Stress Signals

Courtesy of Whole Dog Journal


  • Anorexia Stress causes the appetite to shut down. A dog who won’t eat moderate- to high-value treats may just be distracted or simply not hungry, but refusal to eat is a common indicator of stress. If your dog ordinarily likes treats, but won’t take them in the presence of children, she is telling you something very important: Kids stress her out!
  • Appeasement/Deference Signals Appeasement and deference aren’t always an indicator of stress. They are important everyday communication tools for keeping peace in social groups and are often presented in calm, stress-free interactions. They are offered in a social interaction to promote the tranquility of the group and the safety of the group’s members. When offered in conjunction with other behaviors, they can be an indicator of stress as well. Appeasement and deference signals include:
    • Lip Licking: Appeasing/deferent dog licks at the mouth of the more assertive/threatening/intimidating member of the social group.
    • Turning Head Away, Averting Eyes: Appeasing/deferent dog avoids eye contact, exposes neck.
    • Slow movement: Appeasing/deferent dog appears to be moving in slow-motion.
    • Sitting/Lying Down/Exposing Underside: Appeasing/deferent dog lowers body posture, exposing vulnerable parts.
  • Avoidance Dog turns away, shuts down, evades touch, and won’t take treats.
  • Barking In context, can be a “distance-increasing” stress signal – an attempt to make the stressor go away.
  • Brow Ridges Furrows or muscle ridges in the dog’s forehead and around the eyes.
  • Difficulty Learning Dogs (and other organisms) are unable to learn well or easily when under significant stress.
  • Digestive Disturbances Vomiting and diarrhea can be a sign of illness – or of stress; the digestive system reacts strongly to stress. Carsickness is often a stress reaction.
  • Displacement Behaviors These are behaviors performed in an effort to resolve an internal stress conflict for the dog. They may be performed in the actual presence of the stressor. They also may be observed in a dog who is stressed and in isolation – for example a dog left alone in an exam room in a veterinary hospital.
    • Blinking: Eyes blink at a faster-than normal rate
    • Nose-Licking: Dog’s tongue flicks out once or multiple times
    • Chattering Teeth
    • Scratching (as if the dog suddenly is very itchy)
    • Shaking off (as if wet, but dog is dry)
    • Yawning
  • Drooling May be an indication of stress – or response to the presence of food, an indication of a mouth injury, or digestive distress.
  • Excessive Grooming Dog may lick or chew paws, legs, flank, tail, and genital areas, even to the point of self-mutilation.
  • Hyperactivity Frantic behavior, pacing, sometimes misinterpreted as ignoring, “fooling around,” or “blowing off” owner.
  • Immune System Disorders Long-term stress weakens the immune system. Reduce dog’s overall stress to improve immune-related problems.
  • Lack of Attention/Focus The brain has difficulty processing information when stressed.
  • Leaning/Clinging The stressed dog seeks contact with human as reassurance.
  • Lowered Body Posture “Slinking,” acting “guilty” or “sneaky” (all misinterpretations of dog body language) can be indicators of stress.
  • Mouthing Willingness to use mouth on human skin – can be puppy exploration or adult poor manners, but can also be an expression of stress, ranging from gentle nibbling (flea biting) to hard taking of treats to painfully hard mouthing, snapping, or biting.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders These include compulsive imaginary fly-snapping behavior, light and shadow chasing, tail chasing, pica (eating non-food objects), flank-sucking, self-mutilation and more. While OCDs probably have a strong genetic component, the behavior itself is usually triggered by stress.
  • Panting Rapid shallow or heavy breathing – normal if the dog is warm or has been exercising, otherwise can be stress-related. Stress may be external (environment) or internal (pain, other medical issues).
  • Stretching To relax stress-related tension in muscles. May also occur as a non-stress behavior after sleeping or staying in one place for extended period.
  • Stiff Movement Tension can cause a noticeable stiffness in leg, body, and tail movements.
  • Sweaty Paws Damp footprints can be seen on floors, exam tables, rubber mats.
  • Trembling May be due to stress – or cold.
  • Whining High-pitched vocalization, irritating to most humans; an indication of stress. While some may interpret it as excitement, a dog who’s excited to the point of whining is also stressed.
  • Yawning Your dog may yawn because he’s tired – or as an appeasement signal or displacement behavior.
  • Whale Eye Dog rolls eyes, flashing the whites of his eyes.