If you have a fearful, shy dog, you know how challenging managing this fear can be in a day-to-day context. This is perhaps no where more pronounced than in large city centers (like the one I’m in here in Toronto). Across mammalian species, fear is a normal response generated in response to a threat that can be real or perceived.
While fears that present themselves up-close and personal are relatively easy to acknowledge and even address, perceived fears experienced by our dogs can be difficult to pinpoint and even more difficult to remedy. In terms of best practices for the handling and management of our shy, fearful dogs, there is a way to approach the issue in real time that’s relatively straightforward. It just takes a little practice. Let’s dive in.
We start with learning the language of our dogs. Dogs do communicate with barking, but here we’re going to focus in on the way they communicate with their bodies. It’s a remarkable language and in some ways, quite complex. Without question, learning to read the body language of dogs takes some time, but there are a few cues you can watch for and utilize right away.
Maybe the easiest to spot, the tail of a dog experiencing fear is most often lowered and you might see a low, slow wag. Don’t worry about what’s causing the fear just yet.
In our fearful dogs, the head may be lowered in something that looks like a deliberate dip of the head and extension of the neck. You may also see stress lines appear around the eyes and cheeks, a furrowed brow, and narrowed, blinking eyes. A tight mouth with long lips can often be seen here as well, with a kind of compulsive licking of the lips. Perhaps most commonly but most often missed by us as dog handlers and caregivers – yawning.
When a dog is experiencing extreme, overwhelming fear, the body language signals get quite serious in their implications and potential consequences. A dog in this emotional state will avoid eye contact, and their bodies may tremble in an all-over response that looks like a full body shiver. The tails are tucked deeply between their back legs, they may pant heavily or, alternatively, close their mouths tensely and completely.
If you corner a dog experiencing this level of fear, they may snap in the air in your direction, a behavior designed to get more space by getting you to move away. Here you may get explosive barking, lunging, air snapping, charging, and if the dog cannot get relief and space with these, they may do their utmost to land a proper bite on whatever it is triggering their fear.
How Can We Help?
It’s heartbreaking when we don’t understand and don’t know how to help our fearful, shy dogs. Dogs we love and know are suffering terribly with fear, often on a daily basis. So how can we help them manage, mitigate, and even overcome their fear? Outside of learning how to read the body language of fear so that you can recognize it as it happens and ideally, intervene before it escalates to an extreme, there are a number of steps you can take to get ahead and help your dog.
In my experience working with shy, fearful dogs and their human companions, this may be the hardest part for most of us. We’re busy, we’re trying to pay attention to a thousand things at once, and we ourselves find that we’re often overwhelmed by the demands of daily life. Despite understanding and recognizing all of this, if we can take just a few minutes each day to make note of what is triggering our dogs fear and how that fear is showing up in our dog’s body language we can start to understand the patterns in our daily lives and interactions with our dogs generating the fearful response. You’ll notice elements in this pattern that relate to time-of-day, places (environments), noises, physical events (sudden appearances, arrivals to the home, stranger-danger), and the like.
So why is note-taking important here? Well, having foreknowledge of what triggers your dog ahead of the fearful experience will allow you to anticipate, avoid, and manage your dog’s exposure to their triggers. Understanding like this will allow you to give your dog a break from being constantly triggered in a way that feels outside of your control, and I cannot overstate how important it is to relieve sources of fear, especially extreme fear, for your dog. If we do not address this fear, it escalates across all metrics: severity, longevity, and frequency of the experience. What’s more, it will facilitate getting help for you both. By having this work done before your consultation (with someone like me), or your next visit with your veterinarian, you expedite our ability to do what needs to be done to relieve you both.
This is where my patience and tolerance for dog “professionals” is truly the thinnest. I’ve worked with six-month old puppies whose ‘trainers’ have told their owners to slap a prong or shock collar on them when experiencing fear on walks, effectively punishing those dogs for their emotional experiences. Leash pops, shouting, hitting, exposing your dog to increasingly worsening fear by flooding them through unrelieved exposure to the fearful experience – if anyone ever advises you to do any of the above, run in the other direction. And if you’re interested in saving some canine lives in the process, make sure you leave that ‘business’ with an honest review exposing their practices. We can no longer look the other way when those who purport themselves to be well educated professionals continue to recommend cruel, aversive management techniques with our fearful dogs. The damage these individuals do can take many years to remedy, and in some cases, the damage is permanent. I take solace in the foreknowledge that the science we are now doing on these techniques will soon inform the legal framework we need to ensure these individuals are frozen out of the profession permanently.
Recognize, respect, and address your dog’s needs and boundaries. Some dogs do not appreciate being embraced, kissed, or interacting with children. Maybe your dog doesn’t care much for adolescent dogs and puppies. There’s no need to force the issue. If your dog isn’t having a good time, and you’re pressing them to do what they’re not comfortable with in order to address some idea of what good dogs do, you’re missing the most important part of what it means to love and live with your dog: trust and respect. If you trust and respect both your dog’s boundaries and what they love, they’ll return the favor in ways you can’t imagine.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.