I think one of the hardest parts of learning to read body language is the ability to see the wide array of signals present for varying degrees of a particular emotion. Oftentimes when I first meet with a new client I ask them to tell me if there’s anything else their pet is afraid of that they didn’t mention on their questionnaire. Usually, there’s a pause, and then some variation of:
“He doesn’t seem to like to like [insert scenario], but it’s not like his tail is tucked or anything.”
And that’s a great example that nervousness doesn’t look like terror.
Degrees of Feelings
Now, we are going to avoid the entire topic of can our pets experience complex emotions like resentment and guilt and also the topic of how can we truly know the exact emotion another individual is feeling. Those are a whole can of worms requiring a lot more scientific study. For our purposes, I think we can all safely agree that our pets experience fear.
There are many degrees and facets of fear, though. We can classify things like nervousness, anxiety, discomfort, and terror as fear. All are different degrees of the same emotion. And with those different degrees, we see different body language signals.
Nervousness Doesn’t Look Like Terror
I got the idea for this blog post a couple of months ago during a thunderstorm. Oso has come a long way when it comes to his sound sensitivities (though we still have some more work to do!) but that doesn’t mean he particularly enjoys thunderstorms. He just no longer shuts down during them. Now we see nervousness, instead of more intense fear.
And it looks like this:
It’s subtle, right? The worried brow. Ears pulled slightly further back than normal. Stiffer body. Having to always be near us. Someone who didn’t know Oso and didn’t know his history would likely miss that this is nervous. A little bit of fear only merits a few, smaller stress signals in this case.
Compare that to when he’s relaxed:
Sprawled, loose body. Relaxed face and mouth. Ears normal for that position. Tail wherever it lands. Eyes would have been closed if I hadn’t woken him up. Hasn’t seen us for hours.
When they’re side-by-side it’s easier to see but in the moment it’s easy to miss.
What that means for you and your pet
Because there are different degrees of fear, we need to be able to see the subtler stress signals to know if our pet is nervous about something. And here’s why that matters: small stressors can add up. We call that “trigger stacking” in the dog training world and I wrote a whole post about that which you can check out here. In short, small stressors can exacerbate other behavior issues we’re working on. That’s one of the reasons I ask my clients to tell me about any other stressors in their pets’ lives that they haven’t already mentioned.
Not only can they exacerbate other issues, but they can also become bigger fears later on. I can’t tell you how many times folks come to me saying that their pet was only nervous around something for a while but it’s now escalated to barking, lunging, or biting. That’s a big deal when we’re talking about stressors like strangers. We need to monitor nervousness so that we can bring in a professional at the first sign of escalation.
- Learn your pet’s body language, especially focusing on the subtler signals.
- Monitor for signs of stress. Being nervous isn’t the end of the world and it’s impossible to completely eliminate fear (it’s a really beneficial emotion evolutionarily speaking, after all). But if you start seeing signs of escalation, it’s time to call in a behavior professional like one of the Pet Harmony consultants.
- Share your findings with us on Instagram @petharmonytraining. We love seeing pics of your pets!