Signs of Stress in Dogs

The welfare of any animal is related to its ability to use coping mechanisms to deal with stress. Our ability to cope is not infinite, and negative experiences can have lasting effects on behavior. Although we can’t eliminate stress in daily life, we can manage it so that we are using more emotional and physical energy on the important things, and less on events that are controllable and unnecessary. This is just as true for your dog as it is for you.

You can learn to identify signs of stress so that you can help your dog avoid bigger conflicts, which may also lead to long-term issues with fear, anxiety, and aggression. Also, remember that while the body language might seem subtle to you, they don’t feel that way to your dog!

Signs of stress include:

  • Looking away (from a stimulus)
  • Licking the nose or lips in the absence of food
  • Sudden scratching (without reason to suspect allergies, etc)
  • Sudden sniffing of the ground
  • Shaking as though wet (often occurs right after a moment of diffusion of tension)
  • Tension in the muscles around the eyes and mouth
  • Whale eye (the dog is usually looking away with his head, but his eyes remained fixed on the stimulus, showing the whites)
  • Ears pinned back
  • Sweaty paws (leaving wet paw prints on the floor)
  • Panting (when you dog hasn’t exercised and it isn’t hot outside)
  • Inability to focus
  • Dilated pupils
  • Low tail carriage
  • Not taking treats or taking them roughly

This list is not exhaustive, and behaviors must be interpreted in context. Your dog may show one or more of these signs at the same time when he is stressed. Over time, you also might find that your dog shows you a unique sign when he is starting to feel stressed.

Your dog may show some signs of stress while showing other signs of happiness. For example, he may exhibit heavy panting while having a floppy and relaxed body. Here, the context might lead to an interpretation that he is overheated, but not stressed.

This dog likes like he may be panting, but other body language and the context might suggest he is not very stressed.

It is also possible that your dog may feel conflicting emotions, just as humans do. You might imagine a situation where a child greets a dog, and the dog wags his tail in a relaxed manner, but is also looking away and licking his lips. Perhaps he likes children, but doesn’t like having his head pet. In this case, err on the side of safety, and give the dog space.

Do you see some signs of stress in this dog?

It is possible for dogs to experience distress (“negative” stress) and eustress (“positive” stress). However, any kind of stress can be emotionally and physically tiring. Even “happy” stress can result in unwanted behavior if your dog becomes overwhelmed.

If you’re not sure how your dog feels, give him a break from the situation. When you try again, be it minutes, hours, or days later, plan enough time so that you can proceed at a pace with which both you and your dog are confident.