Learning to read dog language: When dogs feel threatened

Dusseldorf. Even if you don't have your own dog, you should know the basic vocabulary of dog language – after all, two-legged and four-legged friends live closely together in urban environments. Of course, dog owners have to recognize when their animal feels threatened. The dog has four different reaction patterns to react to real or perceived danger – an important basis for correct human behavior.

When we humans find ourselves in a threatening situation, we react very differently. While some people fall into a state of shock, others panic, become loud and try to combat the situation. Others flee or try to defuse the moment by covering up their nervousness with a joke.

It's similar with dogs. If the four-legged friend finds himself in an unpleasant situation, he has four options for reacting. “Sometimes our dogs’ behavior seems exaggerated to us,” says Sabine Winkler, dog trainer and specialist book author. “However, it is important to correctly interpret the reactions of our four-legged friends and react accordingly in order to relax the situation and not stress the dog further.” In English-speaking countries, the dog’s reactions are summarized under the “4 Fs”: flight, freeze, fight and fiddle about.

Flight: The dog flees the situation
In order to escape the situation that is troubling him, the dog decides to run away. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal is running away precipitously at high speed. Some animals turn away and slowly walk away. Or they avoid the perceived danger – for example, another dog that comes towards them on a walk,” explains the dog expert. Every opportunity is used to increase the distance to the trigger of the threat.

Freeze: The dog freezes
“If the dog remains rooted to the spot, he is in a state of conflict. At that moment, the four-legged friend cannot decide how best to react,” says Winkler. How long the dog stays frozen varies. Sometimes this condition only lasts a few seconds, in other situations it lasts until the threatening moment has passed.

It can also be problematic if the owner is tense but calls the dog to him. Now the animal is caught between two fronts: on the one hand, the loved one, who appears annoyed and signals a defensive stance through his posture. On the other hand, the command to approach him. The result: The dog doesn't know what to do and stands stock still. “The owner can now support the animal by first gaining an overview of why the dog is in a conflict and then carefully helping it out of the situation,” says the expert. A solution here could be for the dog owner to adopt a facing and positive posture, call the animal to them again and then praise it.

Fight: The dog begins to bark or growl
If the dog has experienced that other behavioral patterns have no effect, the dog may react with a form of aggression – for example by growling or barking loudly at the unloved companion. “The four-legged friend usually doesn't immediately jump at the threat because he is well aware that by attacking forward he runs the risk of being injured himself. “That’s why dogs tend to try to avoid direct confrontation about aggressive behavior and only use this reaction when they no longer see any other option,” says Winkler.

Fiddle about: The dog tries to playfully distract from the situation
There are different behaviors with this strategy. For example, some four-legged friends show a kind of play behavior by hopping around or lowering their front bodies. “We often perceive this behavior as playful, but in reality the dog wants to hide his insecurity and nervousness. “It also lets other dogs know that it’s not interested in fighting,” explains the specialist book author. If the dog doesn't stop playing with another dog and seems stressed, it is usually advisable to get him out of the situation. Skipping actions, such as yawning or licking, can also indicate that the four-legged friend is trying to cover up an unpleasant situation.

Anyone who knows this basic vocabulary will support harmonious coexistence with their animal companions.