, literally! I love your video, I’m telling you I’d be scared **itless by that costume too, BOL!!!
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  7. Great topic. I think as a horse person, it has given me an advantage (I had horses years before I got my first dog). Because horses can have such a drastic fight or flight instinct, I am keenly aware of body language. Having a high-strung Thoroughbred in the 90s equipped me well for working with my highly reactive Doberman today. 🙂

    • Amber

      I’m dying to learn more about horses! I was bitten by a cranky old horse in Mexico and ever since I’ve been a little nervous around them! Even the little wild ponies in the Virginian mountains! I’ve had my eye out for a job in a stable so I can spend some time watching them while I clean.

  8. Hmm Let’s see. . . Oakley does the following, Restlessness and pacing, Vocalizing (whining or barking), Destructive chewing or digging but I attribute all of them to her being a Husky! Of all three of our dogs, she doesn’t seem to have a lot of fear. She does however have anxiety, which I think could be misinterpreted as fear sometimes.

    • Amber

      LOL huskies can be mischievous! I’d say that anxiety is a precursor to fear. I’d just be sure that whatever is making her anxious doesn’t escalate beyond the level it is now. If you’ve been able to pinpoint what makes her anxious, I have some tips in this article about how to counter condition fear and anxiety. Oakley has such a great smile! I’d hate to think of anything keeping her from it!

  9. Great info. Kilo gets very anxious and reactive. Very hard to time removing him and not “rewarding” him. Same with postman- he goes crazy and gets a bit of an adrenalin rush.

  10. This is so important! This should be basic knowledge for every person! I see a lot of people going up to dogs, petting them for dear life while the dog is getting stressed out of his mind! I like to tell people that dogs never plan to bite, but if you, as responsible dog owner, ignore these signs, you (or the person you’re allowing to interact with your dog) will get bitten! Charlie has severe behavioral problems (due to a long and hard life of abuse) and I’m sick of people sneaking up on him, trying to pet him! I don’t allow strangers to pet him, ever! I’m so happy you are raising awareness! Lifting up one paw might look cute, but it’s a sign of stress which might lead to biting incidents! Love, Valerie

    • Amber

      Gremlin is the same way! Unfortunately for the general public, he is crazy cute, so everyone is always trying to pet him. I’ve been considering putting one of those “caution” harnesses on him, but I’m also worried about sending the wrong kind of message while trying to protect him and others. It’s a sticky situation. For now, I just open the convo with, “He isn’t a fan of strangers, so don’t pet him unless he comes to you” 🙂 (He never does LOL!)

      • I have the same issue! I don’t want to send wrong signals.. But sometimes.. When people are really obnoxious, I just tell them: “Be careful, he’s gonna bite” Haha, that’s when they put a step back :D!

  11. Great post. Some people may lack experience with an animal and so not recognise anxiety in a dog. (It’s hard enough in people isn’t it!).

    Recgnising is the first step, and acting on anxiety the second. Thank you for providing an action plan for people to follow. Finding the source of fear might seem obvious but a stressed owner might not think of it as they are too busy worrying!

    • Amber

      Definitely not all yawning! When it feels out of context is when you should be looking around for something that’s making your pet anxious.

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