How to Tell When Your Dog Is Stressed

We all recognize a tucked tail as a doggy stress signal. But your dog has many other ways to say that he's uncomfortable – and you may not be familiar with all of them.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #59

Other Signs of a Stressed Dog

Never, ever touch or even approach a dog who’s gone still and shows the whites of her eyes.

A related but less potentially explosive behavior is ignoring--just what it sounds like. I take regular walks with a colleague, Jenny Chun, to help her dog Lucy gain some canine social skills. My boy Juni isn’t socially adept by any means, but Lucy makes him look like Perez Hilton. As we walk side by side, Jenny and I can see Lucy glancing at Juni out of the corners of her eyes, over and over and over again. After a minute or two, she’ll  veer off and start ostentatiously sniffing … something or other. I don’t think it matters what; you can almost see the thought balloon reading “Dog? What dog? I don’t see any dog. Ni ni ni ni.”

Lucy isn’t showing bad leash manners or blowing Jenny off. Her sniffing in this particular situation is what’s called a “displacement behavior” (1). Displacement behaviors are completely normal but turn up out of context or when an animal experiences conflict between two motivations. In Lucy’s case, probably she’s both socially interested in Juni, and anxious about close contact with him. She keeps an eye on him till she can’t stand it anymore, and then she just has to sniff.

What a Sniffing Dog Might Also Mean

You’ll also often see a dog sniffing the ground as he makes his way sloooowly back to a person who’s yelling at him to get over here right now. Here, the sniffing is probably not a displacement behavior--combined with the slow approach, it directly signals appeasement and deference. The dog is saying, in effect, “I mean you no harm, I offer no challenge, see how I don’t just rush right up to you rudely while staring in your face?” Stop yelling, Yelling Person, and show your dog some happy-voice love.

Drooling, Paw Sweat, and Shedding Can Signal Dog Stress

A surprising number of clues to anxiety involve stuff coming off the dog’s body. Drool? Check, though drool may also suggest nausea or dental problems. Paw sweat? Check. Watch the floor tile at the vet’s office, for instance. Shedding? Check. To stick with the example of the vet’s office, there’s a reason you come home from Dogalini’s annual checkup with even more hair on your clothes than usual. Dogs shed copiously when nervous.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).