We tend to think of our dogs as little bundles of love that are always happy and free of worry; this is only partly true. While dogs are joyful a lot of the time, they can also become extremely stressed surprisingly quick, over things that may have never occurred to you as a human. It’s so important for dog owners to be able to spot signs of stress in their canine companions, so that the stressful agent can be removed from the situation entirely – whether it’s an environmental factor, human behavior, or a health-related issue. A dog experiencing anxiety is more likely to disobey commands and react aggressively to situations out of fear. Below are a few (sometimes subtle) body language signals to keep an eye out for:
Ears: A dog’s ears often become erect when feeling stressed or anxious, usually facing them in the direction of the stimulus. For canines with floppy ears, it’s a little tougher to notice this change in body language, but they can still pull their ears forward to indicate alertness. Watch the base of the ears to see if they’ve moved forward from their regular position to interpret fear; if they are moving back, it is a sign of friendliness and submission. If their ears are flattened or on the sides of their head completely, it could either mean they are feeling submissive or frightened – you’ll have to decipher that based on your own experiences.
Mouth: Some dogs close their mouths tightly when feeling stressed, some have an exaggerated “smile” that many humans may mistake for a happy expression. A happy dog should either have its mouth closed in a relaxed fashion or slightly open, perhaps with a relaxed smile. When a dog’s mouth is a sharp “U” or “V” looking shape – either tightly closed or open very wide – this is a sign of stress or discomfort, not joy. Other dogs might pull their lips back – horizontally if afraid, and vertically if feeling aggressive – possibly preparing to growl or snap in defense. Anxious dogs will also sometimes drool or pant excessively depending on whether or not they are recalling previous traumas (such as abuse or being abandoned) or simply that they are confused and scared (such as being in a thunderstorm). If you have seen your dog yawn in an exaggerated fashion – especially with several yawns close together – this could mean they are also feeling a bit stressed or overwhelmed.
Eyes: Several different eye movements can signal stress, such as a dog becoming extremely vigilant and scanning their surroundings wildly. Others may avoid eye contact with their owners or blink excessively, especially if they feel threatened in some way. Another way to show that they feel intimidated is to widen their eyes, exposing much more of the whites than they usually do. Especially when a dog moves its eyes toward you, looks at you out of the corners of its eyes, (exposing lots of their whites in the process) and does not move their head in the process – that’s a good sign that they want to be left alone. This phenomenon is actually called “whale eye” and usually is a sign that they are ready to have an aggressive outburst – whether they are guarding a toy, chew, treat, or favorite spot. Dogs usually show pain-related stress by squinting their eyes, which is usually accompanied by some degree of trembling.
Tail: Don’t mistake a wagging tail for a definitive sign of a happy dog, and don’t assume that a tucked tail is always fear-related. Some dogs have a naturally self-tucking tail (like Whippets and Greyhounds), so you need to make the judgment on your own. A stiff, high wag can be a sign of stress, fear, or aggression, especially if it’s much faster than a normal wag. This particular tail-wag is usually accompanied by a stiff body, wide eyes, teeth-bearing, and other indications that the dog is not responding in a friendly manner to whatever stimuli is present.
Other Signs: A few other ways that dogs can indicate stress include abnormal shedding of their fur, especially in clumps that come off very quickly. This could happen with a visit to the vet, extended travelling, or if a new animal is introduced into the home. Your dog’s posture in general may appear contorted or uncomfortable if they are afraid, stressed, or in pain. If they are in a lunging position or making themselves appear larger than they actually are, they are on the defensive and could possibly be on the verge of reacting unpleasantly.
If your dog suffers from severe anxiety or behavior problems, consult with a veterinarian or animal behaviorist. Some dogs require prescription anxiety medication to deal with stressful situations.