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)