© Stacy Braslau-Schneck, CPDT
Stress and Calming
Dogs can feel stressed in situations of frustration or fear (including during class or learning a new task). Look for clusters of stress signs: Shaking, whining, “submissive” urination, ears back, pupils dilated; rapid panting with corner of mouth pulled back; tail down; body lowered; sweating through paw pads, scratching at self; sudden interest in sniffing; yawning; blinking eyes; licking of lips or nose, or stretching tongue forward; looking away or turning head away; shaking body. Frustrated dogs often bark (this is especially seen in “fence fighting”, when two dogs on opposite sides of a fence bark at each other; another easily-observed example is dogs in a shelter watching other dogs walking by; dogs that must pass each other on-leash often bark in frustration).
|This stressed dog is panting, disoriented, avoiding direct looks with a “glassy eye” (this dog is probably suffering from too much heat!).|
Turid Rugaas, a dog behaviorist from Norway, points out that dogs, as pack animals, have highly-developed ways of avoiding and diffusing conflict and aggression. Dogs therefore use “Calming Signals” to reduce stress for themselves and others they interact with (including humans). Calming signals include: Yawning, looking away, lip-licking, moving slowly, circling, sniffing the ground, becoming “distracted”, sitting or lying down. Some of them are also the “appeasement display” behaviors that are developed to turn away aggression and threats of aggression – these are often confused with “the guilty look” that dogs may appear to be giving when scolded for doing something. Note that most of these are the opposite language from the directed attention that would be found in an aggressive interaction. For more information, don’t pass by her excellent book, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals and video, What Your Dog Tells You: Calming Signals (click on the title to purchase either
|Nose Lick: This Dalmatian puppy is licking his nose, a sign of stress or a “calming signal” used to assure others of his peaceful intentions.|
|Head down and sniffing: This dog shows a sudden interest in smells on the ground, indicating that she is not in any way a threat to other dogs or people.|
|Body shake: This dog is shaking off water, but a similar body shake is often used by dogs to “shake off” tension and stress. I usually translate it as “Whew, glad that’s over!”. Sometimes if you stroke a dog backwards they will
shake themselves and so help themselves relax.
One excellent way to look for stress signs and calming signals is to watch dog training “reality” tv shows, with the sound off. Without the interference of the dramatic music and what the host or narrator is telling you, watch on your own to see signs of avoidance, appeasement, and being “shut down” (too intimidated or afraid to show any reaction, catatonic, unreactive). Remember, not all “stress” is distress; some stresses are merely challenges that might even be enjoyed (think of learning something new or playing a challenging game). But if you see multiple stress signs, or if your dog gets “shut down”, then the challengesmight be too much and these may be warning signs.
Faint warnings – One of the basic combinations of body language signals to look for is this: The dog closing her mouth, turning towards the thing that bothers her, and rounding or widening her eyes from the friendly squint of a relaxed dog, possibly showing some of the whites of the eyes (even very round-eyed dogs like pugs or Chihuahuas will have a detectable difference). Often the dog will look at the hand of the person who she is concerned about, the hand that is touching her or approaching her in the way she doesn’t like. This is like a kid saying “Hey I don’t like that”. It’s not a dire warning sign, but it is a signal that your dog isn’t comfortable with what’s going on, and as a parent you need to take note of that and make sure that the interaction between the dog and child is more closely supervised. If you see this same combination of closing the mouth, round eyes, and turning towards, but the dog is staring at the kids’ eyes (or into yours, if you are the source of discomfort), your dog is raising the warning a notch, saying “Hey knock it off”. These signals are way more subtle than growling or snarling but should be taken seriously – not as danger signs, but as sincere communication about the dog’s comfort level.
Signs of aggression include: Stiff legs and body; growls, lowered head; ears “pinned” back close to the head; eyes narrow (but not squinty) and fixed intently or rounded and with whites showing; lips sometimes drawn back in a snarl; “hackles” (hair along back, especially over the shoulders and rump) up and erect; tail straight out, and intense stares (pupils may be fully dilated or shut!).
|This dog is being possessive of his bone. He’s crouching down, giving “whale eye” (turning head away but turning the eyes towards his focus, so that the whites show), and his lips are pulled back. I would not reach for this bone or allow my dog to, either!|
|This dog is straining at his leash.
His ears are pinned back and his tail is flat behind him.
|This classic picture shows the teeth being bared. The muzzle is wrinkled back with the dog’s snarl. Notice the intense stare; but this dog (wolf?) is showing some uncertainty in the way the ears are pointing in two different directions. The ears would be flattened as this dog snapped or bit.Illustration by Alice Rasmussen from “Dog Language – An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior” by Roger Abrantes.|
How to React
When watching your dog interact with others, the general rule is to let the dogs decide what is and what isn’t appropriate. Butt-sniffing, rough playing, barking in each other’s ears, mounting, and other actions that dogs do would not be acceptable in human company, but are perfectly normal dog behavior.
BUT, if you see your that your dog’s actions are annoying, scaring, or angering another dog, it is your responsibility to do something about it. Often distracting your dog by calling him away or squirting him lightly with water (this acts as a shoulder-tap, not a punishment!) is enough. If your dog is too excited or intense, take him a few feet away from the action for a light-hearted but calming time out. This is NOT punishment, it’s a cool-down period.
If you find that your dog is running into a number of “aggressive” dogs who snap at yours, stop to consider your dog’s actions. Is your dog “getting in the other’s face”? Is he not responding to calming signals or indications that the other dog does not want to interact? Please read Suzanne Clothier’s article, “He just wants to say ‘Hi’!” for more information.
If you find that your dog is “protecting” you, consider that your dog thinks of you as a valuable resource that he must guard, like a prized bone. Yes, he’s possessing you.
Dog Body Language Posts and Videos from Eileen Anderson
Body Language Ethogram (definitions and examples) from Sue Sternberg
Canine Body Language, A Photographic Guide, by Brenda Aloff. A thorough guide, well-illustrated with photos, to show you how to read body language in dogs.
Turid Rugaas’s article on Calming Signals and Gallery of calming signals examples
Karen Overall’s article on “Behavior signals interpreted with body postures”
Dr. P’s links to Nonverbal Communication and Social Behavior
Dog body language examples (note: put your cursor over the picture to see a
Article on body language in a livestock guarding dog breed
A Body Language Quiz from “Taking The Lead”
Facial expressions, from Whole Dog Journal
Return to Part 1 of the Body Language page
Updated September 20, 2022
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