Body Language and Behavior Signs That Show Fear in Dogs

July 15, 2014

fear WonderBy Laurie Darroch

Since dogs cannot communicate the way humans do, they let us know how they are feeling through body language and their own style of vocalizations. If you learn the cues your dog gives, behavior during situations they see as fearful or threatening may be more easily understood and dealt with.

Barking or Whimpering

Excessive barking or constant whimpering is one way a dog shows fear. What may be misconstrued as the dog misbehaving may merely be an expression of fear at the appearance of a stranger, being in new surroundings, experiencing pain or an injury, or the presence of something new and unknown in their territory. If you help your dog understand that whatever is upsetting them is something you can assist them with, your dog will calm down. Barking and whimpering are not just signs of a dog being territorial, angry or even excited and happy. They may be feeling fearful, and looking to you for reassurance and a solution.

Running Around or Pacing

If you have ever felt anxious about something in your own life, and pacing or walking around seemed to help release some of the tension caused by that fear, that is how a dog feels too. Dogs worry in their own way when they are scared or unsure of a situation. When your dog won’t sit still or paces nervously, pay attention. They may be telling you they are frightened about something. Working together, you can help your four legged companion through the situation.

fear ryanExcessive Panting

Panting and licking their mouth repeatedly can be a sign of fear. For instance, if your dog likes the vet but not the treatments, and wags his tail while also panting excessively on the drive to see the vet, this may tell you that your dog is both excited and nervous or afraid. Reassure your dog with a calm voice and warm physical contact.

You may notice other submissive or fearful behaviors such as ears pressed against their head, yawning nervously, or a normally happy and expressive tail tucked against their body or between their rear legs.

Body Positions

If your dog is crouching, slinking or even flinching and cringing instead of standing up in their normal manner, they may be afraid of something. Dogs are clever animals. If they have misbehaved in any way and know they have, the fear may be of your reaction to whatever they have done wrong. It may also signal you that your dog is trying to tell you they are afraid.

If your dog seems to be avoiding you, that is a clue too. That nice cooked steak that disappeared from the counter the same time your dog  got quiet and went to hide under the bed, will tell you they are now regretting the action and fearful of the repercussions, even if it is just a scolding or time out.
fear lisa

Puppies are real clingers when they are unsure or afraid. As such, it is easier to tell when a puppy is fearful. They are more likely to come running to you on their little wobbly legs for reassurance. A grown, fairly independent dog may be more restrained and hesitant to run to you, and they may exhibit that fear in different ways, but you may notice some odd clinging behavior. For instance, a sick, frightened dog that is experiencing pain may suddenly turn into your shadow, refusing to leave your side.

Change in Appetite

When your normally ravenous dog is turning food away, there may be something physically wrong or they may simply be too afraid and nervous to eat. A dog in a new home or staying at a kennel might be afraid of the new surroundings. Eventually they will eat, but think about how you feel in new or strange situations or if things are going wrong for you. It can put your appetite off. It may do the same for your dog when something is bothering him. Don’t force the meal if your dog does not want it at that moment. You might try offering a favorite CANIDAE treat, a reassuring word or some cuddling.

Dogs communicate feelings in many different ways, and that includes feelings of fear. The more you pay attention to their methods of communication and understand the changes when they occur, the more easily you can work out a solution together to whatever is making your dog nervous or scaring them. Good communication between a dog and their human is a sign of mutual love, respect and trust.

Top photo by WonderDog Rescue
Middle photo by Ryan Basilio
Bottom photo by Lisa L. Wiedmeier

Read more articles by Laurie Darroch

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  1. Christiane Bakker says:

    Hello ,my dog has a big change in her behavior she won’t listen at all and now when we tell her to come inside for instance she cowards down flat on her tummy and won’t get up ,the more we tell her the worse she gets, we have never mistreated her so not sure why this is happening, can you help kind regards Chris

  2. charlotte Williams says:

    Hello, I think my lab is ok but as a first time dog owner I just want to make sure. It’s been very windy and his behaviour has changed, he still gets excited when he sees me and is fine for a while but then he retreats to a corner behind the sofa or stands outside a room he’s never normally interested in. Doesn’t want to play or even take a treat when offered. But comes to bed and stays so close I can’t move lol. But I’m thinking it’s just the wind as it’s the back of a hurricane we have atm. Hope he’s ok

  3. arianna says:

    What does it mean when the dog tail is down or slanted