Is my dog scared even though I think he’s happy? Other than those obviously-overjoyed moments of all-out-love jumping and extreme tail wagging, how do you actually know? Perhaps dogs communicate through some secret canine Morse code, with special signals…
If so, what are they, and how do you intercept and decipher them, Alan Turing-style?
In short, yes, dogs do show us signs when scared. And they can be understood by humans. Let’s uncover how to decode these canine cues.
Is my dog scared? Reading the signs
Ever gone to say hi to a dog only to be on the receiving end of a growl, bark, or bite? Rude, much? As it turns out, not really.
You might have been scared or shocked, but the dog was probably even more startled than you. Which is why they reacted badly. Just like you might if someone jumped out from behind you unexpectedly.
Firstly, you should never pat or say hello to a dog that’s not yours. At least, not without getting permission from the owner first. You don’t know what behavioural issues a dog might have.
Even if they seem friendly or are one of the kindest dog breeds, they may not want a stranger to pat them. And the owner might not want people patting their dogs either.
Having said that, it is possible to interpret a dog’s body language and recognise when they’re showing you fear. Just like a shy or nervous child, certain signs simply mean “leave me alone, I don’t want to say hi right now.”
Here are three things to keep a close eye on.
1. Body language
Human sign language is all about the hands. The face and body come into play too, but our hands have the primary role in communicating.
Obviously, dogs are all paws. So, dogs’ version of sign language uses their entire body. By watching them closely, you can garner a lot of clues about how they’re feeling. It’s important to focus not just on a dog’s facial expression when you want to know how he’s feeling.
When you’re learning how to speak dog take clues from all parts of the body. That includes the back, tail, ears, mouth, and even paws. For instance, a dog can wag his tail but still be unhappy or scared. Or could look relaxed in his mouth but have a stiff, rigid body, indicating tension.
A lot of these body language cues are also signs that a dog might bite. Read our Why Do Dogs Bite? article to find out more about these warning signs.
2. The environment
Although our pawed furkids originally evolved from wolves, at heart they’re just sociable pups. No wonder we say that dogs are women’s best friend. Or a man’s best friend. Ok, even a kid’s best friend.
Despite most of our pets possessing a natural exuberance (which we’re pretty envious of!) they can still be frightened easily. Often by something which seems completely innocuous.
For example, a person with an umbrella, a big dustbin, or even a mop is enough to make a dog scared. When it comes to noises, dogs can hear a sound up to three times stronger than we do. It’s no wonder that they sometimes get spooked at loud, high-pitched, or shrill noises. Think kids crying, people yelling, or even loud TV. These sounds are louder for dogs, and can scare them more than you’d think.
If you’ve ever jumped at a loud noise in the cinema or been jolted out of the peace and quiet by a baby screaming, just imagine how your dog feels.
3. The dog’s breed
Since dogs first became human companions, we’ve bred them for different traits and purposes. So, while you might love your dog for its floppy ears or trainability, these breed-specific traits may provide extra clues to how your dog is feeling.
For instance, dogs may pin their ears back if they’re feeling scared or thinking of biting. This would be clear in a dog like an Alsatian. A Spaniel with long, floppy ears? Much less obvious.
Know that some breeds are naturally more jumpy than others, too. Great Danes, for instance, are quite timid and might be easily scared. The confident Labrador personality means that they’re probably going to be less jumpy in general than some other breeds.
This is another reason why, like we mentioned above, you should always pay attention to a dog’s whole body. If a dog can’t signal that it’s scared with the ears, they’ll use a different cue, like licking or tucking their tail.
Rescue dogs may have a particularly hard time with fear and anxiety. They may be traumatised from previous experiences. If this is the case, they might take a while to feel secure and comfortable around you.
If your dog is a rescue, be generous with your love and time. Dogs are trusting animals; even if their trust has been broken, they want to love and trust again.
What is my dog scared of?
Here’s only some instances in which your dog might get nervous. But remember, this is not an exhaustive list.
- Being left alone: Many dogs suffer from separation anxiety in pets and feel scared when they’re left alone. Usually, they’ll start needing their human after about four hours. Maybe a lunch break visit during the work day is an option if this is your pet?
- Road trips: Travelling with pets means unfamiliar smells, sounds, and sights. Some dogs thrive on this, but your dog might find the sensory overload a bit fear-inducing.
- Loud sounds: Loud sounds can be scary to a dog. Thunder, loud music, or aeroplanes flying overhead are just some examples. Pet safety and fireworks can also be problematic, especially during holidays.
- Vet visits: Ever get nervous about doctor or dentist visits? Well, your pet feels the same! Especially (but not only) if your dog has had a scary experience at the vet before.
- Strangers: Your pup knows that you’re their human. You’re basically part of the family. But if an unknown neighbour, friend or relative arrives, your dog can sometimes be suspicious and scared. What’s an outsider doing trying to join the pack?
- You: Nobody wants to be the reason their dog feels fear, but it’s an unfortunate reality. Sometimes, us humans make a move (so to speak) that unintentionally frighten our pup. In addition, if we’re scared about something, our dogs can often sense it. Our dog kids are finely attuned to our feelings. So if you’re sad, angry, or scared, then your dog might feel this and experience it too.
Signs that your dog is scared
Looking for more signs that your dog is scared? Here’s a helpful list of some habits or behaviours that dogs might display when they’re feeling scared:
- Flattening or pinning ears against their head
- Tucking their tail between their legs
- Licking their lips
- Avoiding eye contact
- Whining and whimpering (which could also mean they’re hurt)
- Growling or barking
- Shaking or trembling
- Raised hackles or fur
- Showing the whites of their eyes
- Destructive behaviour (chewing, barking, aggression, digging)
If you notice any of these behaviours, try to get to the root of what’s making your dog scared.
If these fear-indicating behaviours become a habit rather than an isolated incident, you might need to consult with a professional behaviourist. Helping your dog to feel at ease in different situations and/or spending time training can provide an outlet for tension or anxiety.
You could also chat to your vet about a calming supplement, such as herbal mixes or even a pheromone spray. Pheromone sprays are said to mimic the smell of a mother dog and could help your pooch feel more secure.
Dog fear and anxiety – other underlying causes
If you’re concerned, get your vet to give your pup the once over. A dog who’s pain or ill could feel scared and anxious a lot of the time. If you haven’t already, consider pet insurance which can help cover vet costs and medication.
Is my dog scared? Over to you
Have you learned to recognise any of the giveaway signs that your dog is feeling nervous? Share your top dog tips in the comments.