Is your dog feeling anxious? Stressed? Worried? You may think they can’t tell you if they are, but they often will, in nonverbal ways. Your dog communicates their emotional state through their body language and behavior. Decoding these 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 their 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 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 their stress level. Be particularly aware of behavior that seems out of character for your dog.
How Your Dog Looks When They're Relaxed
In order to recognize when your dog is anxious, it is important to be familiar with how they behave when they are relaxed. Pay particular attention to their face. Their eyes should be soft and rounded or possibly slightly squinted. The coloring of their eyes should be easily seen. They should hold their ears semi-erect and forward (unless they have floppy ears). When they interact with a person, their ears may go back slightly in a polite social gesture. Their mouth should be relaxed — in fact, it may look like they are smiling.
Pay Attention to Their Posture
Your dog’s body language can also convey their comfort. A relaxed dog should carry their weight evenly on all four paws. When they are playing, they may use goofy, overly exaggerated, bouncy movements. They may also exchange social gestures with their doggy 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 their chill peers. A stressed-out canine may stand in one place and lift a front paw or shift their weight away from whatever is scaring them. They may turn their head and body away, cower or lower their body and attempt to slink away. You may see a change in their activity level as well. They may escalate and become hyperactive or freeze in place and refuse to move. They may appear more on edge and ready to react defensively.
The Face of Stress
When your dog feels anxious, they may close their mouth tightly or pull their lips back in a tense grimace. This can be a sign that they are preparing to growl, snarl, snap or bite. You may notice that the whiskers on their muzzle are erect and that the whisker beds appear more pronounced. The whites of their eyes may be more pronounced. You may notice that they have an intense and direct stare or engages in hyper-vigilant scanning of the environment. They may avoid eye contact or frequently turn away from people or other canines. They may blink excessively — or not at all.
Watch the Ears
Your dog's ears can also signal feelings of anxiety or stress. When your dog is alert or aroused, their ears may become more erect. If they react to stress by being submissive, they may move their ears back so that they lie close to or flat against their head. If your dog has floppy ears, it may be harder to distinguish this movement; watch for the base of their ears to rotate back and the ears themselves to move slightly back from their neutral position.
Listen for Clues
An anxious dog may also vocalize — they 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.
Other Signs Your Dog Is Stressed
Like humans, canines can experience physiological signs of stress. These may include respiratory changes, such as excessive panting, slow or shallow breathing, excessive drooling or shedding, trembling, or sweaty paws. Their general behavior may change, too. They may yawn, attempt to hide, or jump and startle easily. They may act goofy and hyper without proper context, or they may pace restlessly.
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.
If you have any questions or concerns, you can always visit or call us – we want to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.
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