I have been asked to write an article on signs of stress in dogs, which I think is wonderful! So, few people actually understand the things their dogs are trying to communicate to them!
I recently had a “date” over. My dog, a Belgian Malinois, remains a little “iffy” with people. But my date wanted to meet my dogs. I communicated with him to go slow and not to bend over my dog. Let him curl into you, and lightly pet him down his back and on his rump. Also, don’t get in his face or stare.
After a few moments of successful curling and what looked like affection from my dog, he noted: “his tail is wagging.” However, it isn’t that easy.
My dog’s tail was HIGH and snake-like, a little agitated. It is very difficult to express to people that a tail wag and a BITE are very common.
And, it seems no matter how many years of experience I have with training puppies and dogs, people still discount my expertise and knowledge (especially family and friends, ha ha).
It is more about what the height and wag of the tail are telling you. To the untrained eye, my dog looks very social. He curls into you and hits your leg with his shoulder, asking to be touched.
But, I see the high tail, the dilated eyes, and the slightly stiff posture. I have mostly gotten to the point that I don’t let people touch him because no one understands direction anymore.
However, in this situation, if I am looking at having a relationship, I need a potential significant other to respect my dog and me. Thankfully, even though I am not sure he believed me, he didn’t bend over my dog or get in his space. He simply petted his back and rump (which is what my boy likes).
So let’s talk about some signs of stress in dogs so that you will be educated about what dogs are trying to communicate.
After all, another dog would see how stiff and standoffish my dog was, despite the tail wag! 😉
Signs of Stress in Dogs
Unless your dog is nauseous, lip licking isn’t normal and is a sign of stress. Dogs don’t lip lick in normal situations that aren’t full of scrumptious foods.
Yes, panting can be normal. But, there are times that dogs pant from stress. I have seen dogs in our vet clinic on cold days that are panting like crazy… this is a sign of stress and probably a very high heart rate.
Dogs don’t yawn when they are tired.
Dogs yawn when they are stressed!
If your dog is yawning, especially in an odd situation, this is a signal that he is stressed!
Get to know your dog’s eyes! Nothing will give you more information than his eyes and his face. Dogs’ eyes dilate when they are nervous or agitated. If his eyes look “hard,” be very mindful and careful!
Normally, your dog’s eyes have no need to dart all over the place! If his eyes are darting back and forth and around the room, he is likely looking for an escape route. This is a sign of stress!
Again, get to know your dog! I am currently pet sitting a French Bulldog and his eyes certainly bulge more than my shepherd’s eyes, just normally! But, when he is stressed, they will bulge more and may become red; this isn’t normal and a sign of stress; as if he is trying to take in everything in his environment.
Whites of Eyes
I will say it again, know your dog’s eyes, tail, and face. If you don’t normally see the whites of your dog’s eyes, then seeing them is a sign of stress. This is one of the first things I notice as a vet tech; if the dogs’ eyes are white all around and darting around, I know he is very stressed and much more likely to bite!
Lips Held Back
Dogs who are in conflict often pull their lips back. It kind of looks like they are nauseous but can be a stress appeasement gesture. In wolf packs, the submissive wolf often pulls his lips back in almost a smile as if to say “Please don’t eat me,” but, if pushed while stressed, this dog could bite.
Here is the opposite. Lips pursed forward and teeth shown also shows stress and aggression. If the lips look abnormally forward, then the dog may be snarling without noise at first, and this should be marked as stress and possible aggression.
Of course, in most instances showing teeth is a sign of aggression. However, some dogs “smile” as again, a sign of appeasement. Even though this is “cute” for us humans, it is still a sign of stress for dogs.
Ears carried as high on the forehead as possible is a sign of overstimulation and possible stress and will likely lead to other behaviors.
Even floppy eared dogs can change the position of their ears.
Think I am kidding? Blow a whistle for your dog and watch his ears go from normal position to very high on his head!
Ears pinned can be a sign of fear and stress. Be cautious of a dog whose ears are pinned!
High tails denote over-excitement and agitation which can also be signs of stress. Be cautious of a dog whose tail is as high on his back as it can be!
Tail tucked is a sign of submission, or fear, or both. If submission is not respected and the dog is pushed, it can likely become aggressive.
Rattlesnake Tail Wag
I call this the rattlesnake tail wag because dogs vigorously wag just the tip of the tail. This IS NOT A GOOD SIGN. A happy tail wag should start at the base and be very relaxed and side to side. If the dog looks like he is rattling a rattle, be very wary! This is a precursor to aggression.
Barking can also be stress. Dogs bark for many reasons, but one is to communicate their stress and discomfort to us. If your dog is barking, take this information that his level of stress could be high and don’t ignore or discount it!
Although this is a sure sign of aggression, this can also be stress.
Again, no matter how friendly you think he is, if he is growling, barking and lunging, take in this information that he is giving you and take heed!
There are many signs of stress in dogs!
Part of the key is knowing your dog’s normal behaviors and noticing a change.
Change of behavior indicates feeling and information.
Your dog doesn’t speak English. Sometimes, his only way to communicate his stress level to you is to change his normal behavior and hope that you will see the signs and take note!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.