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Body language indicators of fear, anxiety and stress in dogs

Certified dog trainer Mikkel Becker shares how a dog’s body language might indicate that they are stressed.

Mikkel Becker  
CBCC-KA, CDBC, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA 
Certified trainer and behaviour consultant, Mikkel Becker is the lead trainer for Fear Free Happy Homes. Mikkel lives with Indiana Bones and Otis, pug mixes, who help her champion reward-based training. She co-authored From Fearful to Fear Free. 

Eyes

Hypervigilant scanning, increased blinking, squinting and furrowed brows could indicate stress. Eyes might appear ‘black’, ‘dark’ or ‘fixed’ and ‘hard’ as pupils are dilated and the animal stares. Whites of the eyes might be showing.

Ears

When fearful, a dog might tuck its ears towards their head or neck. Even with a long-eared dog, the ear position can be gauged by noting the base of the dog’s ears. Or, when overly aroused and ready to react, potentially with aggression, the dog’s ears might be rigid and held tightly erect and forward.

Tail wag

A wagging tail only means intent to interact, NOT friendly intent. Certain wags are more likely to be friendly, like a medium height tail wag that’s relaxed and has wide sweeping movements back and forth or that moves in a wide circling wag. But many wags are also signs of concern. A tail that’s tucked and held low, with slight or fast short wagging motions communicates uncertainty and concern. A low, fast wag is sometimes seen upon greeting, which can signal a dog that’s a little insecure over the interaction and offering an appeasement gesture to communicate they’re not a threat. A high, raised tail wag that’s waving rigidly in tight ticks back and forth is a dog that’s highly aroused and ready to react. Depending upon the context, they may be readying to turn and give chase to a ball that's thrown. Or, the high, tight tail wag may be the dog that’s ready to lunge, bark or even bite.

Body posture and weight distribution

Puffed up posture and stiffened muscles indicate that a dog is action-ready and gives them the appearance of being bigger than they really are. Cowering, curling up tight with limbs and tail tucked in close and stiff, tight muscles indicate concern.

Movement

Reluctance to investigate, approach or interact, freezing in place and slowed, cautious and calculated movements indicate unease. The dog might be on high alert and easily startled. Their stiff, tight muscles make them ready to react or run. They might progress to aggression to defend themselves in the face of a perceived threat.

Mouth

An anxious dog might have their mouth closed tightly with their lips held tight or held back in a grimace or tight smile. They might also pant often with their tongue up high in the mouth or they might snap, snarl or bite.

Vocalisations

Growling, barking, whining, howling and screaming are all ways that dogs might vocalise their stress.

Hair

Sudden increase in shedding and fur loss, as well as hair standing on end on the back or tail can indicate the dog is in a hyperaware state.

Appetite

Taking treats harder than normal, being ‘snatchy’, increased pickiness with treats and no longer taking treats, even if hungry, suggest a dog isn’t happy.

Body responses

A fearful dog might shake, tremble or shiver. They might dribble urine and lose control of bladder altogether. The dog may sweat through their paw pads when overly stressed. The dog may also salivate excessively, which may be accompanied by stress panting. They might also lick their lips, yawn, shake dry when not wet or lick their body excessively.

Seeking help

If your dog exhibits any of this body language and you suspect that they are stressed, speak to a vet or pet behaviourist for advice.

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