Is your dog feeling anxious? Stressed? Worried? You may think he can’t tell you if he is, but he can — and he will. Your dog communicates his emotional state through body language and behavior. Decoding his cues is mostly a matter of knowing what to look for.
It is important to notice the signs of stress in their early stages; this gives you an opportunity to remove your dog from a situation before his reaction escalates and becomes potentially aggressive or dangerous. Other anxiety intervention tactics, like training, are also more successful if started as soon as possible, before your dog has a chance to become chronically stressed.
As you attempt to decode your dog’s body language, take the situation he is in into account. In one context, a dog licking his lips may be expressing fear or anxiety; in another context, the same dog may lick his lips in anticipation of a treat. And some dogs lick their lips when they feel nauseous. Consider your dog’s overall behavior, not just one motion or gesture, when you assess his stress level. Be particularly aware of behavior that seems out of character for your dog.
If your dog exhibits signs that could be signaling stress or anxiety, start with a visit to the veterinarian. Your vet can investigate medical issues that may be contributing to changes in your dog’s behavior.
How Your Dog Looks When He’s Relaxed
In order to recognize when your dog is anxious, it is important to be familiar with how he behaves when he’s relaxed. In my experience, dogs who are relaxed and comfortable tend to show this in their behavior and posture.
When your dog is relaxed, you can see it in his face. His eyes will be soft and rounded or possibly slightly squinted. The coloring of his eyes will be easily seen. He will hold his ears semi erect and forward (unless he has floppy ears). When he interacts with a person, his ears may go back slightly, in a polite social gesture. His mouth will be relaxed — in fact, it may look like he’s smiling.
Your dog’s body language can also convey his comfort. A relaxed dog should carry his weight evenly on all four paws. When he is playing, he may use goofy, overly exaggerated, bouncy movements. He may also exchange social gestures with his doggie friends, including play bows, paw slaps and quick turns to invite a chase.
Recognizing When Your Dog Is Stressed
A stressed-out dog will probably exhibit different body language than his chill peers. The whites of his eyes may be more pronounced. You may notice that he has an intense and direct stare or engages in hypervigilant scanning of the environment. He may avoid eye contact or frequently turn away from people or other canines. He may blink excessively — or not at all.
Your dog's ears can also signal feelings of anxiety or stress. When your dog is alert or uneasy, his ears may becomes more erect. He may also move his ears back so that they lay close to or flat against his head. If your dog has floppy ears, it may be harder to distinguish this movement; watch for the base of his ears to rotate back and the ears themselves to move slightly back from their neutral position.
When your dog feels anxious, he may close his mouth tightly or pull his lips back in a tense grimace. This can be a sign that he is preparing to move into a growl, snarl, snap or bite. You may notice that the whiskers on his muzzle are erect and that the whisker beds appear more pronounced.
An anxious dog may also vocalize — he may bark, whimper, whine or growl, or make some other type of distress signal. Depending on the dog and the context, these vocalizations may indicate fear or aggression.
A stressed-out canine may stand in one place and lift a front paw or shift his weight away from whatever is scaring him. He may turn his head and body away or lower his body in a cowering, slinking movement.
You may see a change in his activity level as well. He may escalate and become hyperactive or appear more on edge and ready to react defensively. He may also freeze in place and refuse to move.
Other Ways Your Dog Experiences Stress
Like humans, canines experience physiological symptoms of stress. These may include respiratory changes, such as excessive panting, slow breathing or shallow breathing. Your dog may also hold his breath if he’s anxious.
Other signs to be aware of include excessive drooling or shedding, trembling, or sweaty paws. Your dog may also experience piloerection, which is when the hair on his neck, back or the base of his tail stands up; this can indicate high arousal.
An anxious dog may also urinate or defecate suddenly or break prior house-training habits. He may lose interest in food or become pickier about what he eats; he may also exhibit excessive thirst. He may spit out treats or grab them from you more aggressively than usual.
Your dog’s anxiety may manifest itself in some seemingly innocuous behaviors. He may shake (similar to how he shakes off after a bath) or yawn in an exaggerated manner. He may lick or scratch himself. He may roll onto his back and expose his belly; jump on people; or mouth, hump or mark objects. He may hug, lean on or cling to you, or try to climb up or hide behind you. He may suddenly demand more attention from you.
His general behavior may change, too. He may attempt to hide, look sleepy or depressed, or jump and startle easily. He may act goofy and hyper without proper context, or he may pace restlessly. He may fail to follow basic commands, like sit, and may lose interest in food, play and interactions with you.
If your dog exhibits ongoing signs of stress, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Once your dog has a clean bill of health, your veterinarian may refer you to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist to address both the fear and the behaviors it causes.