Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog


Black dog with brown ears, shot from the back. Ears express alert dog body language

Here’s a little dog body language study.

My dear Zani shows a lot of emotion, which means she is a good dog to observe. She is pretty easy to read and can teach us a lot.

The short video below consists of two quick clips taken less than two minutes apart. In one clip, Zani is afraid, and in the other she is having a good time.

I reversed the order in the video from what happened in real life. We had been on a walk and things were going fine. But a neighbor drove up and backed their car into their driveway. We had to stop and wait, and she started staring at the car like it was a monster. She has never been scared of cars before, but she was then. I don’t know why. There may have been another factor. Anyway, I took the “scared” video immediately after we saw the car. The “happy and engaged” video was from a minute or two before the car came by. I had just filmed her to show a friend what a good time she was having on her walk. Darn.

Body Language Aspects to Observe

Here are some things you can compare between the two clips

  • Head carriage
  • Ear carriage
  • Tail carriage
  • The shape of her back and spine
  • Gait and speed
  • What she is paying attention to

Link to the video for email subscribers.


Her gait and head carriage are a bit abnormal because of her previous spinal cord injury. You can actually see the abnormality more in the “happy” clip.

I have her leash attached to a collar rather than a harness for a combination of reasons I won’t get into here. It’s our best choice for now. I make it my job, not her job, to be sure the leash never gets tight.

The terms “engaged” and “engagement” are often used to mean that a dog is focused on and partnering with her trainer. But in the part of the video where Zani is feeling good, she is engaging with the environment. That’s OK with me. She has been deprived of a lot of outdoor enrichment since her accident. My goals when I take her on a walk these days are to let her smell and otherwise interact with the environment, and to keep her from getting scared. I do reinforce check-ins. Why not have the option of some nice food on a walk as well!

Finally, although she was definitely scared, her response was about a 4 out of 10 on the Zani fear scale. Thank goodness we don’t see those higher numbers often anymore. In this situation, she could still respond to me and move, and willingly walked home with me. She wasn’t trembling. When she gets more severely afraid, she generally trembles and freezes.  For comparison, here’s a photo that’s 9/10 on the fear scale.

black and tan dog showing fearful dog body language

And because I don’t want to end the post with that photo, here’s a cute one of her in the yard.

Small black and tan dog lying in the grass

How does her body language look there?

Feel free to post your observations of the video or any of the photos in the comments.

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

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4 Responses to Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog

  1. Cat says:

    I have a dog who is often anxious/ scared. How do I help her?

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Hi Cat,

      Good for you for wanting to help your dog about this. Check out Debbie Jacobs’ Fearful Dogs website. She has an extremely inexpensive webinar ($4.99) that will get you off to a good start helping your dog. You can join the Fearful Dogs Facebook group after watching the webinar, too. Debbie is simply the best at this. (I don’t have any financial interest here. I’m just telling you about the best resource I know about.) Good luck.

  2. Wendy Martin says:

    Interesting! I have a french bulldog who was crippled from a burst disc, v poor prognosis, but had surgery and recovered amazingly well, just a little bit wonky hind leg movement. She came to us as a rescue while waiting for surgery, 2 years ago.
    She is pretty anxious out walking, unless there are zero dogs (she is snappily reactive if they get too close).
    But I’ve found that once she gets to the freeze, high alert, staring at something stage, she gets stuck – one hind leg trembles, and I suspect there is something wrong when her amygdala fires adrenaline, it doesn’t seem to stop when it turns out it was a false alarm. I give her lower back a zig-zag finger brushing, then say ‘look at me!’…and usually she turns towards me in a spaced-out way, then vigorously shakes it off, and is back to normality.

    I’m hoping gradually it will repair itself though, her rehab is still slowly improving in little details even after 2 years…

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Poor little dear! How lucky she was to end up with you. I hope she continues to get better. It sounds like you find really good ways to help her.

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