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What Dog Fears Look Like

We like to use all kinds of euphemisms to describe our fearful dogs. Shy, reactive, aggressive are common ones, but what exactly does fear look like when it isn’t necessarily obvious that it’s fear?

  • Hiding or getting in your face
  • Going catatonic or going wild
  • Barking or being totally silent

The answer is that it really depends on the dog.

Some dogs will bark and growl and lunge. Others will simply let loose their bladders or bowels. Some even vomit. Some might do any of the above, depending upon the situation.

While there are some classic fear behaviors, some of them are just plain unique.

I’m trying to think of the strangest thing Lilly does… I guess it would have to be the nibbling we’ve been talking about. What kinds of unusual fear behaviors have you seen in dogs?

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

KB - July 7, 2010

My dog K’s oddest one is drooling. When something in the woods freaks her out, she gets a line of drool hanging from her mouth. It used be that bears consistently produced that response. Now, she can sometimes sniff fresh bear scent and not drool – I kind of miss how consistent she used to be because it told me that a bear had been someplace VERY recently.

Her other one, which isn’t really that odd I think, is that her paws sweat, even on the coldest winter days. If K’s been stressed out lately, we get ice dog tracks on the wood walkway leading to our house. She also leaves sweaty dog tracks on the sidewalks in town if she’s stressed out during training class.

Alisa Bowman - July 7, 2010

My dog whines and paces. Eventually if he gets scared enough (like he hears thunder or fireworks) he’ll tuck the tail and retreat to the crate.

A dog trainer told me recently that most dogs will pant when they are nervous. It’s usually the first early sign that something is upsetting them.

    Roxanne Hawn - July 7, 2010

    Yep, Alisa. Panting, lip licking, general fidgeting are all signs a dog is feeling uneasy. Watch the eyes and the mouth too. They tell you a lot about a dog.

Karen Workman - July 7, 2010

Sensi shows the most subtle of signs until someone reaches out to him, then his knee-jerk reaction is to bite. All anyone ever sees is that his tail is wagging (nevermind that it’s held low, wagging quickly in short bursts) and that he wants to “give them kisses” (really, he is licking the air — another weird calming behavior). No one ever seems to notice that his eyes are bulging, his hair is slowly puffing up and his body is incrementally crouching lower and lower to the ground. It’s so strange to me that everyone sees my dog as friendly when he is so, so fearful. They even argue with me, “Are you sure I can’t pet him? He’s wagging his tail and it looks like he wants to give me kisses.” It drives me nuts.

    Roxanne Hawn - July 7, 2010

    I posted a comment much like this earlier this week on Crystal’s Reactive Dog blog, about how Lilly will often show apparent interest in another dog, then snark anyway when the dog accepts what sure looks like an invite to say hello. Crystal wrote a great post about the conflicted nature of these behaviors.

    So, we have a no-visiting rule for other dog when we’re in public. I totally get what you’re saying. To the untrained or unknowing eye, the dog looks one way … when we know otherwise.

AC - July 7, 2010

At home in the yard, Kona will charge a stranger, stop a few feet away and give a little arf. This is sometimes combined with a mini play bow. It’s as though she’s saying, “You’re kind of exciting but you make me nervous.”

Sam - July 7, 2010

Trying to think of weird things Marge does when she’s afraid, but I’m kind of drawing a blank. She does all of the above. Usually, her first reaction is to flee, and then if she can’t get away, she gets all in my face (and even sometimes the face of the offending person, if there is one – like the vet).

In the Pet Agility class I teach at my club, the other teacher noticed that our fearful dog student (who has improved in leaps and bounds!) was afraid to work on the right side of her handler. Not an interesting fear reaction, per se, but a very interesting fear. She TOTALLY shut down when on the right side. I’ve heard of this issue in some dogs switching from obedience to agility, but never actually saw it, and definitely not to this degree. I sent them home with some homework to do..

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