Good Dog or Silent Panic Attack?

Chihuahua Being Held

High levels of fear, anxiety and stress can often be mistaken as "good" behavior.

Let me tell you a story.
First meeting between owner and dog and their trainer. The trainer observes the dog and askes some questions about her behavior and lifestyle. The discussion turned to exercise and walks, "Oh, she's just great on walks. Walks right next to me."
Later, the trainer gets to spend some time with the dog and his suspicions are confirmed. Sadly, in this dog's case, the good leash manners are actually an expression of fear. The dog is too scared to venture out on her own, so she hugs her owner's side. It's fear in 'good' clothing.

This disguise is very commonly missed by a number of unsuspecting owners.  Why? The average definition of "good" often includes the absence of behaviors:

  • Not pulling on leash
  • Not lunging or barking at other dogs
  • Not jumping on people
  • Not biting children
  • Not growling when their food is taken

A calm dog must be a good dog, right? Not necessarily.
When some dogs are experiencing high levels of stress, fear, and anxiety they shut down. Think of it like a silent panic attack. Rather than lash out or run away, they retreat into their shell. 

This tendency is often see in dogs primarily trained with punishment. They've been punished so many times that they decides the safest course of action is to do nothing. The technical term is learned helplessness.
Punishment isn't the only cause, though. Dogs who are especially fearful due to genetic predisposition and/or socialization deficit are more likely to experience silent panic attacks when overwhelmed. And for these dogs, that can happen fairly easily.

How can you tell if your dog is actually good and relaxed, or silently panicking? Watch for these signs of stress and anxiety:

  • Tongue flicks/licking lips
  • Repetitive yawning
  • Stress panting
  • Tight facial muscles
  • Restlessness
  • Hypervigilence

I recently worked with a family who enjoyed taking their dog out to lots of public, dog-friendly locations. Initially, they said that she did really well in public--"just lays there." After meeting the dog and doing some work with her, we talked more about her behavior in public and signs of stress. Her behavior at home indicated some fearful, nervous tendencies so although her family didn't report any serious problems in public, we needed to make sure she was actually relaxed.