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Posted on Thu, Dec 22, 2011 : 5:39 a.m.

Understanding non-verbal cues from dogs can help them work through anxiety-based behaviors

By Julia Levitt


Red conquers his fears.

Julia Levitt | Contributor

Three weeks ago, I received a phone call from Cindy. Dr. John Smith of Pet Care, a holistic veterinary practice in Ann Arbor, referred Cindy to me because her dog, Red, was afraid of men.

Red was tied out outside at Cindy’s sister’s home. Their brother came and untied the dog and was bitten. This was an instance of misreading and misunderstanding a serious situation.
When I met Red in his outdoor kennel, he watched me approach, wagging his tail — although this is not necessarily a sign of friendliness.

All elements of the dog’s body language need to be in place to call a strange dog "friendly."

When I stood next to his pen, Red ran as far away from me as he could. I waited patiently for him to approach me, and it was a good five minutes before I could gently put a slip lead over his head. We walked to Cindy's back door. Not calmly, initially.

I wasn't going to let Red put me on "drag" as we approached the door. It was a good sign when he responded to a slight leash correction as I entered Cindy’s house, human first, followed by the dog. Many of Cindy’s cats and Maklia (which means wolf) — Cindy’s 14 year old dog — were curious about me. Not Red. He kept his distance, and I kept my eye contact to nil.

Why this stress on eye contact?

To humans, eye contact is a very important. When we meet someone, the first thing we do is look them in the eye. We watch each other's facial expressions. Those expressions and what we see in another person's face are essential to human interaction.

Not with dogs.

"Many dogs cannot handle eye contact," says trainer Brenda Aloff.

When I hold my Pomeranian and look at her, she physically attempts to push me away and keep her gaze averted. The Pomeranian is not alone. Eye contact can be a challenge to many dogs: it's not a natural way of interacting for them.

Some dogs like our eye contact. One of my dogs looks to me for approval with his gaze.

With Red, making eye contact was a very threatening gesture.

Aloff backs this up by making this very important point.

"Many signs of a dog feeling unsafe are subtle discomfort — for example, direct eye contact. This goes along with body languages signals. The obvious sign of fear/concern/anxiety. The dog wants nothing to do with you. When you approach a strange dog, it moves away or the dog might lunge and bark at any other dog or person approaching."

Based on Aloff's observations of dog communication, I have found one of her suggestions — a positive and simple gesture — works with many dogs: blinking. Yes, blinking at them.

"Blinking is always a good sign. If a dog is blinking faster than normal, blinking slowly or holding the blink, it is intentional communication: 'See my eye contact is friendly.' It indicates non-threatening intentions as well as showing the dog is relaxed," says Aloff.

During our session together, Cindy mentioned that she blinks at her cats and that relaxes them. I suggested she blink at Red too. She has carried this way beyond her own communication with Red: Cindy takes him to meet people, and when is Red is apprehensive, Cindy suggests that people blink at him.

Her success has grown so that, one day while walking Red, he bolted away from her, taking Cindy by surprise. Red unexpectedly saw a strange man and dog come out of nowhere. Cindy found Red not too far away from where she was and took him to the stranger’s house, where she introduced herself and Red and allowed the dog to become familiar with what scared him.

The next challenge came when they went to PetSmart.

Cindy met Jim, who was also taking his Airedale for socialization. Little did Cindy know that Saturday was "pet adoption day". That meant a lot of new dogs and people.

Cindy was able to use all of her tools from her “tool box “ for this challenging situation.

  • She stayed calm.
  • She kpet Red calm by having him remain at her side.
  • When the dog demonstrated he was interested in meeting another dog, she allowed the traditional doggie greeting to happen nose to butt, sniffing each other.
  • Cindy remained calm throughout the meeting and greeting at the pet store. This conveyed to Red that his "leader" non verbally "said" the meeting and greeting was okay.

Is Red the perfect dog? Yes.

Is he "over" his fear of men? No.

Cesar Millan says, "You get the dog you need, not the dog you want”.

According to Red’s microchip, Cindy says she is Red’s fourth home. Dr. Smith approximates the the dog is between 4-5 years old.

"I took Red. I couldn’t fail him if I didn’t help him. I’d do whatever I’ve done for Red to help anybody."

Thinking back to the first time Cindy saw Red at the Humane Society, she notes, "Red chose me. He didn't take his eyes off me — we had an instant connection.

"I looked at other dogs, but we were at the same place at the right time," she continues.

"Red gets me out walking. I‘ve met a lot of new people because of him. Not only that but Red has given me his love and trust… he keeps his eye on me."

Julia Levitt is the founder of In Harmony Dog Training ( in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at or at 734-645-4707. Julia provides individual training for dogs and their owners, and also conducts dog training classes at Ann Arbor Animal Hospital.



Fri, Dec 23, 2011 : 2:25 a.m.

In the 2nd paragraph it said: "Red was tied outside at Cindy's sister's home." Maybe that was just a one-time thing, or maybe Red is tied frequently in which case that might be the cause for his fear. Dogs that are tied must feel helpless. Wandering dogs, cats, raccoons and utility workers can approach them and they're trapped. Just a thought.

Julia Levitt

Fri, Dec 23, 2011 : 11:57 a.m.

Very good point. it is unacceptable to tie a dog- any dog -where they feel trapped-thsnk you-Julia


Thu, Dec 22, 2011 : 4:05 p.m.

4th owner. The dog was likely hit or yelled at by a man at some point. Dogs carry that trauma with them just like a person would. Lots of love and patience and reassurance, if a owner is "even" then the dog will most likely be "even". Also having them interact with other people and animals on a regular basis always helps.


Fri, Dec 23, 2011 : 2:51 a.m.

Our rescue still, after 3 years has troubles with hands coming at her. We have to come from the side or behind. But she knows she won't be hit. I agree, dogs need to be around men, boys, girls and women to feel safe. I agree, there might be a guy issue here.

Julia Levitt

Thu, Dec 22, 2011 : 4:48 p.m.

Thanks for your response. Cindy is doing a fabulous job with Red. I am sure she will appreciate your comment-Julia


Thu, Dec 22, 2011 : 2:26 p.m.

In a sense I too am a dog whisperer. When we brought home a very frightened rescue it took a year to look into her eyes and say, things are ok here. I made sure we all held her and whispered loving things to here. Trust me she is spoiled now. But there are times when you can feel she wants to run but doesn't. Dogs are like humans, they need re assurance that their world is safe. Good story.

Julia Levitt

Thu, Dec 22, 2011 : 4:46 p.m.

Thank you for taking the time to respond. whata lucky dog you have-Julia