The Look of Fear

A small black and tan/rust dog is crouched on a green and brown couch. She is leaning away from something (not visible) to her right and looking back in that direction. You can see the whites of her eyes. She looks scared.
Zani is afraid

What happened to little Zani while I was at work one day? Summer was in the crate. Cricket was in the other room. But something had gotten Zani very very worried, and she took a long time to recover.

I have already written about and published many pictures of my feral dog Clara when she was frightened and stressed at the vet’s office.

Now I’m sharing what Zani looks like when she is frightened. But we can only speculate as to what got her that way.

When I first got Zani, she was about one year old, and quite confident for her size and age. She has always had a great temperament and been friendly to all people and dogs.

A small black hound-like dog with tan/rust legs and face is standing on a table, being held in place gently by a human. The young dog looks like a beagle/dachshund cross.
The picture I used on the poster I put up when I found Zani

She spent several months playing with Summer when she first got here, which is no mean feat. Summer is not that playful, and really prefers male dogs. But Zani persisted (which a lot of the time meant she just barked in Summer’s face until she got a reaction).

Also, Summer’s play is not all that “nice.” She has never fought with or bitten Zani that I know of, and I would probably know since I supervise pretty heavily when my dogs are together. However, Summer is a very “doggie” dog. A lot of her behavior reminds me of what I read about with primitive breeds. And her play has an edge to it that just didn’t feel friendly to me.

I consulted my trainer friend a lot, and we kept a sharp eye on things, and there was never a physical mishap.

However, at least two times, Summer appeared to have done something to scare the crap out of Zani, such that Zani was scared even to go near her.  Summer was confined both times, so there was obviously not a physical altercation. I have no earthly idea what happened.

Here is the aftermath of one of those episodes. I came home, and Zani was loose in the den, like I had left her, and Summer was crated. (I never left them loose together.) It seems very clear from what I recorded that Zani was afraid, and that she was specifically afraid and avoidant of Summer (who remained crated throughout the video).

By the way, you’ll see Zani wagging her tail, particularly when I approach her and try to get her to move. But take a good look at the tail wag. It has  characteristics of an appeasement behavior. See if you can specify what makes it different from a happy-go-lucky one. We can talk about it in the comments if you want.

Zani had one other fear episode with Summer, where there had been no physical contact or even a dirty look that I knew of, yet she again acted fearful for a long period afterwards. And interestingly, there was an interaction with Cricket I did witness that triggered a shutdown from Zani. I will be posting about that separately.

Here is a gallery of photos of Zani showing typical signs of fear. Again, sorry they are not higher quality. They do not have the detail that my photos of Clara have, so I didn’t label the notable body language aspects on the photos. But the captions list the main signals. As with the Clara photos, let me know if you would like copies for any presentations or compilations of body language. Click on the photos to view them in a decent size.

You might also like to check out my body language study of Zani in which she is happy and moderately scared all within the same few minutes.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to know if any of the rest of you have ever had a dog show fear for an extended period over an unknown cause.

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

29 thoughts on “The Look of Fear

  1. hi eileen
    just curious about the last part of the video when you’re encouraging zani to walk thru the room — if you weren’t filming do you think you would have gone between her and summer to escort her out? i tend to do that when i think one dog needs a little help getting past a trigger (especially another dog).

    1. Hi Diana, what a nice way to ask that question. Yes, I’m sure I would now. Not sure whether I would have thought of it then. It took me a while to really “get” the reality of Zani’s fears and stress. Escorting and blocking is a great idea.

      1. Diana, you got me thinking about this some more. Knowing Zani a bit better four years later, I think the best thing for me to have done to begin with would have been to leave Zani on the couch and take Summer out of the crate and into another room, and let Zani recover by herself at her own speed. My other two dogs profit from sweet talk and proximity to me, but Zani generally does not. There are exceptions (she did jump into my lap yesterday when a noise scared her!), but most proximity is stressful. So I would stay in the room, speak to her from time to time from across the room, but not approach her and not try to get her to do anything unless it was absolutely necessary. Just like I might with a frightened dog I didn’t know very well. Thanks for always asking good questions.

        1. yeah, for some reason i guess i thought you had a reason to get zani out of the room before taking summer out. of course working on the dog’s terms is always most effective whenever possible. i learned about going between dogs from turid rugaas and i have used it in many situations over the past few years (with my own dogs as well as shelter dogs) and it really works so well, especially when waiting it out isn’t really an option or a wise choice. thanks for such an educational and thought-provoking blog post (as usual) 🙂

          1. I can’t even remember why I was intent on taking her back that direction. Certainly wasn’t the best idea in retrospect.

            I do a lot of blocking with Clara–in both directions. On our outings I get between her and stuff that gets too close. And in the house I frequently get between her and the other dogs to prevent her from doing her bowling ball imitation at them….

  2. regarding the tail wag: do you mean the first time when it’s just the tip moving? or do you mean the second time when it’s low and moving side to side? in any case, i guess i would expect a happy tail wag to be looser, higher, perhaps faster, and more propeller like.

    1. You are such a good observer. I I did mean them both. I just looked back to make sure, and those two different tail wags are in the same order in which they happened. So the first time I spoke to her I only got a tip of the tail wag (and there was a pause of several seconds between my speaking to her and her starting to wag). The second time there was motion side to side, and that wass the time when she has recovered enough to get off the couch.

      Your description of a happy tail wag is right on. The whole thing got me thinking, though. Her tail carriage when she is standing up is very expressive. High and curved when she is aroused and/or excited; a little lower with fast, big magnitude and wagging side to side when she sees a person she likes; low with narrow wags with appeasement, or fully tucked in bigtime fear. (Plenty of others, too.) But it’s hard for me to visualize what a happy wag would look like for her when she’s lying down. I’ll keep watching.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. Excellent video Eileen, it really shows many of the signs that are often overlooked. My Taffy is a bit of a tragic little soul, a friend of mine said she often looks like her world just came apart. When I first got her everyone thought she had been severly abused. You could flatten her to the gound with just a look. However, I know that she was never mistreated, but she had missed a critial mile stone in her early development (mainly socialization to different people). A well respected behaviourist has evaluated her and advised that she is actually a very confident, but people fearful dog. She has come a very long way with much work, but even to this day if someone other than myself (even someone she knows very well and is actually looking for contact with) reaches for her she will cower, freeze, whale eye, short tail wags, lip lick, etc. So, my question is, could this just be muscle memory and an automatic response and not really a true reflexion of what she is feeling? Once either I pick her up and place her in my sisters lap or she picks her up, she instantly relaxes, and is loose and affectionate. Absolutely no stress signs at all. I’m sure that at one point in her life this was a very real fear for her, but it now seems to have become more of a habit. What do you think?

    1. I have no idea whether the response could have become automatic rather than a reflection of her feelings. But it made me think of two things.

      1) Back in Zani’s first year with me I became convinced that she had a fear of plastic plates. I didn’t know if it was the noise on my concrete floor, their shape, or what. But after a training session one day I knocked the plate on the floor to give her the last crumbs and she panicked. I experimented after that to try to figure it out. My teacher was the one that figured it out after I showed her a video. It wasn’t plates per se. It was any object at face level that was approaching too fast.

      2) The very very very very VERY most challenging thing for Clara in her socialization is to be on lying down and have a human walk toward her. There are exactly three people in the world who can do that without prompting a pretty strong reaction from her, and the third person (the others are me and my teacher) can do it only because we have done literally thousands of repetitions of approach, treat, retreat. Starting from a less scary proximity of course and working up oh so slowly. And she is permitted to get up and leave of course. This is but one of many exercises we do. She is much more comfortable coming up and pressing up against this person’s legs for petting, or along around at her side, than she is with the scary approaches.

      Anyway, these examples from very different dogs have impressed upon me just how intense it can be for some dogs to have someone enter their space. Zani will happily sit in my lap, but licks her lips virtually every time I walk toward her, even if I avert my shoulders and head and don’t walk straight on. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Taffy still is truly bothered by the approach part. That seems to be a completely different thing from how it is after the proximity has been achieved.

      Just my speculations. Give your girls a treat or a pet or a sweet hello from me, whatever they prefer!

      1. Interesing observations EIleen. I always wondered if a fear response could just get lodged in the body (the body remembers) and then just become an automatic reponse to the stimui that is similar to the original event. It’s like the muscle memory kicks in before conscious brain. God knows what Zani experienced before you got her. I suspect with Clara is must be due to her being feral???

        1. Yes about Clara. One of these days I must write about that aspect of her. She is just so hard to explain. Zani’s background was not too bad, I think. She was very well socialized I suspect but her people were neglectful in a day to day way (too much crating, no attention after she stopped being a cute little puppy). Probably not abusive. I think she is just naturally very, very sensitive. I’ve known some beagles who act just like her.

  4. My son and DIL had something similar happen with their female lab…..turns out, one of my son’s snakes had escaped months earlier – thought to be long gone – but in fact was living near the kitchen refrigerator and apparently would come out after dark, to drink from the dog’s water bowl. Their dog wouldn’t go to the bottom of the stairs from upstairs, without one of them along…..once the snake was discovered and put safely back in his habitat – normal life resumed for the dog 🙂

  5. The barking all day may be the issue. That can’t be fun to listen to. Did Summer have an accident in the crate? I have a dog with a strong sense of right and wrong and she will look like that and avoid other dogs if they potty inside the house or do something “bad” such as get in the garbage. I would be less concerned with Lani’s

    1. … sorry I didn’t finish… I would be less concerned with Zani’s reaction than with what Summer’s behavior is in the crate that is causing distress to the other dogs.

      1. Yes, agree that is concerning. Glad to say that the video is from several years ago and we haven’t had a repeat, even though Summer was crated every night in my bedroom for the last 18 months before Cricket died.

        Stay tuned for the next video, which shows Zani reacting to a resource guarding snarl from Cricket by “checking out” for more than an hour. Sitting unresponsively. There were three such incidents in Zani’s first year here, where she had a duration reaction to something that scared her. Glad to say also that she seems to have grown up and gotten comfortable enough in the household that this doesn’t happen anymore.

    2. Hi Avery,

      Thanks for the comments. The barking was certainly annoying but it wasn’t ongoing. Cricket was a demand barker, and she only started barking (at me) when I went into that room. She had just started. She didn’t bark much at all when I wasn’t home, knowledge gleaned from my trusty dogcam. So it’s unlikely that it had been going on before I entered the picture.

      Summer hadn’t had an accident in the crate but that’s a good though. Indeed, Zani is fastidious. She would have reacted, but probably not exactly like she did in the movie. She would have made a wide skirt around it, but with more of an “Eww” reaction than an “oh oh” one. How’s that for precise observational language! (OK, to improve on it a tiny bit, Eww for her is physical avoidance: leaning away, walking out of range, perhaps a delicate sniff in that direction, but lacks the stress components such as lip licks.)

  6. My rescue mini Doxie puppy – got him at about 5 mo, now about 1 yo – isn’t solid in his non-potty skills in the house. If I leave my two, puppy JB gets crated, while my older rescue does not, since he is good loose in the house.
    BUT, puppy JB does not settle in the crate, he jumps, paws, scratches and barks until he’s tired, then sleeps, then wakes up to start over again. Punkin older dog stresses while crated as well.
    So, I don’t have a ‘spy’ cam, but from their behavior together when I’ve crated puppy JB for a time out when home to watch them, Punkin dog will fuss about him being in the crate – he was well socialized with dogs and people and likes 24/7/365 close contact with all – and bark at him. JB puppy barks back, and it has turned into quite an aroused frenzy and can get snarly if they are separated for more than a few minutes. Even after JB puppy is released, they are barking and fussing with each other until they both settle. Which luckily, is only a minute or two.
    I now crate JB puppy in the living room in a large crate and baby gate Punkin dog in the bedroom when JB needs a time out or I must go out without both.
    My thought when I read your entry and saw the video, was that maybe Zani had tried to initiate play with Summer through the crate, Summer felt defensive not being able to move about unrestricted, and the ‘play’ turned snarly. Then, I wondered if maybe Zani had gotten afraid because of the intensity of the play gone bad, or maybe even was nipped through the crate wires or even got her paw temporarily caught between the wires, which could have initiated the fear response?
    Simply speculation, fueled by my observation of my own dogs.

    I don’t comment much, but I do enjoy reading your blog, and frequently share on Facebook.

    1. Thanks for commenting, megangiselle! That’s interesting about your dogs. I do agree that crating one dog and leaving another loose in the room can create some problems, depending on the personalities involved. With only three dogs now, Summer and Zani are almost never in the same space when I’m gone, but OTOH I’m not particularly worried about them. The group is much more stable than whenever I’ve had a newish dog.

      If I just absolutely had to guess, I think a snarl from Summer–for whatever reason–may have been involved. As to whether Zani could have elicited it somehow–no clue. Those are some interesting ideas, especially about getting caught.

      When I publish my next in this serious, I’ll be showing Zani’s reaction to a snarl from Cricket, my little dog. That time Zani did elicit it. Zani got in her face, Cricket snarled, and Zani shut down. For like 90 minutes. Why that time, out of all their interactions, when she usually just sassed back, I have no idea.

      I’m glad you commented, and thanks for reading and sharing the blog.

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