Whenever I encounter an extremely fearful dog (like Lily when she arrived here) or visit a public ‘shelter’ in a country where there’s little or no social responsibility for dogs and animal welfare is not strictly monitored, I think about the book ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad. And the words: ‘the horror! the horror!’ ring in my ears (you might know it from the film ‘Apocalypse Now’, which captures the atmosphere rather well).
I am biased. Fear, anxiety, stress. My biggest concern and my greatest enemies. I believe most, if not all, behavioural problems in dogs stem from them (though I am biased. I might be wrong).
Fear smells. Not only for dogs, we can also smell it, even if we can’t name the smell. Obviously, the powerful scent-processing machines that dogs are, they identify even tiny particles of it (so yes, they do know when someone is scared of them). In dogs, the rotten fish/ decaying flesh smell of fear is emitted mainly from their anal sacks (glands). It’s also individual for each dog – but I doubt we’re sensitive enough to notice. Ardbeg was called Ardbeg as my sister, when she met him on his first day with me commented he smelled like my favourite whisky. She was wrong, of course, the only element linking both scents was the fishiness (pleasant in whisky, not so much in Ardbeg, the dog). But the name stuck as Ardbeg was an acquired taste.
There are also other, very clear signals of fear (or stress or anxiety) in a dog. The eyes might be dilated or glazed over, the whites visible, the mucus membranes might turn red, the dog might be squinting or blinking a lot, avoiding the source of stress or staring directly at it (less common). The posture might be stiff or cowering, the dog hides, turns away or buries his head, stretching or walking on stiff legs. The tail position is different from usual (and it’s not just tucking the tail between the legs, some dogs hold the tail higher than they normally do, or even wag it slowly). The dog’s face expression is telling, too: the brow can be furrowed, ears are uneven, sometimes up (aroused) but usually plastered to the sides of the head. Fearful dogs lick their lips a lot, yawn and pant (sometimes panting is unnaturally shallow), their whiskers can be pricked forward or glued to the muzzle (neither is the natural position), their tongue is ‘velvet’ (self-explanatory, really). Some drool, some curl lips and snarl, some sweat, leaving wet paw-prints. There are quite obvious signs in their behaviour, too: trembling, scratching themselves, walking in circle or spinning, nervous chewing at anything (themselves included), trying to escape or hide. Many dogs fart, urinate or defecate when they are extremely stressed. Some look aroused but many look lethargic. The point is: when you know your dog it really isn’t difficult to see something is wrong. We just need to pay attention. Look at your dog, notice him, examine the details. For most people the sense of sight is dominant and yet it’s often dogs who are better observers (even if their sight is in many ways inferior to our). Listen to your dog (the panting, whining, yelping, growling are all perfectly audible). Smell your dog. Have you ever thought about how your dog smells? I love the smell of my dogs, Ardbeg’s was more masculine, earthy, tired-paws and harder skin. Lily smells more delicate, softer, slightly younger and fresher, of various proteins (lanolin – like). Or she smells of fox wee, her favourite perfume.
My point is: dogs communicate how they feel and what they want (or not). We expect them to understand our behaviour and our world and they do their best to do it. I have serious issues with fear/stress/anxiety in dogs and I wish people learnt to recognise it. Even if that was the only thing we interpret correctly.
Fortunately- to paraphrase Al Pacino a.k.a. Carlito Brigante (‘Carlito’s Way’ originally said about David Kleinfeld played by Sean Penn) – Lil’ Lily, she ain’t scared no more.