12 Signs of Stress in Dogs and How to Help

Dogs and humans may have coevolved, but living in a society where humans dominate now may still be very stressful for our furry friends. Knowing how to effectively address the needs of our domesticated pets can help alleviate a lot of this tension. Additionally, since many signals of stress in dogs might be missed by an inexperienced eye, we know that we need to be able to identify them.

This guide will cover a non-exhaustive list of 12 telltale indicators of stress in dogs, how to spot them, an explanation of why your dog could be worried, and some advice on how to make your dog feel safer, happier, and healthier. In this piece, we’ll discuss how to spot distress signals in dogs. Put another way, we’ll concentrate on stressful situations that the dog interprets negatively. In contrast, epistress refers to stressful stimuli that are viewed as beneficial and have the potential to promote growth.

Although we’ll talk about each indication separately, it’s normal to see these signs appear together. Additionally, it’s always a good idea to schedule a complete vet check for any potential underlying medical concerns if you detect a sudden, alarming shift in your dog’s behavior. Finally, because these signals can have several meanings, it’s critical to avoid interpreting them arbitrarily. Dogs communicate through complex body language, therefore context is crucial.

Go on to find out more.

1. Yawning

It’s critical to evaluate your dog’s surroundings and other cues if you observe that your dog is yawning. Dogs will yawn when they are stressed, in addition to when they are simply tired or bored. Many dogs, for instance, yawn when they are tightly caressed, kissed on the face, bent over, gazed at, etc. The truth is that many dogs dislike human touch, especially when it’s given around the neck or face, even though some puppies may not mind or find it enjoyable. However, because we interpret these actions as showing affection, it can be challenging to discern when a dog would much rather engage in an alternative way.

2. Signs of Stress in Dogs: Panting

Even when your dog isn’t hot and hasn’t been exercising, you could notice that they have clothes on. Panting can also be brought on by some drugs, medical problems, and pain. Nevertheless, your dog may also pant if they are under stress, whether due to one of the previously listed reasons or not.

Stress panting usually occurs when there is extreme pain or fear in your pet. Certain dogs may exhibit this in the car, at the veterinarian, and during thunderstorms and fireworks. The dog will usually be panting heavily and have their jaws gaping open. Several other signals that are mentioned later in this article frequently accompany this one.

3. Cowering/Hiding

Cowering or hiding is a more overt indication that your dog is under stress. Your dog might act out in this way during a particularly stressful situation, or they might hide all the time. Both may indicate that your dog needs assistance. Setting up a comprehensive vet check is crucial, especially for a dog who hides all the time, as pain and underlying medical disorders can create many of the same indicators that non-painful stress can.

It’s possible that your dog is cowering or hiding because they feel confined. It’s possible that someone is unintentionally cornering the dog. Because they frequently lack fine spatial awareness, youngsters may find it particularly easy to inadvertently corner a dog or make them tremble with loud noises and startling body language.

4. Signs of Stress In Dogs: Whale Eyes

Dogs’ eyes frequently seem wide when they are really agitated, especially if the situation lasts longer than a few seconds. Usually, the whites of their eyes are visible. Your dog may turn their head and give the whale eyes sign of appeasement when they see another dog. Your dog may use this signal, combined with a head turn, to let another dog know they are not a threat and that they are not interested in getting into a fight if they are feeling anxious or scared by them.

5. Tongue Flicks

Dogs lick, of course, for a variety of reasons. Short, tight, and rapid licks, on the other hand, are frequently an indication of tension or an attempt to please. Tongue flicking is a common term for this kind of licking. Numerous footage of dogs swiftly licking someone’s face after they’ve leaned into their area can be found online.

Even though the dog appears to be showing love and happiness in the video, it’s much more likely that the dog is actually worried. This particular kind of licking is usually an appeasement gesture to reduce tension and a request for space. Many dogs express their disapproval by giving rapid, tight licks to persons who place their faces close to their heads. During this time, the dog might also yawn, show whale eyes, and swivel its head.

6. Signs of Stress in Dogs: Trembling

Trembling is another more blatant indicator of stress in dogs. This is frequently observed in dogs who are going through extremely stressful situations and are also somewhat fearful. Dogs that are afraid of noises will frequently shake when faced with them. Naturally, cold makes dogs shiver as well, so while interpreting your dog’s body language, it’s crucial to consider the bigger picture and the actual surroundings.

7. Displacement Behaviors

Displacement behaviors are actions taken out of context that people usually do when they’re feeling conflicted. There could be either little or a lot of tension from this issue. This frequently shows up for dogs as yawning, sniffing, scratching, body shaking, and stretching.

For instance, when another dog approaches, your dog can start sniffing the ground out of the blue. This may mean that your dog is confused and even anxious about this method. They might act in a comfortable way out of a lack of knowledge about what to do next, possibly even as they consider the circumstances. These messages may also be intended as gestures of appeasement. When play becomes very harsh, many dogs may shake their bodies and stretch. This makes it clearer that the dog doesn’t want a fight and that the intensity is too high. Hopefully, the other dog will interpret this indication and turn down the volume a bit.

8. Signs of Stress in Dogs: Taking Treats Quickly and Roughly

Your dog might be a snappigator, eagerly grabbing food from your palm whenever they see fit. Maybe all they need to do is figure out how to take treats gently. To teach your dog this behavior, hold the reward in your first hand and open it when the dog licks between your thumb and pointer finger in an attempt to acquire the treat. On the other hand, it may indicate stress if your dog usually accepts goodies gently but begins to steal them in particular situations.

Treats might be used in a “look at that” counter-conditioning exercise with a dog that has anxiety around other puppies. Establishing up these sessions with the intention of exposing your dog to the stimuli at a reasonable distance is the aim. When you cue your dog to look at the other dog, and then they unexpectedly steal the treat out of your hand after you mark the action, it’s a good sign that your dog is still feeling a lot of tension in the situation.

9. Head Turns

Your dog will frequently tilt their head away from the source of stress if they are uncomfortable in an environment they can’t quickly escape. This could appear as your dog turning away from a stranger who is seated too near to them on the couch. Alternatively, during a difficult exam, they could move their head away from the veterinarian. Head turns are a useful tool for defusing tense situations by letting the other dog know that you don’t want to fight. This is due to the fact that dog stares frequently before turning into a physical altercation.

10. Signs of Stress in Dogs: Self-Harm Behaviors

Dogs that are under a lot of stress on a regular basis may start to exhibit concerning self-harming habits. These actions can include biting or sucking their flanks, overgrooming, licking their raw feet, and chewing their tails. The affected areas may be sore and bleeding from these activities, which might recur so intensely that they increase the risk of infection and cause persistent pain.

These symptoms are especially suggestive of prolonged, maladaptive stress. Prolonged self-harm may have underlying medical causes. This kind of behavior can also be observed in dogs that are routinely confined without any way out, including daily kenneling for several hours or dogs that are chained all the time.

11. Drooling

Your dog may drool in response to strong scents or in anticipation of their favorite dish, but they may also drool when they are under stress. Excessive panting, shaking, and wide eyes are frequently seen with this indication. Drooling in cars is a common indicator of stress in dogs who are terrified to ride in them. These dogs might also start feeling pretty queasy.

12. Signs of Stress in Dogs: Abnormal, Repetitive Behaviors

These indicators resemble self-harming behaviors and may even cross over with them. You might observe your dog engaging in odd, repeated activities like chasing their tail a lot, pacing, biting flies, chasing shadows or lights, whirling, and hallucinating prey. These actions are frequent, routine, and unrelated to the situation. They could be the outcome of coping strategies brought on by ongoing stress or an underlying medical issue, such as mental illness. These habits, which interfere with regular activities like eating and sleeping, are particularly difficult to stop for extended periods of time, unlike the infrequent fixation or reaction to attractive stimuli.

Signs of Stress in Dogs: How to Help

One of the first steps to helping fix the problem is being aware of the possible indicators that your dog might be experiencing stress. Subsequently, you should consider the bigger picture and begin to investigate the possible causes of your dog’s worry. Both a basic and a complex response are possible.

Make Observations

For example, it’s wise to take a step back and consider what the possible immediate triggers might be if you observe your dog yawning, particularly if the yawn is strong, prolonged, and accompanied by a high-pitched whining sound. Maybe they are in a stressful situation, or maybe a child cuddling them is making them feel anxious.

Alternatively, you can observe that, at a specific point in your training session, your dog always begins by smelling the ground. In that scenario, you might want to consider which specific training component might be generating tension or conflict.

Some believe that recording their observations in writing makes it easier to see trends related to the stress signals.

Reduce, Remove, and Avoid Triggers

Trying to eliminate the stressor or removing your dog from the trigger is sometimes the best line of action. When they are eating, they might, for instance, swivel their heads and display whale eyes when they are near other animals or humans. Make sure you feed them individually in a place where they feel at ease and won’t be disturbed to assist alleviate the tension.

When bringing your dog to a new dog park, for instance, and they show any of the aforementioned symptoms, it could be a good idea to leave the fenced-in area and allow them to have a better sense of the surroundings from a more comfortable distance. You might also try returning at a time when there aren’t as many dogs around. You could also enter the park after it has closed and allow your dog to explore its aroma alone, away from other canines.

Advocate for Your Dog

Often, people unintentionally cause tension in pets. You can lessen or even eliminate severe stress by standing up for your dog in social situations. This could seem like telling people not to give them head pettings or to pull them into hugs. You can ask them to scratch your dog’s chest rather than give him a pat on the head if your dog is normally at ease meeting new people. Alternatively, tell them to stop caressing your dog and just let them greet you with a sniff and some body language.

Although it can be tough to refuse requests to pet your dog, we have a responsibility to stand up for and defend them. Set polite but firm boundaries if you know that your dog is uncomfortable with strangers petting him. Giving your dog portions of expensive goodies everytime they’re with a new person can also make them feel more at ease around strangers. It’s advisable to do this, though, at places where your dog feels secure and away from others. Treats should never be used to entice or force your dog to approach strangers.

Reach Out for Help

Try to get your dog out of the extremely stressful situation if at all possible. This could not be feasible, for example, in the event of a rainstorm or an urgent veterinarian visit. In this scenario, you should take action to make your dog feel less fearful in those circumstances, particularly if the unpleasant incident is likely to recur or is a regular occurrence. It is best to seek help from a veterinary behaviorist or force-free behaviorist, especially in these situations.

Your veterinarian might provide supportive vitamins or anxiety-reducing drugs. In addition, a force-free behaviorist can design a methodical strategy to make your dog feel less threatened in the situations that trigger them. These procedures usually take several months and ask for patience and gradual progress. It’s important to go at your dog’s comfort level, particularly when dealing with phobias and trauma.

Comfort Them

You can be discouraged from consoling your stressed or afraid dog by certain trainers and pet websites. The reasoning behind this is that by focusing on these “negative” feelings, you are actually strengthening them. This assertion, however, is not supported by a scientific knowledge of behavior, emotions, or reinforcement. Comforting your dog won’t help them feel any less fearful, and reinforcement only affects behavior—not feelings—when it comes to increasing or decreasing a behavior.

You can train your dog to see you as a reliable source of support by providing comfort during stressful times. In difficult situations, this can help individuals feel less alone, which reduces their likelihood of feeling the need to defend themselves by attacking or fleeing. You’ve given your dog a reliable, secure response to fear and anxiety if they know they can curl up on your leg or sit in your lap. Naturally, calming down shouldn’t take the place of removing and reducing triggers.

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Assess and Provide for Species-Specific Needs

Determining if a dog’s species-specific needs are being frequently addressed is a critical component of measuring dog stress. For dogs that are under constant stress, there can be an essential element of their canine existence that is either absent or underrepresented. If your dog appears stressed out a lot, you might want to check if they often have access to the following:

  • The ability to express discomfort without punishment and to have reasonable boundaries respected (ex. don’t bother the dog when eating or force them to be petted if uncomfortable).
  •  Voluntary, fear-free exercise.
  •  Comfortable shelter that they can freely come and go from.
  •  Social companionship (for some dogs, this may include friendships with other dogs, or it may not).
  •  Rewarding, cognitive, and food-based enrichment (such as puzzles that provide treats when solved).
  •  Scent-based enrichment.
  •  Appropriate items to chew.
  •  Free-form or structured play.
  •  For adult dogs, at least 12 hours of restful, restorative sleep.
  •  Nutritious food.
  •  Clean, fresh water.
  •  Freedom from pain or consistent pain management.
  •  Freedom from fear, coercion, pain, and punishment-based training.
  •  Freedom from chronic conflict (is there multi-dog conflict occurring in the house?).
  •  Freedom of movement and choice, as much as safely possible (such as allowing them to follow their nose on walks in the forest, when possible).