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Can you tell when your dog is frightened or fearful? Do you know how to read his body language, stress signals and calming/cutoff signals he exhibits when anxious or scared?
Your dog speaks to you through body language and vocalizations which when understood can help you interpret his emotional states. The most easily recognized fear posture is your dog’s ears and tail. When the ears are flattened against his head and his tail tucked completely under/between his legs, he’s showing extreme fear. If his tail is only slightly lowered and an ear is flicked back, he may only be taking notice of a potential threat. Depending on the breed, these signals may not be as obvious, which is why being aware of your dog’s relaxed postures is so important.
Other areas to watch are his eyes (relaxed or open wide, smaller or elongated, pupils dilated, eyebrows raised and wrinkling), mouth, weight distribution (more heavily over his back or front legs or evenly distributed), tensing of muscles, raised hackles (can be misinterpreted for aggression – can also indicate excitement or fear). Observe the natural position of your dog’s ear, mouth, tail positions and the situations that cause change. Does he whine, whimper, growl, bark, howl, yelp or scream? Notice when he vocalizes and try to determine why.
Dogs also use cutoff signals which tell other dogs to “take a break” preventing certain situations from escalating into conflict. These are social signals your dog uses to convey he is not a threat, to indicate discomfort or because he is stressed. Cutoff signals include yawning, lip-licking, turning away, averting eyes, and scratch and sniff. These signals are not always indicative of the above but may be perfectly natural, for example, yawning may simply indicate he’s tired. Bottom line is that you have to look at the whole picture and learn to recognize what is normal for your dog in various environments.
What can you do to help your stressed, anxious or fearful dog? Minimize his exposure to things you know cause fear or anxiety. Think about nutrition – what are you feeding your dog? The first two ingredients should be meats, preferably whole sources, for example chicken. Does your dog get enough exercise? Exercise is a calming mechanism – it works for dogs the same way it works for us humans. If you can’t give him enough exercise due to work, social obligations, or you just don’t have the time or inclination, there is always doggie day care. Your dog can learn to interact with dogs in a safe environment and get the exercise and mental stimulation he needs to be pleasantly worn out when he gets home. Look closely at the doggie day care center – ensure it offers and has the quality features you want for your dog. Not all are created equal!
Once you learn to read the signals your dog imparts to you, you’ll better understand his needs which will increase the bond between you.