What Is The Body Language Of A Stressed Or Fearful Dog?

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Being able to read animal body language is important, especially when you work in the veterinary field.

Dogs are incapable of talking to us, so the only way that they can even try to send a message across to us is with their body language.

Sometimes, the appearance of some of these signs can be subtle, but other times they are pretty obvious.

By Allison Salonko.

Allison is a Veterinary Technician in the state of Indiana. She graduated from International Business College and Vet Tech Institute of Indianapolis with a degree in Animal Science and Technology in 2011.

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Body Language Of A Stressed Or Fearful Dog

Stress is described as anything that causes any type of strain or pressure on the body or mind.

We all know that it is not fun to be stressed, worried or anxious, so it only makes sense that we want to help our dogs when we see them feeling the same way.

This article will go over what kind of body language you will see when you have a stressed or fearful canine.

Vocalization: Whining or Growling

Growling is a pretty obvious sign that your dog is unhappy about something.

It can be anything from growling at a stranger to growling at you when you go to remove a bone or toy from them.

When this is noted, it is better to give your dog space, if you can.

If they are at the vet and growling at employees then it will be best to use a muzzle for everyone’s safety. It doesn’t mean your dog is necessarily bad, but the technicians and doctors are still strangers that are at risk.

Whining is a behavior that dogs can’t always prevent when they are stressed, afraid or painful.

It is usually an instinctual response that will be intensified when they are in a position that frightens them.

Dogs will also whine when they are in pain, which can be a sign that they should be checked out by a veterinarian.

Yawning, Drooling and Licking

When dogs are stressed or afraid they will often let out more intensified yawns than usual, lick their lips excessively and maybe even drool.

They may not be some of the more obvious signs but many veterinary professionals know to watch for those more minor indications of stress and anxiety in their patients.

Posture and Position

If a dog is hiding behind a person or an object in order to avoid someone or something, this is a clear sign of stress.

When a dog is afraid, they will often hide or cower behind their owner.

Sometimes they will go to a corner and stay in a tucked sitting position, as if they are trying to protect themselves.

They will also tuck their tails between their legs and have a rigid or stiff posture.

Panting and Shedding

While both of these symptoms of stress are frequently seen on a daily basis as a normal bodily function, they can also mean that something is bothering your dog.

When dogs are stressed or afraid they will shed more fur than usual and also pant more. Panting and shedding can be seen as a sign of physical stress as well.

Changes of the Eyes and Ears

When dogs are afraid they will often change the position of the ears to suit their emotions. Perked up and alert ears are usually seen in happy and interested dogs, while a frightened one would have its ears pinned back.

A dog’s eyes will tell us a lot about how they are feeling.

Many dogs will display what is called the “whale eye” or “moon eye” where their eyes are wider than normal, showing more of the white (sclera).

Typically they are also looking at you more from the side rather than straight on, hence the term, “giving the side eye.”

These are all body language signs that a dog may bite if you don’t heed their warning.

Changes in Bodily Functions

A change in the habits that your dog has, such as eating, drinking or using the restroom can be clear indications that something is stressing your dog out.

Usually, if they are upset about something you can notice a decrease in their appetite as well as bowel movements.

Some dogs will develop diarrhea when they are undergoing more stress or anxiety than normal.

In other cases, your dog may actually defecate out of fear, which is pretty common in the lobby at veterinary hospitals.

Pacing and Restlessness

Pacing around the house can be a sign of a few issues.

Sometimes dogs restlessly pace around the house because they are upset, stressed or afraid.

Attempting to figure out what is causing this change in behavior will usually remedy this problem.

However, there are times where pacing is due to other things, such as dementia, pain and arthritis.

Consult with your veterinarian if you have any concerns regarding your pets pain or mental cognizance.

The Dog Becomes Aggressive

This is usually the worst case scenario.

No one wants to see their dog turn aggressive because they are afraid or under stress. While it is unfortunate, it does happen.

When a dog turns to using aggression as a way to handle their emotions, it can turn into a very dangerous situation quickly.

Hopefully, your dog will give other warning signs first and if they were missed that is more on the people than the animal.

This is why it is important to understand canine body language so that aggression and other dangerous situations can be avoided.

How Do You Help Your Dog If They Are Stressed?

First thing is first, find the stressor!

Most of the time, there is going to be a cause for your dog to be acting stressed out or afraid.

Sometimes just regrouping somewhere else and directing their attention to you, play time or food will go a long way.

In other cases though, your dog may be consistently stressed and you aren’t sure why, or you do know but you just are unsure how to fix it.

Exercise and more play time with family will usually help most dogs, but there are cases where they need a little extra help.

Meeting with your veterinarian to talk about suggestions to help with anxiety may be necessary.

Sometimes they recommend anti-anxiety medications and other times owners need to meet with a board certified veterinary behaviorist to remedy the behavior.

If you are at all unsure what to do for your dog, please reach out to your veterinarian. The professionals are always here to help!

Photo by: Hele.