The agility student was getting fed up with her Jack Russell Terrier. When it was their turn to perform a training exercise in class, the dog would start sniffing the ground like crazy and ignore everything his owner said. “He’s so stubborn!” said the student. “I don’t know what to do to get him to listen. Should I be using better treats or something?”
Upon further investigation it was revealed that the dog only got sniffy when he was told to take one of the contact obstacles. On the contacts, the dog must race up and over a narrow plank suspended up to six feet in the air. They can be pretty intimidating to a beginner dog.
It turned out that the Jack Russell wasn’t stubborn. He was afraid of heights! With all his sniffing, he was trying to tell his owner that he was nervous. With a little extra practice learning how to safely perform the contacts, the sniffing stopped and the team lived happily ever after, winning lots of ribbons and titles in competition.
As humans, we sometimes suck at listening to what our dogs are saying. It’s why so many dogs end up with aggression or fear issues. It’s why so many kids get bit in the face by the family dog while their distraught parents insist, “I don’t know what happened! Fido just attacked without warning.”
To help you avoid all this drama, here are some signs that indicate a dog is getting frustrated and/or freaked out. Fortunately, dogs are pretty easy to read once you know what you’re looking for.
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1. Excessive shedding.
Have you ever noticed how when you take Sparky to the vet, the fur starts flying? When dogs get nervous, they tend to shed a lot more than usual. Their coat might even get staticky!
2. Wet paw prints.
Do your palms get sweaty when you’re nervous? Chances are, your dog’s do too. Dogs have sweat glands in their paw pads. If your dog’s feet are sweating enough for you to notice, it’s a sign of extreme stress.
3. Refusing to eat.
I’ve had super-skinny shelter dogs refuse to take treats from me. They’re so stressed, they just can’t eat. Sometimes in training classes, nervous dogs lose interest in the delicious chicken or liver treats that their owners brought. Any time your dog refuses to take food that she would normally scarf down without thinking, you need to assess the situation and figure out what’s bothering her.
4. Stillness/freezing/holding his breath.
This could mean that the shit’s about to hit the fan! If stillness is accompanied by:
-tense muscles/stiff legs
-ears pinned back
-licking his nose
-mouth closed with the corners of the mouth pushed slightly forward
– looking at the source of his discomfort with wide, unblinking eyes,
the dog is saying “back off.” If this warning is ignored, a bite could be imminent. When people say “Fido just attacked without warning!”, what usually happened is that Fido displayed a sequence of behaviors similar to the one above, and was ignored. To humans, this is all very subtle behavior. But the dog thinks he’s being loud and clear. If you EVER notice your dog doing this when interacting with a person or dog, you need to drop whatever you’re doing and get him out of there ASAP.
Check out this video for an excellent breakdown of this warning behavior. The video really shows how subtle it is and how fast it happens:
5. Yawning, lip licking, shaking, stretching, and a million other seemingly insignificant behaviors.
As social creatures, dogs evolved with a complex system of behaviors designed to diffuse and deflect tension. These behaviors are called calming signals. Calming signals include:
Turning away, yawning, lip licking, shaking off like she’s trying to dry herself, scratching, stretching, blinking repeatedly and/or slowly, dipping the head, sneezing, lifting a paw like a bird dog on point.
Calming signals are subtle behaviors dogs offer when they are in potentially uncomfortable situations. It’s their attempt to calm themselves and others. If a dog yawns or sneezes at another dog or human, he’s saying something along the lines of “chill out, dude! It’s all good.”
Quick demo of the lip licking and yawning signals:
The lip lick:
The shake off:
6. Sniffing and acting “distracted.”
These are calming signals as well, but they tend to annoy people more than the others do. Just like the Jack Russell who was trying to avoid the contact obstacles, your dog might use these to avoid unpleasant situations.
Do you have a cell phone? Ha. What am I saying. Of course you do. So you know how, when you get into awkward situations, you pretend to text to deflect the tension? Well, snffing and acting distracted are the dog equivalent of pretending to text.
But what if Fido really is distracted, and not nervous? How do I tell the difference?
Not to get all New Age on you, but you have to look at the whole dog. Because you’re right: sometimes Fido really will be distracted (sniffing), or not hungry (refusing food), or he may have an itch (scratching). The real warning sign is when it’s combined with other calming/stress signals.
So Fido keeps sniffing the ground. Look at his body language. Is he relaxed and comfortable? If you offer a treat, will he eat it? Does he acknowledge you when you talk to him? Then he’s probably fine.
But what if he’s sniffing the ground, and he’s shedding a lot? Is his tail tucked low? Is he ignoring you? Does he sneeze, scratch, stretch or yawn frequently? Something’s wrong.
The bottom line is that you have to get to know your dog. Learn all his quirks. Figure out what scares him. Figure out what makes him uncomfortable. Any time you notice him getting stressed, it’s your responsibility to either get him out of the situation, or take a step back and work through the problem with him. As a result, Fido will trust you and look to you for help whenever he gets into a situation he can’t handle.