STRESS SIGNS IN DOGS

Stress is a normal part of life for any animal. For example, hunger is a form of stress that reminds us to eat, fear is a stress-related emotion that helps us avoid potentially harmful sitautions.  However, when we put our dogs in stressful situations that they cannot escape, problems can occur. 

Few dog owners recognize the most common signs of stress and anxiety in their dogs before it is too late.  Learning to recognize these common signals can help you prevent serious problems.

NOTE:  Context is important!  Your dog may yawn when they first wake up, shake off after a bath, or pant on a hot day.  But if your dog is in a new or difficult environment and you see these behaviors together, either as a group or in a sequence, and they happen repeatedly, they are very likely an indication that your dog is experiencing stress or anxiety. 

Lip and Nose Licking

This type of licking looks very different than when you feed your dog a spoonful of peanut butter and, like all of the signs, are usually accompanied or followed by other signs of stress listed below.

Stress Yawn

This usually happens repeatedly in stressful situations, and is done with more intensity than a "sleepy" yawn.

dog body language

Sparky really doesn't like the camera and will often look away, close his eyes and yawn whenever the lens was pointed in his direction. 

Panting

Yes, dogs pant.  But if it is a cool day and your dog has not been engaging in much physical activity and is panting as if she just ran a few miles, this is likely a sign of stress.

dog stress signs

In this image, the dog is uncomfortable with my camera.  It is a cool, November day (Thanksgiving) and we had not yet taken the dogs out to run.  You will also notice the tension in her mouth and around her eyes and her ears are pinned back and low.

When a dog showing signs of stress suddenly stops panting and closes their mouth, that's a warning!  Dogs often close their mouths shortly before they escalate to a snap or bite.

Pinned Ears

Dogs' ears vary greatly by breed.  Some stand up, some hang low and some are artificially altered to achieve a specific look.  But no matter what type of ears your dog has, if they pin their ears back against their head, it could be a sign of stress.

Deveron wasn't enjoying posing for the camera and pinned his ears back to show his discomfort.

stress language in dos

In contrast, Arrow LOVED the attention of the camera and although his ears are pinned back, you see that his eyes and mouth are open and relaxed. 

dog body language

The difference in the expression of the two dogs makes it easier to see which is stress-related and which one is not.  Context is everything!

Avoidance

Avoidance can look like many things.  Common types of avoidance include:

  • Excessive sniffing
  • Inattention
  • Looking away
  • Turning away

Basically, if your dog is in any way avoiding interacting with people or other dogs, he is showing you he is uncomfortable.  Avoidance is always a better choice than aggression.  If your dog is avoiding interaction with anyone, human or canine, respect that choice.  Don't force your dog to interact if they don't want to.

Adam, a newly-rescued dog, avoids a hand reaching out to pet his head.

body language in dogs

This Doberman was not enjoying the attention of these two German Shepherds and is trying to avoid interacting with them.  In addition to the lowered head and body, notice the pinned back ears.

dog avoidance behavior

Here, Sparky turns away from the camera (in addition to licking his nose).

Avoidance means the dog wishes to discontinue the interaction.  They are letting you know in the most polite way possible that they want you to stop what you are doing.

Shaking Off

Dogs will shake their bodies for a variety of reasons, when they are wet or when they first wake up from a nap.  But stress-related shaking off almost always follows something the dog finds unpleasant.  For example, many dogs shake off right after a veterinary exam. 

stress signs canine

Low Tail Carriage

This is easier to see in some breeds of dogs, than others, obviously.  It won't be as easy to spot in a dog that has a docked tail, for example.

Many people are familiar with the idea that a "tail between the legs" is a sign of fear.  But sometimes the tail gives less obvious signals.

Here, the base of this dog's tail is mid-range, probably the normal position for this dog.

dog body language tail

As other dogs approach, however, the base of the tail drops.  Also notice her ears and the tension around her mouth.

tail body language

Other Signs

These signs don't necessarily come across in photos, but are also common signs of stress.

  • Low body posture
  • Weight shifted to back legs
  • Excessive shedding
  • Excessive whining or other vocalization
  • Slow or tense movement
  • Refusal of food (especially when normally food-motivated)
  • Restlessness or pacing
  • Inattentiveness to owner
  • Sweating from paws
  • Dilated pupils
  • Tension around eyes and mouth

This Rottweiler looks tense, and her ears are pinned back. She has a lot of tension around her eyes and mouth, as well. 

   

Closed mouth, pinned ears and looking away.

This Border Collie's ears are forward, indicating it is alert to something in the environment, but the tail is low, the mouth is closed and tense and the dog is leaning backward.

The dog is leaning backward, ears are pinned back and tail is low.  Add the dog's inability to get away because it is chained, and this is a recipe for a bite!

This dog shows signs of extreme tension around the eyes and mouth.  Her mouth is closed, her ears are back and her pupils are very dilated.

Not all dogs will exhibit all of these signs.  The better you get at recognizing your dog's signs, the better you can help him avoid situations that could cause serious problems, while working with a qualified trainer to learn how to help your dog form better associations in stressful environments.

Additional Resources

These books and DVD's are some of the best available on learning body language in dogs. 

Language of Dogs

THE LANGUAGE OF DOGS DVD  

What is your dog saying to you and to other dogs? How can you tell when play turns to aggression? How do dogs show friendliness, fear, or stress? This educational video features a presentation and extensive footage of a variety of breeds showing hundreds of examples of canine behavior and body language. Behaviorist Sarah Kalnajs teaches you how to read these signals so that you can develop a better understanding of what's really going on in the canine world. Perfect for dog owners or anyone who handles dogs or encounters them regularly while on the job. A 4Paws favorite and required viewing for our staff!

CALMING SIGNALS

Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist Turid Rugaas is a noted expert on canine body language, notably “calming signals,” which are signals dogs use to avoid conflict, invite play, and communicate a wide range of information to other dogs and people. These are the dogs’ attempt to defuse situations that otherwise might result in fights or aggression.

 

 
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