Both of us recently graduated from university. I (Marijke) graduated in 2016 and focused on animal behaviour for the most part of my studies.
Although animal behaviour was the overall focus of my years at university, I was most interested in dogs. My entire masters hence revolved around dogs in one way or another.
What I knows most about, is aggression and stress signals in dogs related to interactions with people or conspecifics.
Today, we’d hence like to give an outline of stress signals in dogs. I’ll explain why it’s important to learn more about stress signals, how you can recognize them, and how you should act upon them.
I held my internship in the largest animal shelter in the Netherlands, DOA in Amsterdam.
During my internship I worked on the introduction of a standardized behaviour test, focused on stress and aggression in shelter dogs.
This test would help figure out which household would be most suitable for the dog in question, and would answer questions such as whether it’d be clever to place the dog in a home with other pets or children.
As part of my task, I had to note every behaviour the tested dog would display. This included any change in body posture (tail, ears, and back) as well as all other behaviours (sounds, leg movements, facial expressions).
This taught me so much about both body language and acute stress signals, that it would be a shame not to share some information with you guys!
Why you should observe your dog’s body language
Now before we focus on stress signals, we’d like to share why it is so incredibly important to be able to recognize stress signals in your dog.
The two main subjects involved are safety and comfort. Dogs show acute stress signals when they are uncomfortable in a certain situation or when confronted with a particular stimulus.
If a dog shows discomfort, and the source of this discomfort is clear, then it is up to us as owners to remove the dog from the stimulus or from the situation. This will help your dog relax, and trust on you to help them feel safe and sound.
If a dog is kept in the same situation for an extended period of time, or is exposed to a stimulus longer than it can handle, a dog can start showing signs of aggression along with the stress signals.
Being able to recognize stress signals and act upon them, can hence ensure safety in many (unexpected) situations!
Recognizing signs of discomfort can also be incredibly helpful when introducing your dog to new objects, or when getting them used to things like nail maintenance!
And what about introducing your dog to your neighbor’s cat? Or when adding a pup to your family? Stress signals (and body language in general) are key in understanding what your dog is going through, because remember, your dog can’t speak in human words!
Body posture in general explains quite a lot about a dog’s feelings at a given time, and we will explain those in another blog post soon.
Today, we solely focus on acute stress signals caused by external stimuli. This does not include ear movements or tail positions.
Stress signals are physical reactions in response to a stimulus.
This stimulus can be another dog; a cat running away; a child trying to touch your dog; a person yelling at your dog; you touching your dog’s paws; a person suddenly petting your dog on its head; a random plastic bag that moves in the wind…
Anything can cause a stressful situation depending on the individual dog and whatever (s)he may have experienced in the past.
There are a few stress signals that are quite common and relatively easy to recognize. We’d like to share a short list of these without an extensive explanation, as they speak for themselves.
Common stress signals are:
Lip licking – straight forward towards the nose, or sideways over the lips;
Paw lifting – one front paw lifted or unsteady;
Looking away – moving head away from the stimulus, often still looking at stimulus;
Sniffing – sniffing the ground, often whilst looking at stimulus;
Panting – suddenly breathing with open mouth;
High vocalisations – high pitched barking, squealing, or howling;
Yawning – often with tight lips.
So let’s share some examples of a situation in which Mojo shows these stress signals.
The stress signal that Mojo shows most often is lip licking. It’s very obvious, as her the black color of her coat is in stark contrast to her pink tongue! She usually shows this when I file her nails and keep filing too long before handing her a treat. She also shows it when she is approached by kids or when she is spooked by sudden noises.
If we put Mojo’s food bowl down and ask her to perform a few tricks before she’s allowed to eat her dinner, she will always start squealing. If it all takes a bit too long, she’ll bark whilst performing the tricks we asked for!
If Mojo’s not interested in leaving a field just yet, and she doesn’t want to come when called, she simply starts sniffing the grass next to her and pretends to be extremely busy. All the while she’ll be looking at us from the corner of her eye to see if we really mean what we’re saying!
Mojo doesn’t show panting as a stress signal, but she does show all other forms on a regular basis. This is normal, it’s nothing to worry about, but it’s great to recognize the way in which your dog tells you something’s not quite as they’d like it to be (be it minimal or something major).
‘Stress signals’ don’t have to be stress signals!
These behaviours as listed above are, in certain situations, seen as a stress signal. Often though, they can also be shown as regular behaviour completely unrelated to stress or discomfort.
Dogs will also show these behaviours in the following situations:
Yawning – if they are tired or have just woken up;
Lip licking – after eating or if they have something stuck to their nose or lips;
Paw lifting – if they touch an object such as responding to a ‘paw’ command from their owner;
Looking away – if there is a second stimulus (such as a sudden noise) that catches their attention;
Sniffing – if they smell a scent on the ground and they are motivated to sniff that, rather than to respond to the stimulus;
Panting – if they are hot due to prolonged play sessions or exercise, obesity, or lying in the sun for too long (like Mojo always does when given the opportunity).
How to avoid stressful situations
Now you might be wondering whether it’s bad for your dog to show stress signals.
No, it most certainly is not.
It’s your dog’s way of communicating, and there’s no way for you to offer your dog with a life in which it would never show a sign of discomfort. So don’t feel bad if you see any of these signals!
You can however use your newly acquired knowledge and ability to read your dog’s feelings when training them or when going for a walk.
Let’s take this example: You’re out on a walk with your dog, and encounter a person with an off leash dog – or a dog on a flexi lead – and they allow their dog to run up to yours. From the moment your dog lays eyes on this other dog, (s)he will show stress signals if they are uncomfortable about being approached.
In this case, you can decide to turn around, or to ask the person to keep their dog away from yours, because you know that your dog is not happy in this situation. This will stop unnecessary discomfort for your dog, and might even prevent an incident!
So what do you do if you see that your dog is stressed?
If possible, remove your dog from the situation, or remove the stimulus.
If you’re clipping your dog’s nails and (s)he licks his nose every few seconds, take a step back. Your dog is not comfortable. Take things slow, reward more often, and don’t force your dog to endure the stressful situation for long.
YOU are your dog’s best friend and it’s up to YOU to keep them happy!
We hope that this blog post has been helpful and that you enjoyed seeing all of our instagram doggy-friends!