Fear Itself

Last year, on the drive home from our annual vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine, our 11-year-old Brittany, Vinny suddenly and inexplicable 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, Vinny’s eyes were “squinty” and he avoided looking at me as he continued to lick and pant. Mike immediately 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 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. We still are not sure what triggered this odd stress episode in our boy. He has had one (equally perplexing) recurrence since, continues to be healthy and happy, and we continue to monitor him carefully both at home and when he is traveling with us.

Vinny Loves Bar Harbor


Recognizing Stress and Fear

It is 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 signs of stress can be the first signs of illness or injury, attending to these promptly may help us to get our dogs the medical attention that they need 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. We use these perceptions on a daily basis when we interact with other people – family members, friends, and even strangers. Interestingly, while most of us are capable on some level of reading the emotional states of other humans, studies have shown that these abilities vary tremendously among individuals. Similarly, because many share our lives with dogs, it follows that we use these same skills when interpreting the emotions of our canine friends.



Studying Perceptions

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.

Study 1: The first was conducted by researchers in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University in New York (1). 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 5 choices, the videos in the study only showed dogs demonstrating two possible emotions, 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 they felt 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.

Results: Over 2000 people completed the survey and were divided into four dog experience categories based upon their dog ownership and professional histories. These were non-owners, owners, dog professionals with less than 10 years of experience, and professionals with more than 10 years of experience. It was somewhat surprising to find that 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.

Happy Face 3


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, this means that 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 statistic is especially troubling, given the potential dangerous outcome of such mistakes. A person who approaches a dog who they believe to be friendly but who in effect is fearful, 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 people than we are when responding to 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 people. In dogs, this study tells us that dog-related training and experience enhance our tendency to pay attention to dogs’ facial expressions along with their body postures and enhances our ability to correctly perceive fear.

Study 2: 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 dogs (2). This study was conducted by researchers at the University of Pisa in Italy with a group of almost 1200 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.

Results: More than half of the owners (60 %) 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 dog included trembling, whining/crying, excessive barking, and panting. In contrast, very few owners identified more subtle behaviors such as avoiding eye contact, turning away, yawning, nose licking, or yawning as signs of stress in dogs. 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 immediately look for when they are 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 for Dog Folks

These two 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 is happy and relaxed. However, perceptions of fear were strongly correlated to how much prior experience a person has had with dogs. As experience level increased, not only were people more likely to be correct, but they also were more likely to pay attention to a dog’s facial expressions than were 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.

Why it matters: Accurately recognizing fear and stress in dogs is an important skill set to have. 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.

Here at home, Mike and I are still uncertain about what caused Vinny’s acute stress response during our vacation trip. As Vinny has aged he has become somewhat more sound sensitive, 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 will never know. Regardless, I do know that paying attention to all of Vinny’s signs – body language, facial expressions, and eyes, will help me to understand him, care for him, and love him as best we can.

Vinny and Cooper Aunt Betty Pond Run


Cited References

  1. Wan M, Bolger N, Champagne FA. (2012) Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51775. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051775
  2. Mariti C, Gazzano A, Moore JL, Baragli P, Chelli L, Sighieri C. (2012) Perception of dogs’ stress by their owners. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 7:213-219.

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22 thoughts on “Fear Itself

  1. Is it possible Vinny could be having focal point seizures? My standard poodle started having those in later middle age and symptoms were very similar. Out of nowhere he would seem suddenly anxious, wanting to hide or wanting to escape, etc. After a few minutes he would suddenly be fine again. I tried to figure out, did he need to potty, was there some noise going on I wasn’t aware of, etc. Dr. Barb Licht (canine epilepsy specialist) was the one who diagnosed the condition and my vet agreed it was likely. We were eventually able to track trigger to a HW preventative (specifically the dye or flavoring in the meds) and changed meds. That stopped the frequency and while he continued to have the events on and off for the rest of his life, they were mild and few and far between. Hopefully Vinny’s event was a one off, but you may consider looking into focal points as a possible cause if not.


  2. I wonder though whether calling the ’emotion’ stress didn’t affect the identification of the dog’s mood.
    I know that when my dogs are ‘uncertain’ they do show that with ear carriage, body carriage as swell as other things. I never think of this as ‘stress’. It doesn’t last long — they either make up their mind that everything is OK and come greet the new-comer, or they decide that everything is not OK and move away.
    Stress is to me not an emotion, it is a physiological state. Pacing, drooling, loss of appetite, hiding under the furniture, vomiting, skin problems , involuntary urination and diarrhoea indicate real stress.


  3. i had a similar issue with a jrt. we went through the medical stuff with a fine tooth comb. she has always been a sound sensitive dog but there was never a clear correlation. after doing the mri and once again seeing nothing noteworthy we treated as focal point seizure. nothing since unless we have increased storm activity.


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  5. The consistency with human-human studies is certainly interesting. Watching people at both dog parks and shelter play groups we see some interesting variations. Where sometimes a dog (any dog) suddenly gets very upset, with four people immediately focusing on him & two of them standing to see if they need to intervene. But, the majority of the people not noticing anything. I’ve found that, in general, those dog owners who have developed a good bond and communication with their dogs tend to be far more responsive to any subtle changes, at times without being able to identify the exact behavior that alerted them. But, other equally loving dog owners never reach this.

    One question I had is how much of this response is inherit, as opposed to training and experience. Watching a number of people running shelter dog play groups over years I saw some learn and develop over time. However, the few people who had started with good observation and interpretation skills remained far ahead of them in predicting what the dogs were about to do.


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  7. Fascinating article. Thank you!

    My first thought in a dog this age is back spasm. If it happens again, I’d suggest a light to moderate pressure thumb massage along the spine to see if Vinny shows any sensitivity, especially over the lumbar area. It could be some spondylosis is pinching a nerve or a disc is narrowing. First know how Vinny responds to a thumb massage when he’s not fearful.

    And yes, age-related hearing loss. I had an aged pittie that started barking at ‘nothing’.


    • Thanks Jane. Vinny does have some arthritis in his hips, but this was more of an acute response and was almost definitely fear, not pain, as it resolves immediately when he gets out of the car and he does not show any problems with movement. Regardless, I appreciate the input and suggestions and will definitely keep this in mind if we see another episode. Thanks for reading – Linda


  8. Thank you so much not only for the personal anecdotes but also the description of the research. It’s so important for people to learn about dog body language and behaviors.

    One of my dogs has had “mystery fear episodes” that were most likely due to sound sensitivities that at the time I didn’t know she had. (We have been successfully treating them with DS/CC since then.) It is a strange and disturbing experience to come home once a year or so to what is usually a normally happy, friendly dog huddled up and quivering for an undetermined reason (physical was ruled out).

    At the time I had thought that my other dog (who was crated) had given her stinkeye, but now I think it was more likely a sound. Here’s a photo of her from one of those episodes that I hope most people would recognize as a scared dog. http://i2.wp.com/eileenanddogs.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/zani-whale-eye-1.jpg


    • Hi Eileen! Thanks so much for this information about your girl (and for the chuckle…..we use the term “stink eye” with our crew too……in fact, Vinny is known to throw the occasional stink eye towards our new (sometimes annoying) pupster, Alice. 🙂 I too am wondering if this is related to a sound sensitivity; in Vinny’s case, age-related hearing loss. He has gradually been losing his hearing and has also developed storm sensitivity as an older fellow. He rides in the car daily to the park for his walks and for longer trips when we go on weekend trips, and so far we have only seen one more episode. Thanks also for the photo – I too would hope that most people would see your dog’s body signals as fear, but the research is telling us that this might not be so…..

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I just wanted to add that the symptoms described are also classic indicators of pain; given the dog’s age and the fact he’d been crated for a bit, it’s worth pursuing (it could have been something transient, such as a cramped muscle). Needless to say, pain is also stressful! In any event, it’s always wise to rule out a physical cause for unusual behavior.


    • Hi Patty – Thanks. Yes, we definitely did (and continue to) check health issues. My current theory is that it is a sound sensitivity, perhaps occurring when large trucks are near our vehicle (but not sure). Vinny has had some age-related auditory changes (has become thunder sensitive, etc), and so we are wondering if this could lead to his sudden fear/stress response in the car. Thanks for reading and for your comment! Linda


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