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

Urine Marking Can Signal Stress

While we’re on the subject of stuff coming off the dog’s body, consider urine. You’ve probably met puppies who dribble when they’re excited or intimidated--that’s not news. But if you have a reactive dog, male or female, who urine-marks, watch what happens immediately after he blows up at another dog. Often, the reactive dog heads for the nearest vertical surface and lifts leg. I don’t think anyone knows exactly what this behavior means in this context. It’s probably not much use as a signal to the other dog who’s gone by then. My rough guess is that it somehow closes the episode or brings the curtain down. Maybe it’s a dog’s way of saying “Phew! That’s over with.” Or maybe the stress of an explosive episode just triggers the urge to pee.

Genital Licking Can Signal Stress

We’ve all heard the old joke about why dogs lick their genitals. Who knows, the joke reason may even be for real. Dogs also lick their genitals to clean them, of course, and licking turns up as a displacement behavior in moments of anxiety or conflict as well. One common scenario: A person walking his dog stops to talk to a friend. They talk about the dog. They look at the dog fixedly for a long time. All of a sudden the dog sits back and licks his penis. The bright red crown pokes out of the sheath. The dog’s guardian says, “Sheesh, Zippy, way to pick your moment!” and everybody laughs. The Dog Trainer points out that prolonged gazing can elicit anxiety in dogs. Hence the out-of-context erection and personal grooming moves. Just be grateful your dog doesn’t head for a bikini wax when he feels a little bit on edge.

There’s so much more to canine body language and signaling than I can cover here. Humping, yawning, barking, and even going to sleep may indicate that a dog is overstressed. I’ve discussed tails and faces in other articles in this series. You can also check out the books and websites listed in the Resources section below, including a link to a short video of Lucy showing stress at the vet’s office.

That’s all for this week’s article. I hope you’ll visit me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini, and write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I answer as many questions as I can. Thank you for reading!


1. Here’s an excellent discussion of displacement behaviors in the context of a question about a dog’s drinking from her water bowl whenever her people come home.


Sophie Collins. Tail Talk: Understanding the Secret Language of Dogs (2007).

Barbara Handelman. Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook (2008).

Brenda Aloff. Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide (2005).

Sarah Kalnajs. The Language of Dogs (DVDs; 2006).

My friend Eric Goebelbecker’s nifty little article on dog body language.

Stacy Breslau-Schneck, “Talking Dog: Body Language”

The video of Juni’s friend Lucy at the vet’s office.

Stressed Dog image from Shutterstock


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).