Learning to read your dog’s body language is an important part of life with your dog. It is extra important when you want to adventure with your dog and take him or her into a variety of new environments and situations. New situations can be stressful for anyone, human or canine. Reducing stress for your dog is key if you want your dog to learn to enjoy traveling, hiking, and other outdoor activities. But it is hard to reduce your dog’s stress if you can’t identify it in the first place.
This blog post is all about learning about dog stress signals and how to use this knowledge to decide how much adventure your dog is ready to handle.
What are stress signals in dogs?
Stress signals are a dog’s way of communicating that they are uncomfortable with a situation. Signs of stress can range from the obvious, like whining and crying, to more subtle signs like licking their lips or looking away from something that makes them uncomfortable. An incomplete list of stress signals includes: yawning, panting, moving away, pacing, refusing to eat, shaking, whining, increased shedding, rigid body posture, dilated eyes, and changes to ear position.
Let’s look further into stress signals and the different purposes for these behaviors. And remember, as you read through the list of behaviors, context matters. For example, a wagging tail can be a friendly signal or a sign of over-arousal depending on the situation and other body language present.
Categories of Stress Signals
In today’s post, we are going to talk about 3 categories of stress signals:
- Obvious or Overt Stress Signals: These are typically the behaviors that earn dogs the label of “reactive” or “aggressive.” Many dogs use these signals when they are “past-threshold” and need more space from their trigger.
- Appeasing or Deferential Signals: These behaviors are used to try and de-escalate tension between members of the social group. Although these are stress signals, dogs can also use some of the same behaviors/signals in calm, stress free group interactions. So remember, context matters.
- Displacement Behaviors/ Calming Signals: These are behaviors a dog displays when they are uncomfortable or displaying discomfort. These are earlier warning signs of stress. Calming signals tend to be more subtle signs of stress that have the added benefit of also have calming effect on the dog. Like when a person takes a deep breath while crying/upset in order to try and calm down.
Alright, let’s take a look at each of these categories and how you can identify these signs of stress in your dog.
The Obvious Stress Signals
The first category includes some of the more obvious (easier to identify) signs of stress in your dog.
The obvious stress signals include many of the behaviors that are labeled as reactivity or aggression. These could include the following:
However, this category can also include slightly more subtle behaviors like:
- Hair up on Hackles
Dogs that exhibit these behaviors frequently, may be labeled as aggressive or reactive. But just because we use the label “reactive” doesn’t mean your dog overreacts all the time. Just like you could get into a yelling, screaming fight with someone in a certain situation and display aggressive behaviors, that doesn’t make you an aggressive person.
As a result, I find that it is more beneficial to look at individual behaviors in certain situations than it is to label a dog as overall a reactive dog. It will help you better understand why your dog is reacting or acting aggressively if you are paying attention to the specific signals your dog is giving in different situations.
These obvious stress signals are behaviors that are considered going “over threshold.” (We will talk more about finding your dog’s threshold in a later blog post.) They are instinctive responses that typically happen as a result of adrenaline release. And normally there isn’t a lot of pre-meditated thought behind them.
Dogs will continue displaying these behaviors if they feel like they are helping the dog meet his or her goal. For many dogs, this goal may be creating space from something causing anxiety.
In a mentally healthy dog, these more obvious stress signals are only going to be used if the more subtle signals (behaviors we will talk about in the appeasing/deferential category) are ignored. Counter-intuitively to us humans, many “aggressive” dogs display these signals to avoid conflict.
For example, I work as a veterinarian and I see this sequence of events commonly. Dogs will be nervous about being restrained for vaccinations. They will start by looking away and avoiding eye contact, laying down and exposing their belly, moving away and avoiding physical contact, and giving a “whale eye.” When I ignore those very polite requests for space, dogs will move into the more obvious stress signals, such as freezing, whining, staring, trembling, urinating and defecating, and sometimes growling, snapping, or even biting.
This ladder of progression of stress signaling is intended to get more space from me and my needles. And this is why your veterinarian may request to muzzle your dog if they are displaying subtle stress signals. This is to help keep everyone safe, even if your dog is very sweet and is not yet growling, snapping, or biting.
A Few Notes to Help You Consider Context
In regards to biting and dog fights, there are a few items to consider when assessing severity. First off, if you have a dog who has bitten, I recommend consulting with a veterinary behaviorist to make a treatment plan tailored to your dog. Second, biting happens on a scale. I typically use Dr. Ian Dunbar’s dog bite scale to help me assess the severity of a dog bite.
A third consideration is that fighting takes a large amount of energy from a dog. Most dogs will conserve the amount of damage that they do. If a dog fight is loud, that is typically a good thing as that dog is putting energy into sounding intimidating and is not simply focused on doing the most damage. A dog who is fighting quietly will typically do more damage.
Additionally, I like this analogy from Jenna at the Dog Liason (link goes to YouTube). She reminds us to be sympathetic to biting dogs as it is incredibly stressful on the body. She equates it to getting into a bad car wreck, barely walking out alive, and then the next day getting in a car again and still having to live with cars for the rest of your life. Not a good feeling.
Regarding snarling, growling, and snapping: These are active warning signs that your dog perceives that the threat is escalating. Be grateful for these warnings and DO NOT punish these signals. If you start punishing the signals your dog is giving before they feel forced to bite or further aggress, they will stop exhibiting the warning signs. Then the bite will happen by surprise and without warning!
As for lunging, this is normally a behavior that happens when a dog is leashed or behind a barrier. A lot of lunging while on leash results from poor handling techniques and good leash handling skills can improve this. Grisha Stewart created the BAT training program for dogs with reactivity and has also made some nice resources regarding good leash handling skills. Dr. Sophia Yin also has a few nice blog posts on this topic.
Freezing typically happens in two contexts: in anticipation of a trigger or just after a trigger appears. Essentially, freezing is a result of adrenaline about to be released or a result of adrenaline being released. Freezing, like staring, is typically accompanied by a tight, closed mouth when it is part of stress signaling.
Hackles Up is a body’s response to tension and overstimulation. This response is known scientifically as piloerection. People do this too. Ever heard of someone who was nervous or scared saying that the hairs on the back of their neck stood up? Adrenaline stimulates tiny muscles to pull on the roots of the hair, causing them to stand up. Some dogs will do this when happy and silly, but it can also preclude aggressive behaviors. Either way, it is a sign that your dog is over-aroused.
Stiffness can be a really common and complex body signal in dogs. Typically a dog who is stressed will also have a closed mouth, be staring, and have ears either up and forward or back against the head. The tension in their body will also impair the ability to breathe well, aka your dog will hold their breath. Just like stressed people need to take a deep breath to think and interact well when stressed, so does your dog. So if you haven’t already, learn how to teach your dog to take a deep breath.
Okay, now let’s move on to some of the less commonly recognized stress signals:
Appeasing or Deferential Behaviors
Appeasing or deferential behaviors are ones that dogs use to try and deescalate tension and diffuse conflict. Dogs, like people, are very social animals. And in any social group, there can arise mild conflicts that are often resolved when one group member defers to another. A dog exhibiting appeasing or deferential behaviors is telling other group members that they don’t want to cause harm. They are not looking to initiate conflict.
Dogs demonstrate these behaviors when they are not over threshold and adrenaline has not been released yet. There is typically only a mild level of stress associated with these behaviors.
In a previous blog post, we talked about deference in regards to leadership and teaching your dog to defer to your guidance in stressful situations. The context of these differential behaviors are slightly different, but you may see them in a dog that defers to you if they feel you are causing conflict or forcing them into a situation they aren’t comfortable with.
For example, if you scold your dog for getting into something, you may see them avert eye contact, lower their head, slow their movement, and tuck their body. This behavior is often labeled as a “guilty” dog, but is really just a dog trying to appease you and avoid further conflict with you.
Again context matters, as some happy appeasing behaviors can include the following:
- Licking – especially licking the lips of a higher ranking member of the social group
- Curved body
- Play Bow
You may see nuzzling and licking when dogs want attention, want to play, or are insecure and want to be coddled. Play bows are displayed after hard play and are often used by extraverted dogs that have been playing a little too exuberantly.
And curved bodies are seen in normal dog greetings as dogs make themselves seem smaller and less offensive. Both dogs will sniff the back end of the other dog creating a curved circle to avoid direct, straight body language at each other’s faces. This is part of why on-leash greetings can result in more conflicts, as dogs have a harder time using their curved body language when restrained by a leash.
But when dogs are deferring to avoid conflict, you may see the following appeasing behaviors:
- Averting eye contact
- Whale Eye
- Lower head/tucked body posture
- Exposing Belly
In the avoidance section of appeasing behaviors, dogs are deferring to another dog or person. They are making themselves smaller and less threatening to reduce the risk of conflict. Dogs displaying these signals are often anxious.
An important note is that a “whale eye”, where you see the whites of a dog’s eyes associated with tense body language, can be a precursor or even accompanied by growling or snarling. When a dog presents a whale eye, they move their head away from the threat, but the eyes continue to watch the threat. While averting eye contact, lowered heads, tucked bodies, and exposed bellies can all proceed escalating behavior, whale eye is most often a courtesy signal that comes before dogs move into the obvious stress signals like snapping.
Displacement and Calming Behaviors
While appeasing and deferential behaviors are attempts to diffuse conflict with another member of the social group, displacement behaviors are performed in an effort to resolve internal stress or conflict within a dog. An example would be a dog with separation anxiety who is left alone.
Some displacement behaviors are simple signs of awkwardness and discomfort, while other displacement behaviors can have a calming effect.
Like appeasing behaviors, displacement behaviors occur when a dog is approaching threshold (not when a dog is over threshold). These behaviors can be a little confusing as they can occur at different phases in the stress sequence. And while calming signals can sound like a good thing, remember that they are still a sign of stress.
If your dog is displaying calming signals, they are trying to calm themselves instead of aggressing and moving up into the overt/obvious stress signals. Your dog is essentially squeezing a stress ball or taking a deep breath and counting to ten to try and avoid/reduce stress.
Displacement behaviors include the following:
- Sneezing – Both scratching and sneezing can help release tension from the body. They can be a normal behavior, but if seen with other stress signals, can a clue that your dog is uncomfortable.
- Biting Paws or Body Part – Biting at paws or other body parts tends to be a compulsive behavior seen in anxious dogs.
- Jumping on stimulus – Jumping can occur in a dog who doesn’t know what else to do with their energy and feels clueless.
- Awkward Standing Posture
- Licking Lips – this tends to be a quick lick up towards the top of the nose and is not associated with food. Dogs who are unsure/ not confident tend to display this stress signal.
- Yawn – A yawn with closed eyes and a high pitched sound may indicate that your dog is stressed and looking to deescalate a situation.
- Teeth Clacking – This often occurs at the same time as heavy scanning.
- Heavy Scanning
- Shake Off – This typically happens after your dog has been stiff and intense for a few moments. Remember that stiffness can be one of the behaviors seen when your dog is over threshold. As the trigger is removed the the tension resolves, your dog will shake (like they are drying off) as a healthy way to relieve some of the stress they were feeling.
- Sniffing – This actually lowers a dog’s heart rate. Check out this cool study performed by Dog Field Study.
- Turning Head/Body Away – Looking away from a trigger/stimulus is a healthy way of disengaging and does require some trust. This body signal also tells other dogs to stay away and keep their distance.
- Heaving Breathing/Panting – Panting can happen in a variety of situations, but it is linked with a high heart rate which can happen with stress.
Interested in ready more about calming signals in dogs? I recommend reading Turid Rugaas’ book “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals.” <– This is an affiliate link to Amazon. As an Amazon Associated I ear with qualifying purchases.
How many stress signals do my pups display in the video below?
For context, I was recording a video for my YouTube channel and the dogs wanted to keep moving around, so I am lightly restraining both of them to stay in place. They had jumped up happily for treats initially but now wanted to sniff around the room to look for the rest of the treat stash.
You may see some others, but when I watch the video, I see Glia lick her nose, look away from me, yawn, lean away, and then maintain an awkward and stiff posture with her head turned away and averting eye contact.
For Sasha, I see her turn her attention up to me, lick her nose, look away, lick her nose again, sniff, yawn, and then look away again.
I have trimmed the video as I release them, but both dogs when released from the light restraint I had them in take one step away and then stop exhibiting stress signals.
The Importance of Stress Signals
Overall, stress signals are useful for any dog owner to learn. But they are extra important to be aware of for those working with dogs who struggling with over-reactivity. Learning to read your dog’s early stress signals can give you a lot of warning regarding when your dog is feeling uncomfortable and is more likely to demonstrate “reactive” behavior aka overt stress signals. If you can identify the subtle signs of stress, you can remove your dog from a stressful situation before they are barking, whining, shaking, or snapping.
Learning how to read your dog’s stress signals is also important for those who enjoy adventuring with their dogs. Stress can lead to dogs forming negative associations with new experiences, so monitor for stress when introducing your dog to new activities.
And beyond the mental health concerns, stress can also have negative impacts on your dog’s physical health. Stressed dogs have higher cortisol levels and commonly develop stomach upset and less capable immune systems. Identifying early warning signs of stress is super important for those interested in longer-term adventures, like backpacking with a dog.
If you are looking for more information about stress signals in dogs, I found the following helpful.
The Whole Dog Journal has a nice post with a list of stress signals in dogs. And there are several good YouTube videos with great examples of stress signals in dogs.
The videos I was most impressed with were created by Jenna with Dog Liaison. Her videos are science-based and so informative! I highly recommend that you check her channel out. Or you can head over to her website, GetACalmDog.com.
The video linked below is Jenna’s Dog Behavior 101 Complete Guide, but she also has some videos where she breaks up the different categories of stress signals in more detail. You can find all of her videos on Dog Liaison on YouTube.
And here are a couple of other videos that I found helpful when double-checking information and finding examples for this post.