Is My Dog Afraid? Decoding Dog Body Language

This pet parent is wondering "is my dog scared" and trying to decode her dog's body language and comfort him.

Is my dog afraid even though I think he’s happy? Other than those joy-demonstrating moments of extreme tail wagging, how can you tell? Perhaps dogs show their fear through some secret dog Morse code, with special signs to look for…

If so, what are they, and how do you decipher them?  

In short, the answer is yes, there are signs. Let’s uncover how to decode these canine cues.

Is my dog afraid: reading the cues

Have you ever gone up to pat a dog only to be barked at, or even bitten? If so, you’ll know how startling this can be. And believe you me, the dog was most likely even more startled than you were. Which is why they reacted like they did.

Firstly, you should never pat a dog that isn’t yours. You never know what behavioural issues they have and, even if they’re one of the kindest dog breeds, they may not want a stranger to pat them.

Having said that, if you pay close attention you can learn how a dog shows you they’re feeling afraid. This also means: leave me alone, I don’t want to say hello right now.

Here are three watchpoints to begin with:

1. Sign language vs body language

Human sign language is all about the hands. But dogs don’t have thumbs, so instead, they rely on their whole body to tell the story. Because of this, 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 look at his whole body. That includes his mouth, eyes, ears, posture, paws, and tail.

2. Consider the context

Although our furry friends have evolved from wolves and still have their fearsome fangs, at heart they’re just sociable pups. Despite this natural exuberance (more apparent in some than others), completely innocuous things can frighten them.

For example, a crying baby or the shrieks of people playing sport can be completely unnerving to your pooch. These high-pitched sounds are louder for dogs and can send mixed signals. Did you know dogs can hear a sound up to three times stronger than we do?

If you’ve ever startled at the loud sounds of kids playing, just imagine how your dog feels.

3. A dog’s breed makes a difference

Since dogs first became our BFF’s we’ve bred them for different traits, like floppy ears, bushy tails and more. So, while you’re learning to read your dog’s signals, remember that it may give extra cues based on its breed.

For instance, when a dog is scared or threatened, it may flatten its ears against its head. But a dog whose ears are permanently floppy won’t cue the same way because it can’t!

You should always pay attention to a dog’s whole body. If it can’t signal with its ears it will signal some other way, like lifting a paw or licking its nose.

What is my dog scared of?

Here’s a short list of scenarios where your dog is likely to feel the heebie-jeebies. There are plenty more where this came from:

  • Being on their own: Dogs can get pet separation anxiety and feel fear when they’re lonely. They’re naturally pack animals and will usually start needing their human after four hours of being apart

  • Road trips: Travelling with pets means new sites, sounds and smells. Your canine counterpart’s senses will be on overdrive. As a result, they may experience anxiety and fear.

  • Loud sounds: Loud sounds like thunder, music or traffic can hurt a dog’s sensitive eardrums, causing real fear. Pet safety and fireworks are also on the watchlist, especially during holidays.

  • Vet visits: A visit to the doctor can make even the bravest human a bit squeamish. So, you can imagine how your dog’s ‘nervous-radar’ may be sending them a loud signal. They’ll be able to feel the anticipation before they even reach the reception area – they just won’t know why.

  • Strangers: Your pooch sees and smells you every day, and you’re part of their pack. So, it’s not surprising that when a member of another pack (like an unknown neighbour, friend or relative) comes barging in, your dog can take fright. Your pooch may well wonder what an outsider is doing in their/your den!

  • You: No one wants to be the cause of fear in their beloved pooch, but this can happen. We can sometimes do things that unintentionally frighten our pup. Further, they can sometimes feel our fear about something. Our pets are finely attuned to our feelings, so when we’re sad, scared, or angry our pets can feel this and often experience fear too.

Rescue dogs can have an even harder time. They may be traumatised from one or more experiences they had before meeting you. As a result, they can take longer to learn your mannerisms or feel secure around you.

If your pooch is a rescue, just give them love and time. Dogs are essentially trusting animals; even if their trust has been broken, they want to learn to feel safe again.

This dog is showing its afraid by flattening his ears against his head and pinching his brows.

Signs that your dog is scared

As you decode your dog’s sign language when wondering ‘is my dog afraid’, note this handy list of things dogs may do to show they feel anxious or afraid:  

  • Flattening ears against their head
  • Tucking their tail between their legs
  • Licking their lips
  • Yawning
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Whining and whimpering (which could also mean they’re hurt)
  • Growling or barking
  • Panting
  • Pacing
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Drooling
  • Raised fur (much like when a cat is scared)
  • Showing the whites of their eyes (unless their eyes are normally like this due to their breed)
  • Toileting outside their litterbox or more frequently than normal (note this can also happen if a dog is feeling sick)
  • Destructive behaviour (think eating lounge furniture, barking at passers-by or undue aggression)

Don’t let any of these behaviours go unchecked. If they become a habit rather than an isolated incident, consider a dog behaviourist or puppy school. Socialising your dog with canine buddies or spending time training can help release excess energy and teach positive responses.

You can also speak to your vet about a natural calming medicine, such as a pheromone spray. Pheromone sprays are said to mimic the smell of a mother dog and help pets to feel secure.

Dog fear and anxiety – other underlying causes

Ask your vet to check that your pup’s behaviour isn’t the result of an underlying wound or illness. If you haven’t already, consider taking out a pet insurance plan beforehand to help cover vet costs and medication.

Depending on which dog insurance plan you choose, with PD Insurance you have the option of a defined annual limit of between $5,000 and $15,000. That way, you can worry about your pup and not your back pocket.

Is my dog afraid? Over to you

Have you learned to recognise the signs your pooch shows when they’re afraid? Share your top dog tips in the comments.

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