Updated: Mar 30
Dogs are communicating with us and each other all the time. Unless you have formally studied canine behavior, you may not be aware of how they are doing it. Here we will talk about a few signals and gestures that dogs use to let us know they are under stress.
Several of them can also be considered calming signals. A calming signal is used by a dog to de-escalate a tense situation with another dog. It basically says "I'm not really comfortable with what you're doing, could you take it down a notch?" If the other dog is well socialized, they will usually comply with some body language of their own.
When these initial signals are not understood or respected however, some dogs will jump to more advanced ways of letting you know they aren't happy: growling, snapping, biting or (if you're lucky) running away from the situation.
The best thing to take away from this is that when your dog displays one of these signals, he is asking for a little space. And as his owner, you can give him that.
Here are a few of the gestures your dog may use to indicate that he is stressed:
1. Slowly raising a front paw. This one is easy to miss. It's not the same thing as pawing at your leg or trying to shake hands. Your dog will usually hold it in the air for a brief moment and he will usually close his mouth too.
2. Quickly licking his mouth or nose. He may do this many times in a row.
3. Giving the side-eye. This is sometimes called whale eye. It means your dog is opening his eye so you can see a nice big ring of white around the outside of the iris. When this happens, his head is still.
4. Standing still with his head drooped for an extended period of time. Some people call this "hang dog" and think the dog is feeling guilty. He's not. He's worried about what will happen next.
5. While sitting, he pulls his neck back and turns his head from side to side trying to avoid eye contact. His mouth is closed. This is probably the easiest one to identify because it's obvious he is trying to avoid what's happening.
6. Yawning slowly when he isn't tired. He may do this repeatedly.
7. Stiff body posture with low or tucked tail. This one doesn't apply to senior dogs because they may have underlying health issues which cause this posture.
So now that you know a few of the signs, what should you do? First and foremost, figure out the source of the stress. Is it another dog? A person? An object? Yourself? If it's any of these, calmly remove it from your dog's immediate space. If you're on a walk and your dog displays any of these near another person or dog, it's best if you and your dog do the distancing. And on the bright side, that seems to be easier right now than ever.
A long slow yawn is an easy stress signal to identify.