Unfortunately dogs can’t speak to tell us how they feel, so it’s important as dog owners that we take the time to learn their body language so that we can look after and protect them.
“He must be happy, look at his tail wagging!”
“Aw bless, she’s so tired she’s yawning.”
“He’s very thirsty, look at him licking his lips and panting.”
Anthropomorphism is a natural tendancy to apply human traits and logic to non-human entities and, as such, the above are reasonable assumptions, but in fact all of them can be signs of stress. So let’s look at a dog’s body language to understand the difference between relaxed and stressed behaviour and learn to read her signals.
Relaxed eyes don’t particularly show the whites and will be soft. If a relaxed dog constantly gazes at you, it is likely for attention or instruction.
Large eyes, particularly showing the whites, indicate a dog feels threatened or frightened by something. ‘Whale eye’ or the sideways look is when a dog wants to keep an eye on a threat, but not provoke it. A hard, unwavering stare is usually a threat or sign of aggression, so if a tense dog fixes your gaze it’s best to look away.
A relaxed mouth will usually be shut, or slightly open lightly panting.
Panting with a tense mouth, lip licking, yawning, puffing out the cheeks or chattering teeth are all signs of stress.
A wide horizontal grin exposing front and back teeth is a sign of fear and warning; I can bite you if needed.
A vertical snarl exposing front teeth and gums with the muzzle wrinkled is an aggressive threat; I can and will bite.
Relaxed ears are held naturally depending on breed.
Pricked up ears are a sign of being attentive or alert, while ears flattened to the side or back show submission or fright.
Tail hangs normally when relaxed, depending on breed.
A tail tucked between the legs is a sign of being frightened or submissive, or higher than normal is when she is alert or attentive.
A high, stiff tail which waves like a “flag” can be a sign of aggression.
A relaxed dog stands with her weight evenly distributed across front and back legs.
Leaning forwards can be an aggressive stance as the dog is ready for action, while a dog will shift away from something it finds scary, to create space, or pull back in fear.
Dog on the left shows signs of stress in ears and mouth, while the dog on the right is relaxed
Ways dogs cope with stress
If a dog is uncomfortable in a situation, as well as displaying some or all of the relevant body language, they may also either fidget or completely freeze. Finally, when the threat moves away, they often shake their body to release the stress.
Trigger stacking is when a dog is subject to too many stimuli in a short period of time and the dog can’t unwind from each source of excitement, whether that’s good or bad. This high state of arousal is stressful for the dog, and his body will respond accordingly – he will be unable to control himself and can lead to inappropriate signals and bad decision-making. Check our blog on overcoming over-excitment here.
So next time you see a dog wagging its tail, either at you or your dog, it’s important to look at the other signs to see if it is happy and relaxed, or stressed and tense.
Written by: Lucy Ellis
Photos: Robin Hall, Lucy Ellis