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Help for Your Fearful Dog 

                                             Body Language of the Two-Legged   


Shasta, a six-month-old German Shepherd, has come to dislike Saturday evenings. That, she has learned, is when people come to visit. This particular evening, a couple is ensconced on the sofa across from the hearth where Shasta is sitting. The petite blonde keeps her hands folded neatly on her lap as she speaks softly to Shasta’s owner. The woman does not worry Shasta. The man is tall and muscular, wears a baseball cap, and speaks so loudly and gestures so often that one might think he was at an actual ballgame. The man makes Shasta very uneasy. It seems as though he could explode into action at any moment. Shasta keeps a wary eye on him. The couple has brought their five-year-old son—a bundle of restless energy. Each time Shasta begins to relax and lie down, the boy approaches and looms over her, reaches to pat her on the head, or makes strange noises and waves his hands in her face. Finally, Shasta slinks off into another room. Her owner apologizes to the guests, saying, “Shasta’s funny that way. She just seems to take to some people more than others.” 


There is nothing “funny” about Shasta’s behavior. In fact, the way she views strangers is absolutely normal for fearful dogs. Understanding how human body language affects canines and sharing that knowledge with others will enable you to make your dog more comfortable, keep everyone safe, and help your dog to learn that humans aren’t such frightening beasts after all. 


Work That Body! Five Fear-Reducers


The following tips on human body language are appropriate when interacting with any dog, but are especially important when dealing with a fearful dog. Adopting these mannerisms and teaching others who interact with your dog to do so will encourage your dog to become more relaxed around people, and will help to maintain everybody’s safety. 


  1. Let the dog come to you.  If your dog is frightened, she must be allowed to decide whether or not to approach. Don’t keep your dog restrained and force her to accept contact from others. Remember the “fight or flight” response; if you take away the opportunity for flight, your dog’s choices are limited.

  2. Turn to the side.  Facing a dog directly is more confrontational than being turned partially or completely to the side; even turning your head to the side will make a frightened dog feel less anxious. 

  3. No staring, please!  A direct stare is a threat in the animal kingdom (and on New York City subways!). It is perfectly fine to look at your dog; just soften your expression and don’t “hard stare” directly into her eyes. Do not allow children to put their faces near your dog’s face or to stare into her eyes.

  4. Don’t hover.  Leaning over a dog can cause the dog to become afraid and possibly defensive. The one time I was bitten while working in a Los Angeles city animal shelter happened when I went to return an adorable, fluffy white dog to her pen. While putting her on the ground, I inadvertently reached over her equally adorable little pen mate—who jumped up and bit me in the face.

  5. Pet appropriately.  Approaching dogs by patting them on the head is ill advised. Envision the interaction from the dog’s point of view; a palm approaching from above can be alarming. I do the following demonstration with kids to teach them how to pet dogs properly: the child plays the role of the dog. I tell the child that I will pet him in two different ways, and he is to tell me which is nicer. First, I reach my hand slowly toward the child’s cheek and stroke it, smiling and softly saying, “Good dog!” Next, I bring my hand brusquely palm-down on the child’s head repeatedly, while loudly repeating, “Good dog!” Kids almost invariably like the first method better. If dogs could answer for themselves, nine out of ten dogs would vote for the first method as well! It’s not that dogs should never be petted on top of the head, only that head-patting (or petting over the dog’s shoulders, back or rump) should not be used as an initial approach. It is wiser to make a fist, hold it under the dog’s nose and allow her to sniff it, then pet the dog on the chest, moving gradually to the sides of the face and other body parts as the dog is comfortable. (Likewise, a hand moving in quickly to grab for a dog’s collar is more potentially fear-inducing than a hand moving slowly to a dog’s chest, scratching it, then moving up to take hold of the collar.) 

  6. Stoop, don’t swoop.  Small dogs in particular are often swooped down upon when people want to pick them up. Fast, direct, overhead movements are much more frightening than slow, indirect ones. To lift a small dog, crouch down, pet the dog for a moment, then gently slip your hands under her belly and chest, and lift. 

  7. Watch your smile.  While humans interpret a smile as friendly, a dog might not be as fond of seeing your pearly whites. A show of teeth is, after all, a threat in the animal kingdom. A friend of mine once accompanied me to visit the wolves at the rescue center. She patiently sat on the ground, motionless. Finally, a large, black wolf approached to investigate. Unable to contain herself, she broke out in a huge, toothy grin. The wolf darted away as though she had raised a hand to hit him. The lesson? Save the dazzling toothpaste smile for charming your dates and accepting awards. Smile at canines with a closed mouth. 


In an upcoming chapter you will learn how to instruct your guests and what you can do to help your dog become more comfortable with visitors. For now, be aware of your own body language when interacting with your dog and teach others to modify theirs as needed.


Tail End Wrap-Up


Body Language Basics for you and your visitors:


  1. Let your dog make the choice to approach. 

  2. Turning to the side makes dogs feel more comfortable than facing them directly.

  3. Don’t stare.

  4. Don’t hover.

  5. Pet appropriately.

  6. Stoop, don’t swoop, to pick dogs up.

  7. No dazzling toothpaste smiles!

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