It’s important to learn to read your dog’s body language so that you’re able to help out in situations where it feels fear, anxiety, or stress (FAS).
In this regard, there are a number of stages that your dog will move through on its way toward FAS emotions.
Level 0 – Normal, Relaxed Behaviour
- Ears in a normal position (not tense and facing forward, not strongly pulled backwards)
- Softened face, relaxed eyes (not wide open)
- Tail neutral or lightly wagging
- Friendly facial expression
- Relaxed lips and tongue
Level 2 – Medium Arousal
- Ears lightly pulled back
- Tail hanging down (can still be slightly tense)
- Fidgeting and general nonspecific behaviours, e.g. scratching, sniffling, whimpering, burrowing, chewing on things, chasing sticks
- Enlarged pupils and wide, tense eyes
- Searching for owner
- Freezing, delayed reaction to being spoken to
- Slow to eat food or total cessation of eating
Level 3 – Strong Arousal
- Flight: Ears strongly pulled back, tail tightly pulled under belly, hiding or running away, closed mouth and flews pulled far back, “grinning”, drooling, shaking, enlarged pupils, wide-open eyes, bent torso
- Freeze: Freezing, tail pulled in, shaking, flews pulled back into a “grin”, non-responsive, wide-open eyes, enlarged pupils, bent torso, ears pulled back
- Fight: Snarling/growling, baring teeth, bunched up nose, hair on back of neck stiffing or completely erect, enlarged pupils or narrow eyes, body and ears facing forward (offensive), body and ears facing backward (defensive)
Anything at or above level 2 should be responded to by trying to help your dog out of the stressful situation.
In training, this means that you either change up the exercise so that it’s doable for your dog, or, should you have already reached level 3, stopping training entirely.
Day to day, e.g. at the vet, it can be helpful to take a short break from treatment and e.g. remove your dog from the table. If not, you can instead try continuing and engaging in the process more gently, giving lots of positive reinforcement with food.
If your dog reaches level 3 at the vet, you should continue the treatment on another day if possible, or at least ensure that the team at your local practice are taking the necessary steps towards managing and reducing your dog’s stress.