Are you able to tell the difference between a happy dog and a nervous dog? Most people can tell if a dog is very upset, but we have found that the more subtle signs often get overlooked. Knowing the first signs that a dog is unsure about something will allow you to resolve the situation before it becomes unmanageable, or the dog reacts out of fear or stress. If you can tell when a dog is uncomfortable, you can keep yourself, your children, and your dog safe. Also, if your dog shows these signs during training, it’s a clue to you that they are either unsure of what you are asking or are trying to tell you that you are making them nervous. Remember, in doggy language direct eye contact and squared off body language mean “You better back off!” – yet that is often how we stand when we’re trying to train!
In the above photo, Sinclair was telling me that I was staring at him with that camera thing a little too much. His ears back and tongue flick says, “you’re making me a little nervous….”. Time to pull out some treats and get him excited about it, instead of focusing so much on getting a good shot!
Here is a great, short write up on some signs of anxiety in dogs. We love Doggone Safe!
Below are two videos I took of one of my clients, Wesley, this week. Wes is a 2 year old boxer mix who is very sensitive to noises. She moved to a more urban area after growing up in quiet countryside. Her owners are very dedicated to making her new situation more comfortable for her – they even put up a huge privacy fence so she would feel more secure in her back yard. Prior to this video, some kids came running and screaming out of a house near us while we were walking. Wes was very nervous about it, so we stopped at a bench to relax and eat some treats until she calmed down.
I took the opportunity to record her so I could point out the signs of stress and nervousness that she shows. At the end, when she relaxes enough to lay down, we continued our walk and she did well.
By themselves, some of these things are normal. Dogs sniff. They yawn when they are tired. But when they are done together, out of context, and with the other body language, they are signs of stress. You always need to look at the whole dog!
This is about 30 minutes later in her own back yard. She is still not entirely recovered, but I wanted to compare her more relaxed body language here. Keep an eye out for a few lingering stress signs. Can you tell the difference?
Why am I feeding treats in the first video? By using food, you can change the emotional response of a dog from scared to relaxed or even happy! Since food is key to survival, animals are hardwired to see things that predict “food is coming” as good. Like, a dog or cat who comes running at the sound of a can opener. They LOVE that noise! So by associating something scary with food, you can in time change the dog’s emotions. What we’re doing in the video is just damage control – you should NOT try and train when a dog is that stressed out. But since she was already upset, we used food to help calm her down.
Here is a great article on using this technique, if you’d like to know more:
And two articles by our favorite trainer and behaviorist, Dr. McConnell:
Practice noticing signs of stress in dogs by not only watching your own dogs, but watching dogs in youtube videos by other people or even trainers. What is the dog trying to tell the person? Are they having fun with that baby crawling all over them? Is the training session fun and comfortable for them? Turn off the sound and just watch – don’t be confused by voice overs telling you how happy the dog is. Decide for yourself!