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Approaching / Opening a conversation with a Fearful Dog I

There are many helpful illustrations on Dog body language available but most all only show dogs in profile. As a shelter / Rescue worker, we almost never see a dog we are trying to work with in profile. In addition, these body language profile illustrations almost never show what we, as the human side, should be doing with our own body language.

Provided here are a few illustrations to give some ideas on how to position ourselves when working with fearful and stressed dogs.




  • E Y E S
  • E A R S
  • T A I L
  • Lip Licking
  • Yawning
  • Scratching
  • Shaking off

- OK to Continue -


  • Sniffing the Ground
  • Sclara / whale eye
  • Lip Curls / Showing Teeth
  • Tightly Closed Mouth

- Move Away or Try Again Later -

Before attempting to approach a fearful / nervous Dog in a kennel there are a few key aspects to accept first.

PATIENCE! You will be on the "Dogs Time" Since greetings and behaviors are always up to the Dog to decide when / If / How, You have to accept it may take a lot of time. Make sure you are not in a hurry or on a schedule before proceeding. The rewards for taking the time to help a Dog be a Dog is worth every minute!

ENERGY! Calm is key! Before entering into the Dogs space, take a moment to focus on your breathing. Long deep inhales through the nose, long slow exhale through the mouth. Do this for several breaths before entering a fearful / nervous Dogs kennel. Calm soft voice, slow purposeful movements.

EMPATHY! You probably already understand the need for empathy in working with shelter / rescue Dogs but, with most fearful / nervous Dogs, a noisy shelter can be an extra scary, nerve wracking space. What the Dog has gone through in its past and what it has learned to be fearful of are usually unknown. It can be a fine line between fearful behavior and fear aggression. Don't push the Dogs threshold ever!

ACCEPTANCE! Accept you may not get an immediate "breakthrough" with every Dog! Each Dog has its own Thresholds, Fears and Wants. Tiny steps are nessescary with almost every fearful / nervous Dog approach attempts. Sometimes its useful to breakdown "sessions" into several short time spans. One 10 minute attempt to introduce yourself / offer treats, another attempt 15 - 30 minutes later and so on. Acceptance that the Dog may just not be ready to meet a new human!

REMEMBER! NEVER TRY TO PET A DOG ON TOP OF ITS HEAD! Its scary, unpredicatable and just plain RUDE!





A human entering a fearful Dogs space / kennel can be scary! Dogs that may have had bad human experiences in the past can become more fearful and try to hide or back up to the other end of the kennel. With no place to escape to, a fearful Dog can sometimes become aggressive or immediately show "distance increasing" signals




For a fearful Dog, its best to try and enter the kennel backwards when possible. Keeping your side / back to the Dog, secure the kennel door and kneel /squat down in place. Speaking softly before, during and after entering the kennel is helpful too.




BASIC BODY POSITION should always be sideways or back mostly turnedto the Dog. " 3/4 angle "

For larger Dogs, its best to keep our feet / legs in a position so we can stand up quickly if nessescary. Keeping our side / back to the dog is most important while still being able to keep an eye on what the dog may be doing. Do not make eye contact or look at the Dog longer than 1 second at a time.


Position yourself so you can see the Dog. Looking back to the Dog is good as long as you avoid making direct eye contact. Looking towards the floor or at the Dogs feet is best.



A fearful Dog will often tuck its legs underneath its body and lock its eyes on you - staring, ears down, tail tucked. Either facing you or sideways to you. Do not try to pet a dog in this position. Speaking softly, you may give the Dog some of your own "calming signals" scratch your chin or head, yawn (Do not fake yawn! Dogs can spot a fake yawn)




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