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.
Most people who live with dogs recognize some of the “bigger” clues that a dog’s anxious, uncomfortable, or outright scared — cowering, whining, and a tucked tail, to name just three. This article discusses a few more subtle signs. These signs generally don’t reflect full-blown panic, but they tell you that all’s not quite right in your pup's world.
If we can decode our dogs’ body language, we can bail out sensitive dogs before they get overwhelmed. And even boneheaded, happy-go-lucky types may find some situations too much for them. Come to think of it, watching them closely may reveal that they’re not such boneheads after all.
Why it’s important to notice your dog is stressed
When we recognize our dogs’ stress signals and take action to help them out, we’re taking care both of the dog and of ourselves. I often remember an aging dog named Jack whose humans noticed that he always retreated from their toddler’s approach. They thought nothing of it, so Jack’s repeated nonaggressive signals that he disliked kiddy-style handling didn’t get through. Jack finally bit. The child had to have stitches, and Jack lost his home. What a lot of preventable grief.
Of course, you don’t need to intervene every time your dog experiences stress. For instance, he might startle easily at the sound of a car backfiring, then relax and go back to sniffing the hydrant a few seconds later. There’s probably no big issue here. On the other hand, I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every client who told me a bite came out of the blue and then went on to describe in clear detail the half-dozen signs of distress her dog gave her. The human saw them all, but didn’t understand.
Heading back to the office for the first time in a while? Check out How to Help Dogs and Cats Manage Separation Anxiety When Their Humans Return to Work
What signs tell you a dog is stressed?
A dog who’s a bit worried about a person, another animal, or a situation may turn her head away. Commonly, you’ll be able to see the whites of her eyes at the same time, as she looks sidelong at whatever the problem is. Never, ever touch or even approach a dog who’s gone still and shows the whites of her eyes, because she could well be on the verge of exploding with a lunge, a snap, or even a bite.
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.
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.
Reduce the yelling in you and your dog's relationship by teaching them to understand these three common commands.
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 your dog's annual checkup with even more hair on your clothes than usual. Dogs shed copiously when nervous.
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.
Check out the Dog Trainer's guide for choosing a veterinarian.
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 dog’s guardian says, “Sheesh, Zippy, way to pick your moment!” and everybody laughs. You, having just read this incredible informative article, points out that prolonged gazing can elicit anxiety in dogs. Hence the out-of-context personal grooming moves.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.