Reading Canine Body Language: signs of stress/anxiety in your dog
Updated: Jun 16
We’ve all seen those videos of people’s “funny” videos of their dogs. You see a person trying to kiss a dog and they end up with a snap at their face. Or have you ever had an experience where two dogs started fighting "out of nowhere"? Did you happen to notice the signals, or precursors, the dogs were giving to try to communicate before things escalated that they were not comfortable with the situation?
Our dogs are constantly communicating with us through their body language but the large majority of pet owners do not know how to correctly read canine body language. As a dog owner, it is our job to learn how to correctly read our dogs' behaviors in order to reduce potential mishaps by responding appropriately. This shows your pooch that you are listening to them.
Why does this matter? Why do I need to respond appropriately?
Ignoring our dogs' boundaries only teaches them that they will need to escalate their behavior in order to make sure their point is heard. When we learn their body language and responding appropriately to what they are communicating with us, our dogs learn that they don't need to escalate their behavior in order to be heard and boundaries respected.
Dogs are sentient, intelligent beings and deserve from us respect of their boundaries. Consent is important for dogs too! Empowering your dog by allowing agency, instead of forcing interactions, creates a dog who has confidence in you to be the fair leader they trust. Giving them choice while also teaching them how to make good choices results in well-adjusted companions and nurtures healthy relationships based on respect between you and your dog! It is the way to create a dog who wants to make the choices YOU want them to make!
No way! I can't just ignore that growling behavior. It is not cool and needs to stop right now before someone gets hurt!
You're right, we can't just ignore that behavior! Aggressive behavior isn't cool and we do need to teach them it is inappropriate behavior. But telling them "NO!" and punishing them isn't the right approach and only teaches them that you are a scary, unfair human who will punish them for wanting to feel safe. In fact, there are some serious behavioral fallouts to punishing growls and other aggressive behaviors.
Growling and other "aggressive" behaviors are a communication tool for dogs. Dogs don't normally immediately start with growling or snapping to show they aren't happy with a situation. If you have a dog that starts growling, snapping, lunging, biting seemingly out of nowhere it can mean a few different things:
1) The dog HAS told you they are uncomfortable and you haven't learned yet how to identify those signals. It's time to brush up on your dog body language comprehension skills!
2) The dog has tried to communicate to you their discomfort but those signs have been overlooked/ignored. The dog decides that if "whispering" doesn't work then they will simply have to try in a louder or more obvious ways until they are heard. Dogs that consistently get their nuanced communication signals overlooked will eventually learn to jump straight to growling, snapping, lunging, biting.
3) The dog has been punished in the past for showing "aggressive" behaviors. They have learned that expressing these behaviors that would normally tell us "hey I'm not comfortable" are NOT ALLOWED. Instead, they are now suppressing those behaviors and because the underlying issue hasn't been addressed they appear "calm" until they snap. Suppressing these communicative behaviors lead to serious behavior cases where the dog really shows no signs of stress and bites out of nowhere.
4) The dog has been thrown into an overly stimulating/scary situation without warning and they are responding in kind to the quick change in situation.
If I shouldn't punish growling, what am I supposed to do?
First, we need to learn how to accurately read your dog's body language. This is a basic but critical step if we are to be able to determine underlying motivating factors of behavior.
Second, we need to understand that we must be advocates for our dogs. If your dog is showing signs of stress or anxiety, you need to be a good leader/protector for them and step in before they feel they need to take matters into their own hands. If a strange but "friendly dog" comes up to say hi but your dog is uncertain about interacting, be a voice for your dog. Ask the other dog owner to put their dog on a leash. Step between the dogs to prevent direct interaction. Do what you need to do as your dog's leader.
Third, depending on the reasons for your dog's reactivity, we will need to recondition their emotional response to the individual/situation or teach them coping mechanisms for staying calm until we can remove them from the situation.
Fourth, we teach your dog more appropriate ways to communicate with us their stress/anxiety. We must teach them they don't need to "scream and shout" in order to get us to listen.
I will not be going into specific ways to deal with reactivity here as it is a huge topic on it's own and the scope of it's entirety wouldn't fit onto this article. Every dog, every individual, every situation is different and this is why I work privately with each client to provide personalized training. There is no one size fits all answer as behavior is complex and an ever changing beast.
Instead, let's start with the first and most important step; learning how to read nuanced behavior signals. As we all know, prevention will always be a more favorable and effective tactic to getting the behaviors you want. It is bigger endeavor to retrain the brain, reshape an emotional response to a stimulus, and break a bad habit than it is to practice good habits to begin with.
How to read behavior:
In order to listen to what they are telling you, you need to know what to look for. Keep in mind that one behavior can have many different functions. It is important to look at the entire picture and not just one or two signals. Context, antecedents, and the individual's past history and experiences are just some of the things that go into correctly assessing your dog's emotional state.
In short, body language is more than the sum of its parts.
e.g. A dog's tail is rapidly wagging but his body is very stiff, his hackles are raised, and he lunges forward before backing away. This is different from a dog who is wagging his tail stiffly and straining forward on the leash with hard eyes, which is different from a dog who is wagging his tail rapidly but crouched vs a slow wagging tail vs a loose, carefree wag.
Can you see how one behavior can have many different functions? i.e. a wagging tail does not always indicate a happy dog.
What's important to take away from this is that every dog is an individual and can communicate differently, just as humans can. As humans, we all have different skill levels and methods of communication, can have off days or especially stressful and less tolerant moments, are naturally inclined to introversion or extroversion, avoid confrontation until we blow up or have no issues confronting people that upset us right away, etc. We even have different love languages and have different preferences for everything we encounter in life. The same is for your dog!
This is an exercise in getting to know YOUR dog as more than just ‘a pet’ that you own.
Some general stress signals to look for in canines:
Pacing (remember anxiety could be due to wanting to go outside to potty)
Tight wrinkles at corners of mouth
Tense tail wags (low)
Tail tucked or held up stiffly without movement
Whale eye (showing whites of eyes)
Avoiding eye contact
Remember, that anxious body language manifests differently in individuals. It is important to study general dog body language as you get to know your own dog. The key to deciphering body language is context. What is happening currently, what happened just before, what happened half an hour before that, and any other history you may know about your dog.
I could easily talk for weeks about different factors that affect behavior and communication. Instead, this article is written as a beginners guide to learning to reading basic canine body language. When deciphering behavioral intent, it is important to work with an educated and experienced professional in order to assess behavior accurately as possible.
It is important we learn to read our dogs' stress behaviors and underlying emotions so that we may respond appropriately to boundary requests. This will help cultivate a secure dog who doesn't feel the need to escalate communication methods in order to be understood. From there, we can work with a behaviorist to address problem behaviors if needed. In the best case scenarios, you will have responded appropriately to boundary requests from the get-go and your dog never learns they need to resort to violence in order to be taken seriously!