Why dogs tremble: the behaviour explained

Just like cats and of course humans, even dogs use body language to express their emotions or request interaction. When dogs tremble, for example, they are expressing specific moods, some positive some negative. Veterinarian Maria Grazia Calore, expert in pet behaviour, has helped us to understand what our four-legged friends may be telling us when they tremble and how we should behave in each instance.

Posture and proxemics of dogs: essential background information

If we want to understand the body language of our dog, we must first observe their posture – body position – paying particular attention to the ears, limbs and tail. Proxemics – the movement of the dog – identifies the type of approach: a direct approach indicates self-confidence or defiance while an indirect approach, taking a semi-circular trajectory, represents tranquillity.

Dogs and trembling: the moods and attitudes it portrays

When dogs tremble, it can indicate a wide range of feelings such as fear, discomfort, excitement or happiness. So how do we understand what our four-legged friend is feeling? Here are some pointers:

  • Fear or anxiety: the dog assumes a curled up and crouched position, its tail underneath, its ears flat against the head or back, you may even notice a dull growl or a lifting of the lips exposing the teeth. If, when we return home, the dog greets us adopting a low stance, looking away and trembling, it is likely our attitude towards him is the cause of his anxiety. This can happen in dogs that have been destructive in our absence and are scolded when we return.

During the period of socialisation (the time in which the puppy learns the ‘rules of living in a social group’), especially between the third and fifth week of life, each puppy creates its own “safety cabinet” in which it ‘files’ all the normal stimuli that don’t provoke fear. This time-sensitive socialisation element needs to be considered when adopting or purchasing your pup: if you live in a city, it would be better to adopt a puppy that has lived in a similar environment to limit new stimuli that could potentially scare it. However if fear or discomfort arises and causes them to tremble, we should not pick the dog up to console him nor scold him. On the contrary, we should guide him to the stimulus demonstrating a positive and curious mood ourselves: the dog will then imitate us and explore the mysterious object with less fear!

  • Excitement or happiness: the dog’s tail is carried high and wagging, the pup is standing or jumping, inviting us to play. The dog is in a state of high arousal, this behaviour is observable when the dog is enjoying pleasant experiences, such as a game or meeting dogs he knows well and he gets along with.

If our dog is happy to see us, the trembling will be accompanied by festive wags, the dog flying around us, skips and barks to catch our attention: in this case cuddles and rewards are a great idea!