Features December 2014 Issue

Know When Your Dog is Scared

The importance of the ability to recognize and interpret the facial expressions and body language displayed by fearful or stressed dogs.

Recently, on the drive home from our annual vacation in Maine, our 11-year-old Brittany, Vinny, suddenly and inexplicably awoke from a sound sleep, and began to tremble, pant, pace, and obsessively lick at the sides of his travel crate. When I crawled back over the seat to find out what was wrong, I observed that Vinny’s eyes were “squinty,” and he avoided looking at me as he continued to lick and pant.

It’s important for dog owners to recognize and respond to signs of stress and fear in our dogs. If we are sensitive to their emotional states and are accurate in our interpretations, we can respond appropriately to situations in which a dog is uncomfortable, stressed, or frightened. Because nonspecific stress-related behaviors can be the first signs of illness or injury, attending to these promptly may help us deliver medical attention to our dogs before conditions worsen or escalate into an emergency.

It is well known that perceiving and understanding the emotions of others is a basic human social skill – and that studies have shown that these abilities vary tremendously among individuals. It follows that those of us who share our lives with dogs display a similar variability in skills when recognizing and interpreting the emotions of our canine friends.

However, until recently, the accuracy of our perceptions of dogs’ emotional states had not been studied. Two research studies examined the cues that we use and our levels of accuracy when we perceive fear and stress in our canine companions.

scared dog body language

The majority of people, owners and non-owners alike, recognize signs that a dog is happy. The less experience with dogs they have, however, the less able they are to recognize and accurately interpret the facial expressions and postures of a stressed or fearful dog.

Signs of Fear in Dogs

The first of these studies was conducted by researchers in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University in New York1. The study team produced a series of video clips of dogs and embedded them in an on-line survey. Participants viewed the videos and then were asked to classify each dog’s emotional state using one of five possible descriptors (angry, fearful, happy, sad, or neutral). The first four of these are called “primary emotions” and were selected because research has supported the existence of these emotions in dogs and other animals.

Although the study participants had five choices, the videos in the study showed dogs demonstrating one of only two expressions: either happiness or fear. All of the videos had been pre-categorized into the two emotion categories by a panel of dog behavior experts prior to the start of the study.

After identifying each dog’s emotion, participants were asked to describe the specific features of the dog that led them to their conclusion. For example, if a person classified a dog as showing happiness, she might say that the dog’s facial expression, ear set, and wagging tail were important features that conveyed this state to her. Last, the participants were asked to rate the level of difficulty that they experienced while attempting to interpret the emotions of each dog and to provide an estimate of overall confidence in their accuracy.

happy dog facial expressions

People who have little experience with dogs tend to use the dog’s tail and posture to gauge the dog’s emotional state. More experienced dog people include the dog’s facial expressions, including eyes, mouth, and ears, in their assessments.

More than 2,000 people completed the survey and were divided into four categories based upon their dog ownership and professional histories: non-owners, dog owners, dog professionals with fewer than 10 years of experience, and professionals with more than 10 years of experience.

The vast majority of people who completed the survey – more than 90 percent – correctly identified happy dogs in the video clips, regardless of the person’s level of dog experience. This means that most people, even those who have never owned a dog, could look at a happy dog and see a happy dog! This is good news.

However, when it came to recognizing fear in dogs, the news was not quite so positive. While more than 70 percent of dog professionals correctly identified the fearful dogs, this proportion dropped to 60 percent of dog owners, and to only 35 percent of non-owners. Put another way, 40 percent of dog owners and 65 percent of non-owners were unable to correctly identify signs of fear and stress in an unfamiliar dog.

Moreover, a substantial number of the non-owners (17 percent, or about one in six people) misclassified a fearful dog as a happy dog!

This latter statistic is especially troubling, given the potential for a dangerous outcome of such mistakes. A person who approaches a fearful dog with the perception that the dog is friendly will, at the very least, increase the dog’s fear and distress, and could potentially cause a defensive response in the dog, leading to a snap or bite.

The features of the dogs that participants used to make their decisions also varied with experience level. A person’s tendency to focus on a dog’s facial features (eyes, mouth, ears) increased significantly along with experience. Inexperienced participants used primarily the dog’s tail and body posture to inform them about the dog’s emotional state. Conversely, more experienced people identified both facial expressions and body postures as important features when assessing a dog.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the results of this study are consistent with studies of human abilities to perceive and interpret the expression of emotions in other people. We are generally more sensitive to and more accurate at interpreting happy facial expressions in other humans than we are when experiencing fearful expressions. Moreover, while social experience seems to have little effect upon our responses to happy faces (we show a proficiency to do this at a very young age), having varied and extensive social experience is an important factor in determining our success at perceiving fear and stress in other humans.

This study tells us that dog-related training and experience enhance our tendency to pay attention to dogs’ facial expressions and body postures, and enhances our ability to correctly perceive fear.

Stress and Your Dog

While the first study provided a general test of how people perceive fear in unfamiliar dogs, the second examined the ability of dog owners to recognize signs of stress in their own dogs2. This Italian study was conducted by researchers at the University of Pisa, with a group of almost 1,200 dog owners recruited through veterinary clinics.
Participants first completed a questionnaire in which they were asked about stress in dogs and its potential health and behavioral consequences. They then identified what they believed to be signs of stress in dogs and estimated the level of stress in their own dog.

More than half of the owners (60 percent) were found to have a clear understanding of what stress is and how it can affect a dog’s emotional state and health. However, about 20 percent of owners (one in five) believed that experiencing stress had no negative physical or emotional consequences on dogs. (In other words, while they agreed that it occurred, they thought it was no big deal.)

The behaviors that owners most frequently identified as reflecting stress in their dogs included trembling, whining/crying, excessive barking, and panting. In contrast, very few owners identified more subtle behaviors, such as avoiding eye contact, turning away, nose licking, or yawning as signs of canine stress.

Those owners who self-reported as being highly concerned with their dog’s stress level were more likely to identify these less obvious signs as important. Overall though, owners tended to miss many of the facial expressions (squinty eyes, avoiding eye contact, changes to ear set, retracted commissures) that most trainers look for when assessing a dog’s stress level.

Like the first study, this suggests that it is these more subtle facial cues of stress and fear that may be missed if a person is only paying attention to the more obvious body posture signs.

Take-Away Points for Dog Folks

These studies provide complementary information about the behavior cues that people pay attention to when attempting to decipher a dog’s emotional state. The first showed that even inexperienced people were able to correctly identify a dog who was feeling happy. However, perceptions of fear were strongly correlated to how much prior experience a person has had with dogs. As experience level increased, people were not only more likely to be correct, but also more likely to pay attention to a dog’s facial expressions, compared with people who did not spend much time with dogs. We also learned that dog owners are more likely to focus attention on their dog’s body posture, vocalizations, and movements than on the more subtle signs of stress that involve a dog’s facial expressions and eyes.

Accurately recognizing fear and stress in dogs is an important skill set to possess. Understanding our own dog’s emotional state allows us to respond by helping him out of situations that cause fear and reducing or eliminating triggers of stress when they are under our control.

For trainers and behaviorists, working with owners who are sensitive to their dog’s stress response promotes the development of a more effective training and management plan. On a societal level we all benefit from a universal understanding of the behaviors, body postures, and facial expressions that convey happiness versus fear or stress in dogs. Correctly interpreting a dog’s behavior is always enhanced by attending to both body posture and facial expressions.

However, interpretation of dogs’ facial expressions may not come naturally to many people. This knowledge emphasizes the importance of teaching the subtleties of canine facial expressions in training classes, behavior-education courses, and bite-prevention programs.

Moreover, the statistic suggesting that one in five owners do not consider the effects of stress in their dogs to be of negative consequence tells us that education is also needed regarding the health and welfare impacts of stress and fear on our dogs’ well-being and quality of life.

Quick Response to Stress Signals

My husband and I are still uncertain about what caused Vinny’s acute stress response during our vacation. As quickly as possible, Mike pulled over to a rest area and we got Vinny out of the car. As soon as he was on the ground and moving about, Vinny relaxed, looked at us calmly, gave each of us a nice Brittany hug, and off we went for a little walk. Perplexed, we thought that maybe he had to eliminate (nope, no urgency there), was feeling carsick (no signs), or had had a bad dream (who knows?). Within less than a minute, our boy was his typical happy self, showing no signs at all of distress. We loaded all of the dogs back into the car and Vinny continued the journey home with no further incident.

Weeks later, Vinny has not had a recurrence and seems¡ healthy and happy, but we continue to monitor him carefully. As Vinny has aged he has become somewhat more sensitive to sounds, which is not unusual in senior dogs. However, even though we responded quickly at the time and he apparently recovered, we did not learn enough from the episode to determine a possible underlying cause. Perhaps we’ll never know. Regardless, I do know that paying attention to all of Vinny’s signs – body language, facial expressions, and eyes – will help us to understand, care for, and love him as best we can.

Linda P. Case, MS, is the owner of AutumnGold Consulting and Dog Training Center in Mahomet, Illinois, where she lives with her four dogs and husband Mike. She is the author of a new book, Dog Food Logic, and many other books and numerous publications on nutrition for dogs and cats. Her blog can be read at thesciencedog.wordpress.com

Comments (1)

A dog's sense of smell is so much more powerful than ours. They are far more aware of our environment on that level than we are. Perhaps Vinny smelled something in an area you were driving through that triggered his fearful response.

Posted by: Jessie | November 19, 2014 11:22 AM    Report this comment

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In