Stress Signals in Dogs

It is impor­tant to be able to rec­og­nize signs of stress in your dog!

All ani­mals feel stress at times — it’s a nor­mal part of life! But when stress lev­els get too high, bad things can hap­pen.

  • A dog who is expe­ri­enc­ing high­er lev­els of stress will not be able to lis­ten or respond to you in the same way that a calmer dog would.
  • A dog whose stress lev­el gets too high — who is pushed beyond their com­fort zone and into a place of feel­ing scared and per­haps cor­nered — will need to take action, and this action could be growl­ing, lung­ing or even bit­ing in an attempt to make the thing that is caus­ing them stress go away.

Common signs of stress in dogs

Lip Licking

This often appears as a lit­tle tongue lick or flick, specif­i­cal­ly at a time when the dog hasn’t just been eat­ing some­thing. This dog’s tongue is flick­ing out of his mouth, and he is also turn­ing away from some­thing in front of him that is mak­ing him uncom­fort­able.

Panting, Pinned Ears

A com­mon sign of stress is pant­i­ng when it is not hot out­side and the dog has not been recent­ly exer­cis­ing. Also in this pho­to is a good exam­ple of ears being pinned back against his head.

Whale Eye

Whale eye” is when you can see the whites of a dog’s eye, which occurs when they turn their head away as an act of avoid­ance but still keep their eyes focussed on some­thing or some­one.

This dog is uncom­fort­able — it could be the cap and gown, it could the cam­era point­ed at him, it could be some­thing in the room, or it could be a com­bi­na­tion of things. In this pho­to the whale eye, the head turned away, the stiff eyes and wor­ried look­ing eye­brows, and the ears being pulled back­wards all paint the pic­ture of a dog who is expe­ri­enc­ing a mod­er­ate lev­el of stress.

When we put caps and gowns on dogs on grad­u­a­tion night we try our best to help them be com­fort­able, and if the dog is exhibit­ing extreme­ly strong signs of stress we do not pro­ceed with the grad pho­tos. Com­pare the dog above to this dog below who is hap­py and relaxed in his cap and gown.


This dog was extreme­ly uncom­fort­able with the cam­era and she turned her whole body away. In addi­tion her ears are back, her mouth is tight, the cor­ners of her mouth are pulled for­ward, and her whiskers are also for­ward. She want­ed noth­ing to do with the cam­era and was telling us so with her body lan­guage.

Here is the same dog grad­u­at­ing from sec­ond lev­el two months lat­er. Her own­er spent time help­ing her be more com­fort­able with peo­ple and cam­eras, and also at this point she was more con­fi­dent in the class­room envi­ron­ment. She is still not entire­ly relaxed, but her ears are for­ward, she’s fac­ing the cam­era and she’s gen­er­al­ly much more com­fort­able.

This dog has been asked to present his paw for nail clip­ping. He is obey­ing, but his body lan­guage is say­ing that he’s not so keen: he is lean­ing back­wards away from the per­son mak­ing the request, his eye­brows look a lit­tle drawn and wor­ried, his pupils are dilat­ed, and he has some “whale eye” show­ing.

 Other Common Signs of Stress

  • Yawn­ing (when not tired)
  • Excess whin­ing or vocal­iza­tions
  • Shed­ding fur (more than usu­al)
  • Refusal to take food (if nor­mal­ly food moti­vat­ed)
  • Dilat­ed pupils
  • Sweat­ing from the pads of the paws
  • Stiff, frozen pos­ture — the most dan­ger­ous dog is a frozen dog
  • Shak­ing off when not wet (this is actu­al­ly a good sign as it means they are “shak­ing off” the stress)