Identifying Signs of Stress in Dogs

dog with whale eye and ears back

What causes stress in dogs?

When you see a dog with a wagging tail and lolling tongue it is hard to imagine that they could have any stress in their lives. Sadly, in today’s busy society, many dogs are being asked to cope with stressful situations and their guardians might not even be aware.

Events which can be stressful for dogs include:

  • Sudden changes to the daily routine
  • A change in family or household dynamics such as the loss of a family member or somebody new joining the household (including babies!)
  • The introduction of a new pet either to the household or the neighbourhood
  • Fear of people or dogs
  • Moving house
  • Pain, changes to vision or hearing, surgical recovery, and other medical issues
  • Seasonal changes in day length and temperature
  • Unfamiliar noises such as fireworks, building works, and storms
  • Separation from bonded humans or animals
stressed dog next to humans with moving boxes

Medical causes of stress in dogs

Medical problems can cause or add to stress in dogs. The most common medical condition related to behaviour changes in dogs is pain. Dogs can feel less able to cope with other dogs, people, and new situations if they are in pain. If your dog starts showing signs of stress and the reason is not clear a visit to your vet is strongly recommended.

Surgery or hospitalisation also causes stress for dogs despite the best efforts of veterinary practices. Post-operative medications and pain can change your dog’s behaviour and reduce their ability to tolerate noise or busy situation. Dogs who need veterinary attention need quiet and calm to recover.

Aging can be a cause of stress in dogs due to pain, poor vision, reduced hearing, and other medical conditions. Older dogs with cognitive dysfunction may have altered sleep patterns which can lead them to feel stressed during the day.

yawning older dog

Stress caused by frustration

All dogs will experience small amounts of frustration during training and in their daily lives. For example, when we are teaching a ‘sit’ we might not give a treat if our trained dog sits crooked, the dog feels a bit of frustration, tries again, and gets a reward for sitting straighter. However, frustration can lead to stress if the dogs can’t resolve the situation. Examples of frustrating situations that might cause stress include being unable to access a resource the dogs needs such as somewhere to toilet, water, food, or their person.

Being unable to escape from a stressful environment can also cause frustration. Examples might include being on a lead around other dogs, or not having a safe space to hide during a party.

Frustrated dogs might show barking, mouthing, jumping up, pawing and other signals of stress. Understanding when your dog is moving towards an unhealthy level of frustration is important so that you can help them relieve and avoid stressful situations.

dog pawing owner anxiously

Signs of stress in dogs

Dogs communicate with each other using subtle body language and facial expressions. They use the same methods to communicate with their people, but we often miss the signs our dogs are giving us. Learning to read your dog’s body language will allow you to support and advocate for them in stressful situations.

Understanding when your dog is communicating that they are uncomfortable can avoid conflict with other dogs and people. Spotting the signs of stress in your dog allows you to change the situation to alleviate their worries. Appreciating that your dog is behaving out of character because they aren’t happy with a situation means you can get them out of there and allow them to relax.

nervous labrador, hunching away from what is causing them stressed, whites of eyes showing and tension in forehead

Visual signs of stress in dogs

The best way to learn about dog body language is to look at photographs and videos of dogs in different situations. Remember that dogs come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes and that some of the signs of stress on this list can be normal in certain breeds. For example, Italian Greyhounds almost always have their tails carried low, even when wagging and happy!

Visual signs that might indicate stress:

  • Body held tense or stiff
  • Ears pinned back
  • Tail held low or tucked between the back legs
  • Tight closed mouth
  • Furrowed brows
  • Heavy panting when the dog hasn’t been running and the weather isn’t warm
  • Licking around the mouth
  • Slow or stalking movements
  • Leaning away or looking away
  • A hunched body position with the head lowered
  • Yawning
  • Showing the whites of the eye, known as ‘whale eye’
  • Body weight shifted backwards
  • Raised front paw
  • Eyes narrowed
  • Looking like they are smiling; this is called an appeasement grin
  • Staring at what they are worried about
  • Large pupils, this sometimes makes the eye look red if the light catches the back of the eye
  • Hiding away
  • Whining
  • Drooling
  • Licking themselves, a person, or object obsessively or excessive grooming
  • Blinking rapidly
  • Shedding coat or scurf rising on the coat
  • Chewing themselves or the environment
  • Pacing around or unable to settle
  • Shaking or shivering
  • Uncharacteristic mouthing, jumping and pawing
  • Humping objects, people, or other dogs

This list is not exhaustive, and you might learn the particular early warning signs that your dog uses to communicate with you.

dog with whale eye and ears back showing signs of stress

Stress can also have physiological effects on your dog that affect their health. Stress often affects the digestive system so you might see a loss of appetite or refusal to take food treats. Frequent bowel movements and diarrhoea may also suggest your dog is stressed.

More chronic stress can cause weight loss, skin problems, and changes to the immune system which may allow infections or trigger autoimmune diseases.

Signs of extreme stress in dogs

If subtle communication of stress is ignored, or if a dog has previously been punished for exhibiting those behaviours, the dog might feel the need to show more extreme signs that they are not coping with a situation. If you see these signs in your dog, give them space immediately and try to stop or remove them from the stressful situation.

  • Extremely tucked under tail
  • Lifting and holding up a back leg
  • The whole body held stiff and tense, sometimes quivering
  • Ears pinned back to the head
  • Staring and unable to break their gaze from the ‘threat’
  • Rolling onto their back or side, often with urination, to appear submissive

Dogs displaying these more advanced signs of stress need to be handled very carefully. If the dog sees your actions, such as reaching out to rub the tummy, as threatening they may progress to aggressive behaviour.

  • Baring teeth, lips curled back
  • Growling, snarling, or barking
  • Bodyweight forward
  • Lunging forward to create more space
  • Freezing or moving very slowly
  • Air snapping. Dogs seldom expect these bites to hit home but slow-moving people and children can be bitten
  • Ears held forward
  • Tail held high and stiff
  • Hackles raised

Reasons for aggression in dogs

Most dogs do not enjoy making displays of aggression. Aggression most often results from fear or frustration and is usually preceded by more subtle signs of stress and fear which have been ignored. Behaviours like lunging, barking, and snapping aim to increase space between the dog and the thing which is frightening them. If the aggressive display works and the threat move away the dog feels huge relief which is very rewarding and means that next time the dog feels threatened, they are more likely to try their aggressive display. Over time this can lead to a dog who barks and lunges without really assessing how much of a threat a dog, person, or situation is.

This reactive aggression in dogs can be avoided by looking for early signs of stress in your dog and removing them from the situation before they feel the need to show more extreme behaviour. Protecting your dog from things they fear and rewarding for good choices with food or play helps to reinforce your dog’s trust in you and build your bond. You may need to work with a behaviourist to understand the best way of managing and counter-conditioning your reactive dog.

How to calm a stressed dog

If your dog is showing signs of stress that is your cue to do something! In the short-term this might mean taking your dog away from the situation that is causing them stress. Try to stay calm, even if your dog is embarrassing you with their behaviour. Remember they aren’t just being bad; they are telling you they can’t cope.

Distraction can work for some dogs; scatter feeding engages the nose, chewing is a naturally calming activity, and interactive toys can provide mental stimulation. Your touch will comfort some dogs but watch for signs that your dog would prefer not to be touched or held such as stiffening of the body, tension in the face, and whale eye. If you need to approach a stressed dog keep your body relaxed, your outline small, avoid eye contact, and approach side on.

If your dog is prone to feeling stressed ensure that they have a safe space at home where they won’t be disturbed and can relax. This could be a covered crate, a play-pen, or a room separated with a baby gate. The safe space should have a comfy bed, water, and safe chew toys.

A regular routine can be very useful for sensitive dogs. Choose walks that they can enjoy, avoiding things that trigger their stress like heavy traffic or other dogs. Training can be a good way to provide mental stimulation, but ensure your dog has some time to just ‘be a dog’.

Never punish a dog who is showing behavioural signs of stress, even if these are as extreme as snapping and lunging.

dog looking nervous led in a dog bed

How to support a dog that is going through on-going stress

Stress is part and parcel of life and most dogs will bounce back quickly from short term stressful events like a fireworks display or noisy visitor to the home. If your dog displays stress and anxiety over a longer period of time you should consult your vet to rule out medical issues and then a behaviourist who can assess the reasons your dog is stressed and offer solutions. Often the vet and behaviourist will need to work closely together, especially if medication is required.

Breakthrough Start-Up food has been designed to help dogs feel calm and relaxed and can be an ideal diet for dogs undergoing stressful times in their life such as moving house or after rehoming. Breakthrough can also support dogs who need veterinary treatment and will have to cope with a stay at the clinic as well as changes to their routine during recovery. Many dogs who are being helped by a behaviourist will also appreciate the positive effects of Breakthrough on learning new skills. Breakthrough Train-Up treats are delicious rewards for all dogs and are suitable for use when feeding Breakthrough Start-Up.

Breakthrough StartUp, Breakthrough FollowUp and Breakthrough TrainUp Treats bags

The OSCARs website has a range of interactive games which can help reduce stress in dogs as well as blogs on games and enrichment for your dog.

The shop also has a range of calming supplements and pheromone products which can be used short or long-term.


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