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

6 thoughts on “Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog

    1. 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.

  1. 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…

    1. 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.

  2. Hello Eileen,
    I am finding and browsing your site for the first time, but doing so because I am desperate in the hope you can point me directly to some helpful resources. I recently purchased and enacted Bark Buster’s training but after doing so, find that my little guy is becoming worse and not better. What I mean is that he’s become even more frightened of me than he was before and the objective of the training was to get him to trust me more NOT less.

    He is a Jack Russell mix, rescued from a local dog park (age unknown and background unknown) that I have had since 2011. He is losing his hearing and getting older and will need more care later, and he has begun to bite (twice on hands). It’s breaking my heart that I cannot interact lovingly any longer with him like I used to. We used to romp around a little out in the yard. He came to me without hesitations. When I first rescued him, he would allow me to hold him, sometimes for hours, rocking while cradled in my arms.

    Now, he is visibly wary, hardly ever lets me touch him now without the threat of being bitten (it’s just him and me). So the fear that has developed between us is mutual – not just him.

    I’ve puyrchased 4 books in the past 6 weeks, none have helped. I’ve purchased basket muzzles which I am working with him to learn to wear, which I think willhelp once I can get him to wear it. I have purchased long leather gloves in hopes of starting to work to rebuild some level of affection and touching, but he is still highly wary and snaps at any effort I make to pet him.

    I’m searching daily for good training resources, but my time is already highly constrained and I cannot search forever.
    Could you direct me to good clear articles or resources without me having to search for weeks? I need help now, not weeks from now.
    And do you have a quick answer for this: Can this fear and distrust damage between us be reversed??

    PS: this is my fourth dog over the course of 40 years. I’ve NEVER had one try to bite.

    1. Julie,
      I sincerely apologize for my delay in response. I’m so sorry that this happened to your dog and you.

      Short answer is yes, fear and distrust can often be reversed. Maybe not completely, but sometimes completely. When we’re talking about living individual animals one can’t promise anything. But I hope it helps you to know that there is a specific way to address fear in dogs. It involves humane, planned training.

      I have one go-to resource for this. It’s Debbie Jacobs of Her website has lots of good info, her book is great, and she has a Facebook group:

      The group is public, so anyone can view the posts there. But to join you are asked to view a webinar that costs $4.99. That’s the best $4.99 you can spend if you have a fearful dog.

      Just so you know: I don’t get anything out of this referral except knowing that I’ve directed you to a person and resources that will give you and your dog a good chance of getting through this and back to trust. Debbie also does online consults.

      I’m so sorry this happened with your dog.

      PS Muzzle training is a great idea. Check out the Muzzle Up project. There are ways to help the dog LOVE to get his muzzle on, believe it or not. You can also learn about that in the Fearful Dogs Facebook group.

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