So often, we hear that a dog just bit someone “out of nowhere.” The truth is, dogs rarely bite with no warning.
Dogs primarily communicate using body language, so it’s important for humans to understand what they are trying to tell us. Learning our dogs’ special ways of communication can reduce their anxiety and prevent potentially dangerous situations from happening. There are several warning signs to look for that will help tell if your dog is stressed.
Growling is an obvious way to tell if your dog is uncomfortable. It could mean that someone is in their space, they feel threatened, or that something hurts. It’s not usually meant to be aggressive but it is rather often a warning that your dog feels uncomfortable.
Many people try to discourage their dogs from growling. But if a dog gets in trouble for it, they may become more likely to skip future warnings and go straight to a bite. Don’t punish your pup for growling. Instead, respect their space or figure out a different way to get what you want from them. For example, if a dog is growling over food, give them space when they eat in peace. If they are growling over a bone and you need to put the bone away, trade them for a smaller treat so you can take the bone away safely.
2. Whining or Barking
Many dogs cannot control their whining when they feel stressed, as it’s more of an automatic response. However, it is a clue for humans that something in the environment is causing anxiety. Barking is similar, in that pups can’t always control it, but they’re trying to tell you that they’re stressed about something. It may, however, depend on the context, as dogs may whine and bark for many other reasons.
3. Body Language
There are entire books written on dog body language and “calming signals,” a term developed by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas. Rugaas realized that dogs have more than 30 ways to avoid stressful situations and try to calm themselves. When pups exhibit these behaviors, they’re trying to diffuse the situation or tell you or another dog that they aren’t a threat.
Stress signs to look for include whale eye (when dogs reveal the whites of their eyes), tucked ears, tucked tail, raised hackles, lip-licking, yawning, and panting. Your dog might also avoid eye contact or look away. This is most commonly seen in a dog that seems “guilty.” However, the pup is actually reacting to your voice and body language and thinks something must be wrong.
Don’t rely solely on body language. Also, some dogs raise their hackles when they are overstimulated or excited, not necessarily when they are stressed or anxious.
When your dog freezes or gets stiff, they are often stressed about something they see. In a training context, this can sometimes be seen as “submission,” but modern dog training practices tell us that the dog is actually shutting down. This can be very dangerous for both you and your pup. It’s a warning sign that the dog is so stressed that they can’t handle the situation, and the next step may be a bite.
When canines are pacing back and forth, it’s a sign they can’t settle down because something is stressing them. If this happens during mealtimes or for short periods, it might not be a big deal. But, noticing when your dog engages in this behavior can give you clues as to what is triggering their anxiety.
Note: With all of these signs, it all still depends on the individual dog and the context of the situation. For example, some dogs growl or “talk” while playing. It could mean they are getting overexcited and need a break, but it could also just be the way they play.
Getting to know when your dog is stressed is key. You should always talk to a professional dog trainer if you have any concerns. Or consider a trip to your veterinarian if your dog’s behavior changes suddenly.
How to Calm Down a Stressed Dog
Dog owners should also reflect on their own behavior to see how they might be contributing to the stress. Some ways owners might make their dogs stressed include not giving clear commands, staring directly at them, or punishing them unnecessarily.
The best way to calm your dog down is to identify what is stressing them, then eliminate the trigger. Alternatively, work with a professional trainer or your veterinarian to reduce their response to the trigger.
Sometimes it’s as easy as blocking off an area where your dog can eat while no one bothers them. Or teaching children how to respect your dog appropriately. If you know your dog gets stressed out about specific events, like a car ride or fireworks on the Fourth of July, there are some specific ways to ease that anxiety.
The bottom line? Start paying attention to your dog’s body language and you’ll be able to read their stress signals and reduce their anxiety in no time.