October is here already and the stores are packed with scarecrows, pumpkins and pies. I’m planning my costume for Bowser’s Boo Bash – are you coming? Greatest costume party in Oregon, for sure, with all benefits to our animals here at WHS!
Halloween can be a lot fun. It’s a tradition rooted in cultural fear but turned into a reason to play for most people. As the Behavior Program Manager at WHS, I often coach people on helping their dogs turn fear into fun, and in this month’s series, I’ll be sharing some tips on how to help your dog.
The first step to understanding your dog’s fear is to see that it is there. It’s time for a quick review of canine body language. Fear is not easily hidden unless a dog has been punished for exhibiting threat behavior, such as growling. Signs of fear in your dog will look like stress and avoidance. An easy way to gauge your dog’s emotional state is to read the BEET: Body Tension, Expression, Ears and Tail.
Pay attention to what “normal” looks like in your dog. See the loose lines along his back? See the wiggly greeting when you come home? See the playful bounce when you toss a toy? Is there a difference when your dog notices the neighbor’s cat? How about when a stranger comes to the door?
Check the topline (spine). Is it tense and straight? Are the body muscles tight? Then look at the overall shift of the body weight. Any shift to put weight on the rear legs is RETREAT – a sure sign of fear. A conflicted dog may rock back and forth, even during lunging, as an approach/retreat mentality. This is also a display fear, as well as a warning that trouble is afoot if space is not yielded.
Dogs have similar expressions to humans, but not as many facial muscles… and usually a lot more hair. Because of this, you might miss the signals your fearful dog is giving. A scared dog will have a worried expression: Furrowed brow, dilated eyes, tight lips.
You may see your dog’s nostrils flaring as she seeks more information (scent). If your dog is holding her breath and glancing around vigilantly, she’s scared.
Since ears vary in shape, position on the head and mobility, there are hundreds of possible images I could share. You have to know what is normal for your own dog before you’ll see what is unusual. Fear generally is shown by quickly moving ears (think hypervigilance) listening for the next clue. Fear can look like full attention, ears pricked forward, intent upon the trigger, or pinned back and terrified. They can alternate – forward, back and forward again.
If they look anything different than when you are cuddling on the couch, tune in. Observe and learn what your dog is paying attention to – then read the rest of her body to gauge the intensity and intent of her focus.
Most people are aware that a scared dog tucks her tail. It’s true, but there’s more. A scared dog might not tuck her tail entirely; she may only clamp down the first few inches. A dog with a tall, straight tail is a confident dog. Tails even with the spine are neutral. Tails lower than the spine are at least worried, perhaps fearful and are sending a “don’t hurt me” message.
A scared dog might still wag. Remember, wagging is not happy. Wagging is arousal. Wagging can be conflict. Reading the arc of the wag is essential to understand how your dog is feeling. A wide sweeping arc (think of the pit bull greeting someone happily, whacking himself in the sides with his own tail) is fantastic. A tight, vibrating arc is not meant to convey sociability. It is high arousal and potentially dangerous. Fearful dogs are protecting their own bodies and you’ll see this displayed in the tension, arc and position of the tail.
Reading your dog’s BEET – Body Tension, Expression, Ears and Tail – in a variety of contexts will help you understand how your dog feels in various environmental contexts. Check out our helpful video playlist to learn more about canine body language.
Remember, very scared dogs are in need of help because if they feel threatened. They may act aggressively to keep themselves safe. In the next three weeks, I’ll teach you some ways to help your scared dog. If you would like specific help for your dog, please reach out to us at Behavior@whs4pets.org. Meanwhile, don’t forget to get online and get your Bowser’s tickets – I do hope to see you there!
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