Canine Stress Signs
11-Sep-2017 Lisa Mullinax, ACDBC
Previously posted at 4pawsu.com
Stress is a normal part of life for any animal. Hunger is a form of stress that reminds us to eat, fear is an emotion that helps us avoid potentially harmful situations. However, when a dog repeatedly experiences in stressful situations that they cannot avoid or escape, problem behaviors can occur.
Stress in the form of fear, anxiety, frustration, even excitement, all have the same effects in the brain, releasing cortisol and adrenaline.
Dogs experience stress at various degrees, just as humans do. You might be anxious about starting a new job, but still able to get dressed, drive to the office, and start your first day, while other people experience anxiety at a level that interferes with their ability to function and engage in normal social activities. The same is true for dogs. For some dogs, their stress levels are so high that going for walks or meeting new people is more than they can tolerate and problem behaviors occur.
Stress will manifest differently among different dogs, depending on their genetic predisposition, learning history, and the environment. Some dogs may simply attempt to avoid interactions with people or dogs or resist going to new places. Others may exhibit reactivity and aggression. Other dogs may become destructive or bark excessively as a result of high levels of anxiety. Some dogs develop compulsive behaviors, repetitive patterns of behavior that are difficult to interrupt or stop and may even be self-injurious.
Sadly, chronic, inescapable stress is suffering. It can not only affect our dogs’ ability to enjoy normal activities or even find comfort at home, but it can also affect their health, compromising their immune system and leading to serious illness. While it can be hard to accept that our dogs could feel anything but safety and comfort in their lives with us, the stress is real to the dog and we should always do what we can to minimize that stress.
Recognizing the more common signs of increasing stress in dogs, means we can intervene before serious problems develop.
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.
This usually happens repeatedly in stressful situations, and is done with more intensity than a “sleepy” yawn.
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 ran a few miles, stress levels may be on the rise.
My cousin’s Lab did NOT like the camera. Here, you can see that not only is she panting. It was a cool November day and this was before we took the dogs out to run.
However, when a dog exhibiting stress-related panting suddenly stops and closes their mouth, that’s a warning! Dogs close their mouths shortly before they escalate to a snap or bite. So, watch for changes in behavior.
Dogs’ ears vary greatly by breed. Some stand up, some hang low and some are artificially altered to achieve a specific look. No matter what type of ears your dog has, ears that are low and pinned back against their head may be a sign of stress.
But this is where it’s important to look at the whole dog. In contrast, rescue dog Arrow LOVED the attention during his photo shoot and although his ears are pinned back, you see that his eyes and mouth are open and relaxed.
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 can look like many things. Common types of avoidance include:
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.
This dog is clearly turning away from the camera person. Many dogs are uncomfortable with cameras, either having past experiences with the flash, or just unsure of the equipment.
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.
If you’re not sure whether or not you’re seeing stress, ask yourself if your dog is showing signs of enjoyment. If not, that could be your answer. Dogs who are enjoying interactions don’t keep it a secret!
Dry Shake 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.
Low Tail Carriage
This is easier to see in some breeds of dogs, than others, obviously. Dogs with closely docked tails or with a naturally high tail carriage may not be as clear.
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 close to even with his body, his normal tail position.
But when I add some light handling, his tail lowers close to his body. A sign that he is anxious about this change in our interaction.
Dilated pupils/Tension around eyes and mouth
This isn’t always easy to spot, but if you do see it, it’s pretty obvious. This adoption photo taken of a shelter dog shows both. Obviously, dogs’ pupils dilate in low light. But in brightly lit environments, it is more obvious.
This screenshot of a dog featured on The Dog Whisperer also shows tension around the eyes and muzzle and dilated pupils, in spite of the camera crew’s extra lighting.
Hackles are the same reaction as “goosebumps” in humans. Just as you may get goosebumps when you watch a scary movie or hear an especially moving piece of music, hackles in dogs are a sign of arousal (high emotion).
Hackles can appear on the dog’s shoulders, hindquarters, and even along the tail.
Contrary to what many people believe, hackles are not a sign of aggression. However, they are a sign that emotions are very high, which means the dog may be closer to reacting negatively than they would, otherwise.
Other stress signs include:
Low body posture
Weight shifted to back legs
Whining or other vocalization
Slow or tense movement
Refusal of food (can also be sign of illness)
Restlessness or pacing
Inattentiveness to owner/hypervigilance
Sweating from paws
This article does not constitute a complete list of stress-related behaviors and body language, but features those that are the most common.
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.
You can learn more about stress signs and other canine body language in the DogSpeak: Canine Body Language webinar, available for on-demand rental.
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