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IMG_0850Imagine, if you would, a moment in your life that you were anxious, upset, fearful or just leary of what was happening around you. What did you do? Did you bite your lip, lick your lips, or press them together? Perhaps you avoided eye contact with the person who made you uncomfortable, clenched your jaw, wrinkled your brow, or stiffened as the moment became increasingly distressing. Maybe you backed up, turned away, or started sweating. All these are natural responses to stress, fear, anxiety and all of them have corresponding behaviors in our dogs.

 

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When faced with the unknown or the uncomfortable, our dogs will tell us in no uncertain terms that they are stressed. We just need to recognize the signals, both subtle and un, that our dogs display. For example, the puppy at the upper left is telling me that he is uncertain about something. I know this because his mouth is closed, his head is turned away, and I can see the whites of his eyes. The labrador to the right, does not like the camera and tells me this by looking away with wide eyes, ears tucked, a closed mouth, and a veins on the side of his face are enlarged.

Irish Lip licking

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Another sign that your dog may be excited, stressed, or aroused (higher energy and awareness of his surroundings) is lip licking when no food is around, or yawning when he isn’t tired. (Left two pictures).

 

 

Interestingly, even as our dogs smile (as I mentioned last week) so do they also frown! Patricia McConnell, PhD, describes it in For the Love of A Dog,

When humans frown, we move the centers of our eyebrows down and toward each other. Dogs frown, too, and it’s another relatively easy signal to read once you learn to look for it. It’s clear that these are important signals in social communication – in both species the muscles above the eyes are accented, by hair (in our case) and coloration changes (in the case of most dogs).

329034_274672889217492_119922748025841_1041722_1158631897_oIn the case of Roxy (black dog to the right), this was one of the first times that her owners were away and she was getting to know me, as well as trying to figure out what I was doing! Her wrinkled brow tells me that she is not altogether certain that what I am doing, right then, is “okay”. (As an aside, I took her picture and then let her sniff my phone. A few treats also helped to assuage her!)

There are many signals that our dog use to communicate to us that they are uncomfortable, and I have illustrated just a few of the more common ones.  Some others include stiffening, sweaty paw pads, and leaning back or backing away from something. (We humans do these things as well when nervous or leary, though we generally do not sweat through the bottoms of our feet!) You can begin to recognize the way your dog communicates his or her feelings by watching what they do, and what their bodies and faces look like when you know they are experiencing particular emotions such as excitement, uncertainty, or fear. Knowing how to read  your dog’s body language will also help you to know when your dog is asking for your help to better manage the unexpected.

 

 

 

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This picture is in response to the comment by Laura below and is Roxy (the dog immediately above) doing her round head look. In this instance she had not done anything wrong, but I think I might have shouted to one of the other dogs to come and she was right next to me when I raised my voice so the other dogs could hear me across the fenced-in area. She looks guilty (or pitiable) but I really think it was in response to me raising my voice, not anything she had done. It is, however, very cute and is sure to illicit a treat from me every time!

 

Behavior or "What the heck?" Shy dogs Stress: signals, management, & warning signs6 comments

6 Comments
  1. We have observed what we call “roundhead.” (Not to be confused with “cementhead,” which is more about disposition than body language.) They pull their ears down and round the tops of their head and soften their mouths and widen their eyes… usually when they know they’ve done something bad! (Trying to look more pitiable?)

    • Julie Smith says:

      Yes, I have seen that with Roxy, and I have added a picture to the end of the post that I am pretty sure is the look to which you are referring. I am not sure that dogs have the capacity for pre-emptive remorse, I think the look is probably attached more to a feeling of uncertainty or anxiety, and may be more in response to your body language at the time, rather than any self-knowledge of wrong doing.

  2. Great post Julie! And I love the photos which so clearly illustrate your points!

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