Dog Behavior and You: Part 1 here
Fear. Do you remember the last time you were really, really scared? Maybe it was when you watched a slasher movie. Or maybe you were frightened when your dog began barking loudly at the door in the middle of the night. What did that fear feel like? Your stomach probably tightened up, your breathing sped up, and your heart raced. But there were other reactions you probably didn’t notice – your pupils dilated, adrenaline coursed through your bloodstream, and the circulation to your vital organs increased.
These physical reactions are the result of your body preparing for fight or flight. This is a response that has evolved over time as a method of survival. All animals experience this, including your dog. It is important that you learn to recognize when your dog is scared, as this will make him act in ways he normally wouldn’t. A scared dog is more likely to bite you or your children, even if he is not normally aggressive.
Consider Jake, one of the most easy-going dogs you’d ever meet. He doesn’t even react when food is taken from him. His one flaw is that he is scared of children. His owners think he was abused by a child when he was just a pup. One day when Jake was sleeping, a child came to his home to visit. As soon as Jake heard the small voice, he jumped to his feet and hid behind the couch. Wendy, his owner, tried to get him to come out from his hiding place, but he bit her hand, something he had never even hinted at before. He didn’t even growl first as a warning, just lashed out and bit her.
The first sign that your dog is experiencing fear is that his tail will go between his legs. If you’ve never seen it, the behavior is quite distinctive. It is more than just an absence of wagging, the tail is actually tucked under the body. It almost looks like it would be painful, as it is such an unnatural position. You are so used to seeing your dog with his tail up and wagging, it almost looks comical to see it held firmly underneath.
For most dogs, the fight or flight reaction tends towards the flight side. They will try to escape from the thing that is scaring them. They may back slowly away or they may turn and run as fast as they can, but escaping is generally their first choice. Looking for a safe haven, they may go to their bed or crate or another place where they feel protected. They will often try to fit into places too small for them, such as behind your furniture, under your bed, or even behind you!
If you look closely at a scared dog, you may notice that his pupils are dilated. This is difficult to see in most dogs, as their eyes are so dark, and you really don’t want to get close enough to check while the dog is agitated. The reason for pupil dilation is the same in dogs as it is in people; it allows us to see more acutely. When any animal is scared, he needs to see more clearly to identify escape routes and to identify any further threats that may occur. Dilation of the pupils allows more information to reach the brain, which may prevent the animal from being hurt or killed.
Another characteristic of a scared dog’s eyes is that he will turn them to the side so that the whites of his eyes show. Referred to as “whale eyes”, this action allows the dog to see the threat while not confronting it. To a dog, eye contact means dominance. If a dog is afraid, he is acknowledging the dominance of whatever it is that is scaring him. The last thing he wants to do is challenge that thing by asserting his own dominance.
Dogs may or may not bark when they are scared. Although he does not want to challenge the evil, scary thing, he does want to keep it away from him. He also may want to warn other people of the impending danger. Barking is especially likely when the dog is cornered or can’t get away from the danger because of a fence or chain. If the dog cannot get away from the thing that is scaring him, the next best thing is to keep it away from him.
Another tactic the dog uses to keep scary things away is to raise his hackles, the fur along his spine. Raised hackles are easiest to see between the shoulder blades, and to some extent at the base of the tail. This behavior can indicate a number of different things, all associated with a heightened sense of excitement. Much as a person might get goose bumps, a dog raises his hackles when he having an emotional response to something. This may be fear, distress, aggression, or general excitement.
Your dog’s posture will also indicate his level of comfort. If the dog is confident, he will walk with his head held high, his limbs loose. A fearful dog, on the other hand, will walk lower to the ground, holding himself stiffly. You will notice your dog looks almost as if he is taking two steps forward and one step back. The dog is usually curious enough to want to draw nearer, but scared enough to do it very slowly. This stiffness of movement also contributes to whale eyes. The dog does not want to turn his head to face the threat, so he will turn just his eyes, allowing you to see the whites.
Pay attention to your dog’s lips when you suspect he might be frightened. Like pupil dilation, the shape of the mouth may be difficult for you to see. A frightened dog will pull the corners of his lips back, not necessarily exposing his teeth as he would when he is angry, but enough to stretch his lips out so they appear to be thinner.
The last indicator of fear is the way the dog holds his ears. This is easiest to see in dogs with ears that stand up normally, rather than in hounds, but the principle is the same. A scared dog will slick his ears back against his head. While an uncertain dog will lay his ears back, then release them to a normal position, a truly fearful dog will keep his ears pinned back until he feels safe again.
It is important as you try to read your dog’s signals that you look at the whole picture, as well as the context of the situation in which you find him. When someone or something is threatening your dog, everything about the animal points backwards. Lips and ears are back, the tail is underneath, backwards from its normal state. The dog even holds himself back, in a posture that indicates retreat. A relaxed dog is pretty easy to read, and you should attempt to keep your dog in this state as much as possible. However, when your dog begins to exhibit signs of fear, it is time to get him out of the situation as quickly as possible, both for his safety and for your own.
If it is not possible to remove your dog from the situation, such as when you are visiting the vet’s office, speak calmly and softly to your dog. Pet him gently, but be sure to keep your hands away from his mouth. Remember Jake, who never threatened anyone, but turned on his own best friend when he was afraid. Reassure him by the tone of your voice and the touch of your hand. He may not get over his fear, but he’ll feel calmer for your efforts.
Be sure to look at the first installment of this series to read about how your dog looks when he is confident, and spend some time observing your dog to learn how his emotions and moods affect his body language. Next time, we’ll talk about aggressive dogs and how to protect yourself when you see one.
Dog Behavior and You: Part 1 here
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