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Signs That a Dog Is Distressed (How Many Do You Recognize?)

Body language can tell you a lot about how any dog is feeling in the moment. Here are 4 stressful scenarios — and all the signs that a dog is distressed.

Signs That Your Dog Is Distressed
Separation anxiety is a common problem for dogs. Photo: maelick

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

For me, it was this morning. My dog, Pogs, was enjoying a game of fetch across the sand. Enter 3 other dogs over the crest of a dune.

Two of them peeled away and headed straight for Pogs, who is smaller and was outnumbered. The dogs gave chase, snapping at her back.

With her eyes rolling, ears pinned back and tail between her legs, Pogs was clearly distressed. Yet the other dogs’ people did nothing.

“They’re only playing!” they shouted, as the larger dog growled and grabbed again at Pogs’s haunches.

They were missing the point — sure, their dogs were having a fabulous time. But my dog was terrified. Surely they could recognize signs that a dog is distressed, 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 …

Signs That a Dog Is Distressed
Pay attention to the eyes. Here, the dog’s whale eyes communicate, “Do not approach any further — I may attack if pressed.” Photo: Dezi Greig

Scenario 1: The Dog Is Stressed by Other Dogs

An anxious dog uses body language to tell other dogs to back off.

These signals communicate either that they are no threat and so there’s no need to approach, or 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.

Signs That the Dog Is Distressed

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 — 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 their pet away.

Signs That Your Dog Is Stressed at the Vet
You might notice lip licking as a sign of distress in your dog at the vet. Photo: Sagi Denenberg

Scenario 2: The Dog Is Outside Their Comfort Zone

A typical example of a dog outside their comfort zone is a trip to the veterinarian.

Signs That the Dog Is Distressed

Here, the dog may display subtle signs of distress, including:

  • Yawning
  • Lip licking
  • Lifting a paw
  • Backing away
  • Barking
  • Growling and aggression

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 with the vet, it puts them at ease.

Signs that a dog has separation anxiety
Is your dog extra clingy before you leave for work? It could be a sign of separation anxiety. Photo: Bethni Vlogs

Scenario 3: The Dog Is Experiencing Separation Anxiety

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

Signs That the Dog Is Distressed

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:

If this sounds familiar, then avoid having a predictable routine before leaving and make as little fuss about going as possible.

Consider speaking with a behaviorist about a strategy for breaking the association between solitude and distress in your dog.

Signs That a Dog Is Distressed
Becoming withdrawn, hiding away and no longer engaging in play may be signs that your dog is stressed. Talk with your veterinarian about these signs, though, because some of them can indicate health problems. Photo: zefrank1

Scenario 4: The Dog Is Stressed by Life

A dog can be stressed by a change of routine, such as you returning to work, having a new pet in the house or even mourning the death of a loved one.

Signs That the Dog Is Distressed

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
  • Behavioral 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.

Signs That Your Dog Is Distressed
Pay attention at the dog park to ensure that your pup is having fun and not getting harassed by more aggressive dogs. Photo: Aidan Mak

Final Thoughts on the Signs That a Dog Is Distressed

In summary, always be a responsible caretaker for your pet.

Just because your dog is having a great time chasing another pup across the beach doesn’t mean the “pal” is happy. Be vigilant of the other dog’s body language and call your dog back as necessary.

vet-cross60pThis pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Jan. 20, 2018.

If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information.