Dog Body Language And Anxiety

A happy dog smiles with his whole body

Hi everybody! Today I want to discuss something that is important to understand for the health and mental well being of our animals. Anxiety in dogs, being able to read a dog's body language, and understanding (and respecting) your own pet's boundaries and limitations. I deal with issues like this on a daily basis, both as a service dog handler working a dog in public, and as an animal rescuer, dealing with pulling animals from shelters either to be rescued, or to have their picture taken for networking.

Rambo is relaxed in his new home

First, it's important to understand what a happy, relaxed dog looks like. A happy dog has a very soft look about him. He isn't stiff, he has relaxed ears, and a soft pant. A happy dog has a happy wagging tail, the kind of tail that wags the whole body of the dog. In the picture of Rambo laying down above, he is laying in a relaxed position, with an easy pant and soft ears. He looks like he is enjoying himself.

Raven LOVES retrieving. You can't help but see that in her body language

When a dog is tapping into his natural instincts, doing what his body is telling him to do, you can see it too. Think about a terrier following the scent of a small critter, a Siberian Husky running in the snow, a herding breed in a meadow full of sheep, or, like Raven above, a retriever playing fetch in a field. Their eyes are lit up in anticipation just at the hint of it, the tail goes at a mile a minute, they spin in circles and may bark in excitement! When working with or training with a dog, if a dog loves to retrieve as an example, just pulling out a tennis ball or a bumper for a quick toss can work as a great reward for a job well done.

When a dog is anxious or fearful, it is a completely different look. In a lot of cases, we may confuse fear as anger or guilt. The look your pet gets if he has an accident on the floor, cowering low to the ground, ears pinned back, with her tail between her legs, isn't a guilty or embarrassed look at what she's done, but a fearful or anxious look as she's scared about what you might do. 

If your dog tears up your shoes or eats your favorite book while you are away, it isn't because he's angry or mad at you. It could be because he is anxious about being left alone (separation anxiety is very common in pets), or could be due to a lack of exercise or attention.
When going into shelters, we see dogs that are showing us all kinds of signals. Even the best of pets, well socialized, healthy, and previously happy can become distraught, fearful, anxious, and scared in a shelter environment. We need to be able to read and assess an animal so that we can protect ourselves and the animal from being hurt, or worse, having the animal escape. In most cases, we don't know much if anything about these animals. Do the dogs know sit, down, stay? And even if they do, do they know the commands in english, or did their previous owner speak another language? 

What does this dog's body language convey?

When approaching a dog, we try to very quickly assess the animal by reading it's body language. Is it exhibiting fearful/avoidance behaviors? Is it hiding under a bed, cowering, trembling, tail tucked between it's legs? These are signs of fear. Aggression presents itself differently, with growling, barking, possibly frozen with a low stance, wide legs, and lowered head. His hackles may be raised (the hair in the center of his back). Some dogs show a submissive state by rolling over onto their bellies. 

It is important to place the dog's behavior in the context of a situation. A dog that has lost it's home and is now in a shelter may act aggressively. Similar behaviors may be exhibited by a dog that is playing a rousing game of tug with you, with a low stance and growling involved. Understanding the scenario can help you assess the intention of the animal.

The shelter is an extreme example to showcase dog behaviors. But these examples are important to help you better understand your own dog, and other dogs that you encounter on a daily basis, perhaps while out walking your dog or taking your dog to a dog park or a pet friendly establishment like a pet food store or a local restaurant. Understanding your own dog's body language is extremely important so you are aware when you dog may become uncomfortable or scared. Being able to recognize that quickly can help you do one of several different things: avoid those situations, redirect your dog's attention, or create a positive training scenario. No one else will have your dogs best interests in mind. Becoming an advocate for your dog, understanding his body language, and knowing his limits  can help avoid issues and danger.

Obedience training creates a great opportunity to build trust and bond with your dog

Group obedience courses are great ways to socialize a dog

Along with being able to read your dog, here are a few other things you can do to help your pet live a happy and healthy life. If you have a puppy, proper socialization in the first 4 months of their life (exposure to lots of different people, sounds, animals, places, etc) can help them become well-adjusted. If you are working with an older pet, you can help by being patient and slowly introducing them to new sights, sounds, and experiences. Lots of supervision and positive rewards like praise, treats or a favorite toy can help a potentially help a dog get over their fears. Obedience training is also extremely important in helping to prevent anxiety. By working with your dog, you are bonding and creating a relationship that is built on trust. In group sessions, your dog will also get to meet other dogs, and the continued training sessions at home become time well spent, dedicated to one on one attention, exercise, and bond building. A well trained dog is easier to redirect when issues may arise. Proper exercise is important. The old adage "a tired dog is a good dog" holds a lot of truth. If a dog is well exercised, it is less likely to resort to destructive behavior like ripping up your shoes or digging holes. 

A well exercised dog is less likely to exhibit destructive behavior

For the last 6 years, we have had the pleasure of working with a service dog. Our family went through a crash course initial training period, learning everything from how to train and work with a dog, to reading the dog's body language, to learning how to protect our dog from dangerous situations. We continue to work and train with our dogs daily. Recently in the news there have been a lot of stories about "fake service dogs". Problems with airlines, states and cities passing new laws to punish people passing off pets as service dogs, and law suits stemming from a stressed out dog acting out in an aggressive manner have all been in the news recently. We have noticed this trend over the last several years. One of the things that we see time and time again with these "fakes" is a dog that is expressing all kinds of tell tale stress signals, and people that are clueless to their dogs body language. The "fake" service dogs are making it harder and harder for people with legitimate service dogs and needs that require a service dog to operate on a daily basis, either by creating a negative experience with a dog in a public place or by negatively interacting or reacting to a real working dog in public.

Raven is happy and relaxed at Disneyland
When a dog is subjected to a stressful situation, it is exhibiting many of the behaviors we have already discussed. There is a certain expectation that the public and business owners have when a service dog comes into their contact. No aggressive behavior, no barking or growling when in a grocery store, no sitting on a table while at a restaurant, no using the middle of a department store as a restroom, and no counter surfing searching for food.  

A well trained service dog should be capable of handling unique scenarios

A 6 foot tall dog proves no issue for Raven
Recently we were at a local amusement park with our service dog. While walking through a gift shop, we happened upon another family that had their service dog with them. One of the members of the family scooped the dog up and hid it under her jacket when it saw Raven. It was snarling and barking and extremely agitated. If that family better understood their dog, they should have known that taking their dog to place surrounded by thousands of people was extremely stressful to that animal. Great care must be taken in both knowing your dog and protecting your dog. We are very cautious when navigating public places with our service dog. In a lot of cases, we are somewhere that people aren't expecting to see a dog. We have to protect our dog from being stepped on, and protect the public from being hurt by tripping over them. We have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in obedience training that has led to a dog that heels on a loose leash by my side, a dog that sits at my side when we stop, that knows how to crawl under a table or bench to lay down out of the way of passerby, and doesn't exhibit any aggressive behavior when approached by any person or animal.

If you understand what may trigger anxiety in your pet, you are better equipped to help your pet. You can avoid situations that may create anxiety. If your dog gets scared by loud noises, you can help create a more comforting home during the 4th of July. If your dog doesn't like large groups of dogs, you can avoid places like the dog park.

In some cases, understanding your dogs threshold and training can help your dog work through anxiety inducing situations. A "threshold" is the point at which a situation or scenario has become so overwhelming it forces a reaction. Over threshold generally means there is undesirable behavior exhibiting. Under threshold means a relaxed, non aggressive/fearful state. For an example, if there is a house you avoid on your evening walks because your dog lunges at the fence as you approach, threshold training may be able to help you slowly build up to being able to walk past the house with no issues. For more info on threshold training see this link. The key to keeping your dog under his threshold is to understand what triggers it, and to either create distance between the trigger and your pet, work on gaining your dogs focus and attention, or redirecting and avoiding the situation.

I hope this post better helps you understand dog body language. In most cases, dogs are telegraphing their feelings, it is up to us to recognize the signs. Here is a downloadable poster to help you recognize the signs.