It’s pretty easy to recognize intense fear in dogs. A tucked tail, crouching, panting, a tight mouth and wrinkled forehead, shrinking away. But my friend and coauthor Marge Rogers has taught me the importance of seeing the early signs. The whispers, she calls them, that precede the “shouts” that come later if we don’t heed the early warnings.
I caught a “whisper” on camera.
Exploring a Novel Object
The other day, I started taking photos of 18-month-old Lewis as he explored a trailer newly parked in front of the house next door. I’ve been taking Lewis on walks since a couple of months after I got him at the end of December 2021. Lewis is entranced by novelty, as long as he feels safe. That’s a bit of a paradox, maybe, but we usually find the sweet spot. And he investigates things mostly with his nose (no surprise!).
Since I was already photographing “curious Lewis,” I also caught on camera the moment he got nervous about something.
If you look at the photo above alone, there are two things you’ll probably catch: the front paw lift and his weight shift backward, away from the trailer.
After you look at it in context, you’ll see at least two more. Let’s back up to when he felt better about the trailer. The following four photos show him investigating it.
I took all of these photos within the space of one minute as Lewis moved along and around the trailer, exploring it with his nose. I was not giving him treats, as I often would while a dog is interacting with an object for the first time and could benefit from a positive pairing. I had made the call that he was comfortable and that the sniffing itself was likely reinforcing.
Lewis’ Body Language
In all the photos, Lewis’ tail is up and curled, and his ears are in various positions but not flattened against his head, which is what he does when afraid. In the first pair of photos, while he is on the grass, he is standing a little back from the trailer and reaching forward to sniff it. In the second photo, you can see that he is bracing his back legs. In the third and fourth photos, he looks comfortable being close.
Then this happened, also within that same minute.
The most obvious thing is now clear from context: Lewis backed off. He created space between himself and the trailer. The other thing that is obvious when we can compare this photo to the others is that his tail went down to about half-mast. If you didn’t know Lewis and his normal tail carriage and saw this photo by itself, that might be hard to detect.
There are two things the photo caught that I didn’t notice at the time: he was not reaching forward with his head as strongly and he had shifted his weight backward. I didn’t notice because I got busy and gave him a treat, then led him a few steps away from the trailer. He recovered quickly and soon wanted to check out the trailer some more, and we did. He remained comfortable this time. We moved on with our walk after he sniffed it all up.
What Scared Lewis and How Bad Was It?
Of course we wonder: what was Lewis scared of? Once in a while in this situation, I find out later. But I think this time, I’ll never know. The bag sitting in the trailer appeared to be of insulation of some sort; Lewis gave it a couple of good sniffs and moved on. The last thing he sniffed before he backed away appeared to be the edge of the trailer behind the wheel. It’s also possible that the trailer shifted and made a noise, but I’m an auditory person and I usually notice things like that. I’m still betting on odor.
It would be nice to know for the future what bothered him, but in the moment, it didn’t matter. Whatever it is, short of an actual danger, I will do the same things. I’ll pair food or play with the novel object, and if he’s in over his head, I’ll help him get a little farther away from it.
There’s another thing we don’t know. That is whether the whisper was going to turn into a yell. But even with my limited experience, I’ve learned to take every whisper seriously.
I have previously seen Lewis get nervous, then downright scared, while sniffing something. On early walks, he often used to freeze and get “stuck” when that happened, getting more and more upset as he sniffed. That’s why I led him away as I gave him a treat. Taking a dog in public is full of these momentary decisions about how best to support them. Lewis is getting more resilient, so he may not have needed my intervention. But in any case, he bounced back.
Why is it important to learn these more subtle fear-related behaviors? Because we love our dogs. We live with these wonderful creatures of another species. Caring about their welfare means learning what they are saying in their own language. And the more of their body language we learn, the better we can help them to live happy lives.
It’s imperative to perceive the whispers when socializing a puppy or working with a fearful dog. We want to notice before the fear is in full bloom. If we don’t notice early, we risk making them more afraid overall instead of helping them to be comfortable in the world.
Marge Rogers tells a great story about dogs and puppies whispering to us when they are worried. I decided not to replicate it here, since she tells it so much better. I stole her phrase and used it instead! But you can read her version in our book on puppy socialization (page 65 in the paperback).
Lewis went from cautiously curious, to comfortably curious, to worried, all in the space of 60 seconds. I missed some of it, seeing it only later on camera. But I saw enough to offer him a little support just when he needed it.
Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson
9 thoughts on “Just a Whisper: The Early Signs of Fear in Dog Body Language”
Eileen another great post that is helpful to anyone with a dog. The photos make it easier for people to start to understand those very subtle whispers.
When I first saw the first photo, what really stuck out for me was the tension in his face, followed by his rounded back. Look at the other photos, I noticed that those two elements were present in them as well. Based on that and on how far back his hind legs were, I would have thought he was anxious in them as well, not just curious. Sometimes I have the impression that all my reading on canine body language has only helped me describe what’s happening, but has not taught me how to correctly interpret it, much less predict what will happen next in a dog other than my own.
What I also noticed was that the photos imply that he’s not next to you, yet is also not in any way pulling on the leash. Based on your other posts, it sounds like you successfully taught him to walk on a loose leash (rather than to do a loose heel) using positive reinforcement. May I ask how you did that? All the books and YouTube videos I’ve come across either work with primarily negative punishment (standing still when the dog pulls) or with rewarding a dog for basically heeling.
Martin, you may be seeing the nuance better than I. I don’t think he was all that worried, but that may be because I’ve seen so many more degrees of “worried” than this. Another reader pointed out that I had said his ears were relaxed, and they really aren’t. I had said it, though, because they weren’t flat against his head, as they are when he is stressed. So there is room for interpretation! I mostly see how far he has come, but he may not be as close to comfortable as I think.
Ahh, loose leash walking. Well, I lucked out with Lewis. He is so interested in sniffing and exploring that more often than not I want to walk faster than he does, rather than the other way around! But we have indeed worked on walking freely with a loose leash (without a formal heel). I do tons of capturing at my side. I often use part of his breakfast and we just walk around the back yard, off leash, together. I reinforce in position, at my side. We do turns and I try to make it fun, and I’ll trot ahead of him a little so he has to catch up. I also use a trick I learned from a Susan Garrett course: I tap my hip with my treat hand before delivering the treat, creating a visual target of my hip. A reinforcement zone, she calls it.
I have done my share of the negative punishment and penalty yards. I’m not crazy about it, but I might do it for some dogs as an added thing, not the main exercise. With Lewis, my focus has been on his emotional state. He has been nervous, and novel things have scared him. It was important to me to get him out in the world and having a good time rather than enforcing a loose leash, so that was secondary. We have used Leslie McDevitt’s 1 2 3 game for getting past things that might be a little overwhelming, and that works well for us. But it’s true that most of the time the leash is loose, since he goes slowly and I am willing to wait for him.
Thanks for some good points and questions!
This is a great post, Eileen. Indeed, learning to see the ‘whispers” is the key to helping a sensitive dog, as Rowan and the dear departed Habi would attest as well. Catching Henry’s whisper on camera, especially in context with the other photos, was perfect. I already refer students in my “Barking/Lunging Dogs 101” community ed class (a one-night look at the basics of reactivity, plus a ton of local and online resources) to your blog; may I include this post in their suggested reading?
Chris from Boise
Thank you, Chris! And certainly you may include the post! Made my day!
I just recently got a dog. My first pet is called Milky. After she was adopted, Milky spent the first month of his life in the corner of one room, where he lived, slept, peed, and generally observed life. However, she has gradually returned to normal; if she suddenly becomes afraid, her body language would resemble Lewis’. One thing unites all of these dogs: fear is the root cause of all of their behavioral issues. I am aware that it takes dogs a long time to get past their anxieties. How long does it take for your dog to settle down and get back to normal after acting fearfully or aggressively toward a stranger?
Lewis is not afraid of strangers, but when he gets afraid of other things, like a sudden sound or unfamiliar object, it usually goes away pretty fast, unless there has been a whole series of encounters that stack up. On the other hand, it took my dog Clara two years to be able to be comfortable around strangers (who were leaving her alone). So it can really vary. I’m glad you are patient with Milky.
If you ever want to consult with a trainer about Milky (consults can be online), Debbie Jacobs at fearfuldogs.com is an expert on this topic and super helpful.
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