Is your dog feeling anxious? Stressed? Worried? You may think he can’t tell you if he is, but he often will, in nonverbal ways. Your dog communicates his emotional state through his 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 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 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. Pay particular attention to his face. His eyes should be soft and rounded or possibly slightly squinted. The coloring of his eyes should be easily seen. He should hold his ears semierect 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 should be relaxed — in fact, it may look like he’s smiling.
Pay Attention to His Posture
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 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 his chill peers. 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, cower or lower his body and attempt to slink away. You may see a change in his activity level as well. He may escalate and become hyperactive or freeze in place and refuse to move. He may appear more on edge and ready to react defensively.
The Face of Stress
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 growl, snarl, snap or bite. You may notice that the whiskers on his muzzle are erect and that the whisker beds appear more pronounced. 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.
Watch the Ears
Your dog's ears can also signal feelings of anxiety or stress. When your dog is alert or aroused, his ears may become more erect. If he reacts to stress by being submissive, he may move his ears back so that they lie 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.
Listen for Clues
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.
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. His general behavior may change, too. He may yawn, attempt to hide, or jump and startle easily. He may act goofy and hyper without proper context, or he may pace restlessly.