Spot Signs of Stress in Your Dog: Body Language and Behavior Signals

Dogs tell us when they're stressing through their body posture and how they behave.

Published March 18, 2023
Nervous Dog in Car

Dogs get stressed out, just like we do, and while some dogs are easy to read, others can be a challenge. It's important to recognize the signs of stress in dogs. If you notice that your dog is acting out of character, there's a good chance they're feeling stressed or anxious. Determining why they're stressed and taking action to reduce their stress are important.

Reading Subtle Stress in Dog Body Language

Dogs are incredibly expressive. Often, you can tell how they're feeling just by looking at them. How they hold their head, ears, eyes, legs and body can tell you a lot about their stress levels. Signs of stress in your dog can be more subtle.

  • Tail: If your dog has tucked their tail between their legs, they're telling you they're stressed or scared.
  • Ears: When your dog pulls back their ears tightly against their head, or flattens their ears against their head, this can indicate stress or fear.
  • Lips: Your dog may pull back their lips into a snarl if they're stressed to the point of showing aggression.
  • Eyes: If you suspect stress, watch your pup's eyes. Dilated pupils and wide-open eyes signal stress.
  • Legs: Check their leg posture. Stiff and rigid legs mean they might be on high alert.
  • Body: Watch your dog's body condition. If their body is tense with tight muscles, they are ready to bolt.
  • Paws: Raised paws can signal stress. If your dog is standing or sitting, and they raise a paw, they're alerting to something.
  • Lowering of body posture: Dogs who are hunching over or crouching are trying to make themselves less visible, or even cowering.
Need to Know

Context is everything when reading your dog's body language. If they're playing with another dog, they might show many of these signs, but often this is just play behavior, so pay attention to the overall situation before you assume your dog is stressed out.

How to Tell Normal Body Language From Stress

Stressed dogs can have all or a mixture of these body language signals. A calm, confident dog stands up, head erect, ears forward, with a relaxed disposition on their faces. Their eyes are round, their hair is laying flat on their back, and they look like they're relaxed and loving life.

A stressed dog might be hunched over, cowering, looking sideways with dilated pupils. They might have the hair on the back of their head raised up. They might give off frantic energy, running all over, or they might be avoiding all interaction.

Watch for Behavioral Signs of Stress in Dogs

Dogs also display specific behaviors when they are stressed. Sometimes, this is just a one-off event, and you don't need to panic every time your dog licks their lips. However, if you see two or more of these signs occurring frequently, it could mean your dog is stressing out.

  • Lack of attention to their owners. This is a sign your dog is uncomfortable or worried about something.
  • Avoiding eye contact. When a dog looks away from their owner, they may be trying to avoid confrontation. If this happens regularly, it could be a sign that your dog is stressed out by something in their environment, or by the presence of other dogs or people.
  • Side-eye stares. If your dog is turning their head away while staring, they might be signaling stress. Side-eye looks, also known as whale eye, also indicate potential aggression. It's a dog's way of telling you to take a step back.
  • Panting excessively. When dogs pant heavily, it is often due to stress or anxiety over something in their environment, such as another pet or person. However, if they are panting because they're hot or tired, then there isn't anything to worry about too much yet - just try giving them some water and see if that helps!
  • Shaking off excess energy. Dogs who find themselves in an unfamiliar situation will often try to release pent-up energy by shaking off like they would do when they come inside after being outside playing for a while.
  • Yawning a lot. If you notice your dog yawning when they are otherwise alert, they might be stressed. Dogs yawn all the time when they're sleepy or bored, so this isn't always an issue. Yawning signals stress when your dog is showing signs of alertness, such as when a stranger is nearby or something has caught their attention. A stress yawn is long, drawn out, and intense.
  • Drooling all over the place. Hungry dogs drool too - just ask Pavlov's dog. But if your dog is drooling for no reason, they might be stressed out.
  • Excessive licking. If your dog is stress licking, they're focusing on a single spot and going to town. This will look more like obsessive-compulsive behavior than normal grooming.
  • Hiding or running. Dogs who shy away, tuck their heads down and look like they're in escape mode are probably stressed about something.

Dogs who are stressed show it in their behavior. So, watch for changes in what's normal. When they start acting differently, it's time to pay attention. For example, if your dog normally sleeps in the same spot every night with their back to the wall but now chooses to sleep on your bed instead, then this could be a sign that something is bothering them.

Changes in appetite can also signal stress. If your dog suddenly stops eating or begins overeating without reason, it could be a sign that something is bothering them enough to affect their appetite. Unexplained weight gain, unusually excessive shedding, and change in their overall health all indicate your dog is stressing.

Quick Tip

The trick to reading behavioral signals is to know your dog's baseline. When your dog is resting, playing with you, or just chilling out, learn to recognize their normal behavior.

How to Help Your Stressed Dog

The first step in calming a stressed dog is to figure out what's causing the stress. Is it separation anxiety? A new baby? A move to a new home? Once you know what's causing the stress, you can begin working on ways to help your dog cope with that situation. Without knowing the specific trigger, you can't get completely to the root of the problem. However, there are a few tips that may help you calm your dog down before you identify what's triggering them:

  • Remove the source of stress. If your dog is freaking out, relocate them to a quiet, safe place. Whatever the source of stress is - a vacuum cleaner, a stranger, loud sounds - taking it out of the equation is the first step to addressing your dog's stress.
  • Offer plenty of attention. Make sure your dog gets lots of attention from you, including playtime, and walks. Dogs love having their owners around to pay attention to them. Just don't give them attention when they're acting stressed. You can inadvertently reinforce the stressed behavior if you do this.
  • Stick to a routine. Dogs thrive on consistency. Anxious or stressed dogs respond especially well to regularity. Knowing what's coming will help your dog feel secure and safe in their environment.
  • Give your dog lots of exercise. Exercise is important for all dogs, but especially so for those who are easily stressed out or anxious in general. Exercise and physical activity release endorphins into your dog's system, which can help reduce anxiety and stress levels overall.
  • Work on enrichment. If your dog is bored, they might end up getting stressed out. Exercise is great, but sometimes simple games and training exercises, or even just horsing around, can help break the anxiety spell.
  • Stay ahead of loud noises. Fireworks, thunderstorms, gunshots and other loud noises can make your dog anxious. If you know that there will be fireworks or thunderstorms in your neighborhood during the holidays, consider taking your dog out of town so they don't have to deal with it.
Scared two dogs covered with blanket

Remain Patient

Above all, remain as patient and as calm as possible with your dog. Dogs can read energy, and they often know when we're stressed. This will just make them stressed, as they mirror your emotions. It's important to keep in mind that stress isn't always bad. It's when your dog is living constantly in stress that you need to pay attention. Try to relieve their stress first, remove them from their stressor, and if that doesn't reduce the signs of stress, take the time to talk to your veterinarian or even a professional canine behaviorist. Working through the stressful situations and reassuring your dog if often all it takes to help them chill out.

Spot Signs of Stress in Your Dog: Body Language and Behavior Signals