4 Signs That Your Dog Is Distressed

A dog’s body language can tell you a lot about how she’s feeling in that moment.

Separation anxiety is a common problem for dogs. By: maelick

When did you last feel frustrated by someone who had a dog?

For me, it was this morning. Pogs was enjoying a game of fetch across the sand. Enter 3 other dogs over the crest of a dune. Two of them peel away and head straight for Pogs, who is smaller and outnumbered. The dogs give chase, snapping at her back. With her eyes rolling, ears pinned back and tail between her legs, Pogs is clearly distressed.

Yet the other dogs’ people do nothing. “They’re only playing!” they shout, as the larger dog growls and grabs again at Pogs’s haunches. They are missing the point — their dogs are having a fabulous time, but my dog is terrified. Surely they can recognize stress in another dog, right?


When you recognize stress in your dog or another, you can take steps to diffuse the situation. Failing to do so is not only unfair but in some cases could end up with the stressed dog biting out of self-defense. Let’s avoid this unpleasant scenario by refreshing ourselves on what a stressed dog looks like in 4 different scenarios.

1. Stressed by Other Dogs

An anxious dog uses body language to tell other dogs to back off. These signals take 2 forms:

  1. That they are no threat, so there’s no need to approach
  2. That they are unhappy but prepared to attack if pressed

The dog whose signals are ignored may snap to make the threat go away and unwittingly become labeled as aggressive.

An anxious dog will first use subtle body language to diffuse the situation. For example:

  • Lowered head carriage
  • Turned the head aside to avoid staring directly at the approaching dog
  • Whale eyes, where the white cornea shows around the iris
  • Lowered ears
  • Tail tucked between the back legs
  • Raised hackles over the shoulders, a sign of severe anxiety or fear
  • Displaying the belly; a sign of submission, this can be a desperate attempt to appease another dog

Hopefully, the other dog reads the body language and backs off. If not, then it’s up to the responsible human to call her pet away.

Pay attention at the dog park to ensure that your pup is having fun and not getting harassed by more aggressive dogs. By: Aidan Mak

2. Outside The Comfort Zone

A typical example of a dog outside her comfort zone is a trip to the vet. Here, the dog may display subtle signs of distress, including:

In these circumstances, any vet worth her salt will give these dogs time to adjust by ignoring them. This is a great time to take a medical history — when the dogs see their humans relaxed and chatting to the vet, it puts them at ease.


 3. Stressed by Separation

Most people have heard of separation anxiety, but some may not be aware of the subtle signs.

If your neighbor complains about the dog’s barking when you’re out, this could indeed be a sign the dog is not coping well with your absence. Other signs include:

  • Destructiveness, such as chewing or digging
  • Going to the bathroom in the house when left alone
  • Excessive barking or howling
  • Hiding
  • Extreme clinginess before your departure

If this sounds familiar, then avoid having a predictable routine before leaving and make as little fuss about going as possible. Consider speaking to a behaviorist about a strategy for breaking the association between solitude and distress.

Watch this trainer’s method of reducing her dog’s anxiety:

4. Stressed by Life

Dogs can be stressed by a change of routine, such as her human returning to work, a new pet in the house or even a bereavement.

Signs to be vigilant for include:

  • Changes in appetite, such as eating less
  • Becoming withdrawn and hiding away
  • Not engaging in play or enjoying favorite toys in the same way
  • Behavior changes, such as becoming snappy for no reason
  • Sleeping more
  • “Self-harm” habits, such as excessive licking of one spot or chewing fur out

Many of these signs are vague and can also indicate ill health. Always get the dog checked by a vet first, for problems that need medical treatment. Once those are cleared, then target strategies to reassure the dog, such as sticking to a routine, using dog pheromones and spending quality time with the pet.

And finally, always be a responsible guardian. Just because your dog is having a great time chasing another pup across the beach doesn’t mean her “pal” is happy. Be vigilant of the other dog’s body language and call yours off as necessary.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Jan. 20, 2018.


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