About ASCT
2018 Conference Classes
2018 Free Online Classes
Therapy and Service Certifications
Law Enforcement Certifications
Public Trainer Certification
K9 Certifications
Articles: United States
Articles: Scandinavia
Articles: South America
K9 Training Referrals
Humane Society of the United States
London Hanover University

By Jarod Beasley

Mark Twain described courage as the resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.  The difference between this definition of human courage and canid courage is the perception of a threat.  Courage in canids is extremely rare because it tends to go against the grain of common sense.  It can be observed when a canid is very hungry and takes risks it would not normally take to acquire food, or to protect offspring.  In my experience with Police Service Dogs (PSDs) the term courage is often used when a decoy (agitator) challenges a dog and the dog views the decoy as an opponent rather than a true threat.  The dog rises to the challenge, operating in prey or combat drives but not reverting to survival or self defense.  If under the same circumstances the dog views the decoy as a threat instead of a challenge you will see both major and minor signs of fear in the dog.  A dog can not hide body language and can not lie about the way it perceives stimuli.  Therefore courage in a canid is often simply not perceiving a challenging stimuli as a threat.


The two types of fear are existential fear and social fear.  A threat that creates an existential fear puts a canid in survival drive or self-preservation, which results in only two possible behaviors; fight or flight.  With existential fear there is no chance or possibility to compromise.  This physiological concept relating to the canid's limited degree of reasoning is sometimes referred to as a “do or die” mentality.  An animal can not simply submit to a predator that views  it as a prey item and hope to survive the encounter, fight or flight are the only options.  


Social fear is born out of interactions with animals of their own species, and although fight and flight are still viable options, social fear allows the possibility of compromise during these encounters.  This compromise is accomplished through submission.  Submission and fear are always associated with each other and are easily recognizable.  If an animal becomes self-assured it will then show dominance in place of submission and fear will no longer be present.


Fear in canids is experienced both physiologically and anatomically.  Signs of fear can be seen in body posture and also through displays of canid facial expressions.  

  • Ears:  Ear position can tell us a lot about the current emotion the canid is experiencing.  For example a dog with it's ears up and forward is showing dominance and is self-assured.  Flattened ears drawn back shows either friendliness, submission or fear.  I have raised and trained both German shorthairs and German wirehairs in NAVHDA and they exhibit the same behavior in their floppy ears but it is harder to see due to their drop ears.  Ears also move in response to noise in their surroundings and to the sound of their owner's voice.
  • Eyebrows and Eyes: Canids, like humans, present with wide open eyes when displaying dominance and self-confidence.  This gives the eyebrows a well defined appearance.  A canid will partially or completely close it's eyes when displaying submissive or pacifying behavior. The eyebrows will always support the expression of the eyes and when showing submission the canid may appear to have no visible eyebrows at all.
  • Facial expressions: Facial expressions include all the features of the canids head, including the eyes and ears.  The expressions are the same for all canids with only slight variations in some droopy eared dogs or dogs with flat or short snouts.  These variations can cause the dogs to exaggerate other anatomical expressions to compensate.  An example of this is a German shorthair I have seen with a shortly docked tail.  To compensate for this shortly docked tail this dog will shake her entire rear end to show her excitement.  Facial expressions that show fear can vary depending on the type of fear the canid is experiencing.  Social fear can cause expressions of submission including; narrowing of the eyes, averted gaze, excessive blinking, and flattening or flickering of the ears.  Existential fear (fight or flight) creating by stimuli that is perceived as a threat can often present expressions that are similar to dominance as the canid attempts to appear bigger, stronger and more ferocious to an adversary.  These expressions are big staring eyes, and upright erect ears.  
  • Forehead: The forehead of a canid showing dominance will often appear well defined and a smooth forehead can often mean submission or fear.  This information should be used in conjunction with other facial expressions and should be factored in with the totality of all expressions to determine any behavior.
  • Lips: When a canid snarls it can mean different things depending on which way the lips are drawn.  A snarl with the lips drawn forward is a display of dominant aggression, superiority and self-confidence. When the snarl presents with the lips drawn back it shows inferiority, submission and fear aggression.  
  • Neck: The neck is a very easily recognizable feature when determining dominance and submission in canids.  A straight neck shows dominance while turning the head and inclining the neck, which exposed the soft throat area, shows submission.  The act of turning the neck to expose the throat is what is known as a pacifying gesture which means submission or surrender. A similar pacifying gesture is rolling onto the back to expose the soft belly, this along with refusing to make eye contact is an act of submission or social fear.
  • Staring: Staring is a sign of dominance just as averting gaze is a sign of submission.  A dominant dog will stare with great concentration at an adversary giving that canid three options; fight, flight or submit.  Submission comes in two forms; passive and active.  Passive submission is shown by laying down to expose the belly, and averting gaze.  Active submission can be licking the dominant dog's mouth as a pacifying gesture.  In decoy work for PSDs staring is used to challenge a dog in conjunction with a slight 60 degree forward lean to make the decoy look bigger.  These imitated canid behaviors are used to motivate the dog and raise drives to create desired behaviors.  A good decoy is able to read dogs expressions and adjust the amount of pressure put on each individual dog to challenge but not threaten.  


Currently I am assisting with the training of a PSD school for several different departments from across the US.  The dogs are being trained for patrol, narcotic detection, explosive detection or dual purpose.  The breeds include German Shepard Dogs, Belgian Malinois, and a couple black Labradors.  Having this exposure to many different working dogs has allowed me to witness not only how dogs deal with different environmental stimuli but also how they deal with social encounters with fellow working dogs.  


On one occasion during this week a young Belgian Malinois was sent on a building search that was made fairly small for the inexperienced dog.  A fairly new and inexperienced decoy was in a back room and was instructed to put a little pressure on the dog to make the transition from prey drive to combat drive.  This lets the dog know that it is not just fighting the material of the suit but that there is a man inside.  With inexperienced dogs there is a fine balance between challenging a dog and threatening a dog.  This is one instance where dog training becomes more of a craft than a science.  Done correctly this experience can give a “green” dog the confidence it needs to come out of its shell and become a reliable PSD.  Unfortunately on this occasion when the young dog found the inexperienced decoy he was met by a large intimidating figure who ran towards him with a whip in his hand.  This threatening figure was too much for the young dog who perceived the decoy as a genuine threat, and went quickly from hunting drive to survival.  This dog snarled at the decoy with its lips drawn back and his ears went from forward and erect to partially back and flattened.  An experienced decoy would have quickly recognized these signs of existential fear, backed off the pressure and ran away to bring out prey drive in the dog.  Instead the decoy continued advancing and because the door was still open behind the dog he fled the room rapidly with his tail between his legs.  This unfortunate situation was a bad experience for the dog but showed the value in being able to read the signs of fear in a dog.


I am currently training a new German wirehair puppy that just turned 10 weeks old.  The interactions between this puppy and other dogs has given me the opportunity to observe dominance, submission and social fear for this weeks assignment.  


On one occasion an older German shorthair was laying on a dog bed in the corner of my home and the puppy approached the dog to initiate  play.  The older dog showed dominate aggression by snarling with lips drawn forward, neck straight, eyes wide open and ears forward, (or as forward as a floppy eared dog can be.)  The puppy immediately took the hint and showed signs of social fear/ submission toward the older dog.  The pup partially closed its eyes, inclined his neck to expose his throat and began licking the older dogs mouth as a pacifying gesture.  The older dog then exposed his throat as well, a symbolic gesture that shows acceptance of the acts of submission.  This situation demonstrates the instinctual ability to participate in canid communication and the intricate dance of dominance and submission.


All canids exhibit these two types of fear; social and existential.  Existential fear results in two behaviors; fight or flight, while social fear can result in fight, flight or submission.  Being able to observe and interpret these behaviors by recognizing the major and minor signs of fear is invaluable to not only dog trainers but all dog owners.

Copyright ©1996 - 2018 American Society of Canine Trainers. All rights reserved.