Dude, Your Dog May Be Totally Stressed Out. Here’s How To Tell

Dude, Your Dog May Be Totally Stressed Out. Here’s How To Tell
Giselle (No. A472031) has been a little stressed by all the noises and smells in the shelter – and it has made her a little fearful when people come up to her kennel. But when she goes out on field trips with our volunteers, she becomes more bright and outgoing. (Photo courtesy the Pasadena Humane Society)

When it comes to stress, everyone has a tell. Some people are short-tempered under stress, while others become withdrawn, or even manifest physical symptoms — stressing themselves to the point of sickness. It’s a broad spectrum, and everyone handles stress differently.

When I get stressed out, I eat. So my tell is my clothes looking a bit too tight all of the sudden. When you see this happen, please promptly remind me to CHILL OUT (and put down the bag of potato chips). Please and thank you.

Like people, dogs exhibit signs of stress or anxiety in a variety of ways too.

Here are behaviors to look out for:

To wag or not to wag…that is the question: Tails really tell a story. Even if your dog has a great poker face, her tail will give her feelings away every time.

A tucked tail is a no-brainer for a stressed or nervous pup, but any tail that isn’t “loose” and swishy when it wags is something to look out for. A stiff tail pointing straight up could indicate a warning, social challenge or sign of aggression.

Panting when it’s not hot, and shaking when it’s not cold: Dogs will pant when they’re hot and shiver when they’re cold, but under any other conditions, a trembling body and heavy breathing indicates some level of discomfort. If the temperature doesn’t match his behavior, he may be stressed or anxious.

Licking lips, or excess chewing and drooling: Another tricky yet tell-tale sign, lip-licking can be a sign of submission in a social situation, but it also signals that a dog is uncomfortable or nervous. Excess drooling during breakfast may not set off your internal alarms either, but finding puddles on your floors might be cause for concern.

Half-moon eyes: When dogs move their eyes to see rather than their whole head, it exposes a sliver of white; i.e. a half-moon, also referred to as “whale eyes.” You see this pretty often in stressful shelter environments.

Ears flattened: This one might be a little more obvious to spot. The ears could be pinned back or completely flat against the head.

Yawning: If a dog repeatedly yawns, they’re telling you they’re uncomfortable. You might notice this happening as you wait in the vet’s office, as it’s your pup’s way of managing his nervousness.

Scratching: In frustrating, stressful or even exciting situations, a dog might scratch (or bite, especially their paws) even if they’re not itchy.

Aggressive behaviors, such as lip curling or snapping: It’s no mystery why a dog might panic and try to bite or growl at the thing that makes them uncomfortable. This is why it’s so important to monitor strangers and children, since they don’t understand your dog’s body language like you do and will potentially cause anxiety with closeness and quick movements.

Without proper training, it’s best for your dog’s safety and others’ to keep an eye out for these gestures and avoid a volatile situation before it happens.

Excessive barking: Some will blame a lack of obedience training or boredom for too much barking, and that may be part of the issue, but it’s also quite common for dogs to bark and howl as a sign of stress.

Destruction: If you come home at the end of the day to shredded pillows, trash can explosions or ripped-up carpet, anxiety and boredom are likely culprits. Take your dog for a long walk or play ball for a little while before you leave them alone — exercise is essential.

Going potty in the house: Separation anxiety is super common, and arriving home to accidents isn’t unusual if the anxiety is severe. Even if your dog is fully house-trained, a stressful situation could cause them to regress.

Pacing or restlessness: Dogs are a lot like us in this way. Discomfort and stress may cause them to pace and seem unable to sit still.

Hyper-vigilance: Constantly looking around or becoming alert at the faintest noise or movement is common if a dog doesn’t feel at ease in her environment.

Like me, dogs are creatures of habit. So if you notice your dogs are stressed, it may be because there has been a change in their routine. You can minimize their stress by feeding them at the same times every day, as well as maintaining a consistent walk/play schedule.

Oh, and if you’re a total stress case, your dog will pick up on that energy. So do yourself a favor and practice good self care. One great way to do that is to make exercise part of your routine with your dog.

Exercise is the best medicine for almost any anxious ailment. A tired dog is a happy dog. Exercise helps remove those excess layers of nervous energy and can make a world of difference managing separation anxiety and general nervousness. It also helps manage my waistline. It’s a win-win!

Jack Hagerman is the vice president of communications for the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA.