When a dog stands alert or approaches with its ears and hackles up it is posturing that it is dominant in nature and is prepared to undertake the first blow if challenged. To most humans we recognized the visual cue, but we are unaware of the scent that is released from the skin glands at the base of the raised hairs. Dogs have approximately 200 million sensory receptors in their nose...we have a mere 6 million. It is through their noses that dogs explore their world. They will mark communal territory with their scent and sniff dogs anal glands that secrete information such as age and motherhood. A confident dog welcomes the butt sniff and walks around wafting its scent with its tail like a bold Pepe le Pew.
On the other hand an insecure dog avoids having its butt sniffed first. Often you will see dogs circling one another if they both lack confidence; neither one willing to be the first to share its personal information. A fearful dog will curl its tail down tightly between its legs in attempt to hide the scent of fear being secreted from the anal glands. It is important for owners of fearful dogs to avoid other dogs sniffing the behind of their fearful dog. To build a fearful dog’s confidence it helps to allow the fearful dog to sniff the Pepe le Pews of the doggy park while maintaining their confidentiality.
A dog’s tail gives other cues about their emotions. When dogs are relaxed their tails are relaxed. When dogs are alert their tail will be up and rigid. Perhaps they hear a deer in the forest. When very happy to see its owner or familiar friend the dogs’ tail will wag mostly to the right side. When happy but unsure of an approaching dog they will wag their tail on the left side. Dogs
understand the difference between “Hey am I excited to know you” from the simple “Hi I’m friendly”.
When dogs are stressed about a situation they will attempt to calm themselves. The first calming cue that a dog exhibits when it’s concerned about unwanted or unknown stimuli is to pull their ears back and down. Take note and assess the situation. For example they may simply be concerned about a noise they didn’t recognize and are questioning what it is. Or they may not be enjoying the attention received from a toddler. If grabbed by a toddler they may flip their head away from the toddler and show the whites of their eyes. At this point I would remove my dog from the situation. If at home I would place my dog in its crate where it can feel safe and relax.
More serious calming cues from a dog stressed with their situation are the constant licking of lips or panting (excluding hot days and exercise). Examples of these behaviors can be seen on a series of dog food TV commercials currently running. In one a Sheltie is constantly licking its lips and in another there is a pair of Golden Retrievers heavily panting. In both of
these ads if you watch carefully you can see the actors discretely restraining the dogs from fleeing from the couch.
Remember that you are the caretaker of your dog and you need to monitor and assess each situation. At the veterinary clinic the stress may be unavoidable but at other times you may need to intervene. Be a strong leader your dog can trust. If your dog is exhibiting serious stress signals or is a fearful dog you need to remove your dog from a potential problem before it may
traumatise your dog or escalate into something more serious.