A German shepherd dog walking on a leash outside in the snow.

PAWS in Translation: Reading Signs of Stress in Dogs’ Body Language

If your dog drops a ball at your feet, it’s obvious that he or she is trying to tell you something. If they’re pawing at your knee during dinner, it’s clear what they’re trying to say.

But other times, your dog might be sending more involuntary messages through facial expressions or other forms of body language. For instance, when your dog is stressed out, they might not even know it. But their body does, and it can tell you that if you know what to look for. Here are some critical signs of stress in a dog’s body language.

Stress Signs in a Dog’s Posture

Your dog’s posture can tell you a lot.

A lowered body, with the hind end up and the head closer to the floor, combined with dilated pupils and panting, means that your dog is likely stressed about something specific. If they are also growling or snarling, they may have moved beyond stressed and into “attack mode,” meaning they are scared enough to be aggressive.

If a dog is really scared, they might submit entirely, rolling over onto their back and showing their belly. They may even pee a little.

In contrast, a dog that is standing at its full height (as if they are trying to look even bigger than they are) with straight front legs, leaning forward as if straining on an invisible leash, is projecting dominance and possible aggression.

Body positioning can be read all over your dog’s face, too. Read more about reading your dog’s facial expressions here.

The Tail Tells a Tale of Dog Stress

The way your dog holds his or her tail is an important tell. A stressed dog will likely show you one of two tail positions: Tucked between its legs, the tail is indicating some level of fear or uncertainty. If the tucked tail isn’t moving, your dog is definitely concerned about something. If it’s tucked and wagging a bit, there are definite bad feelings about something or someone.

In contrast, if the tail is held high, they might not yet be scared, but they are on alert about something. They’re showing excitement but not yet sure why. Only time will tail. Er, tell.

Do Dogs Pant When Stressed?

A panting dog is a prime sign of an anxious dog, and an anxious dog is usually a stressed dog. A dog panting can mean that the dog’s stress level is higher than usual, and the panting is often accompanied by other changes in the dog’s behavior, like whining or yawning more than usual. Excessive panting accompanied by extra-wide or panicked-looking eyes is a great indicator of canine stress.

So, how do pet parents calm a panting dog? If the panting is stress-related (as opposed to exercise or thirst-related panting), the quickest way is to remove the dog from the stressful situation if possible. Many dogs are upset by loud noises, for instance. If possible, take the dog elsewhere. If not, try to mask the sound with music or the TV. A constant, calming drone of sound is better than the sudden loud noises that cause your furry friend to be stressed.

Stressed Dogs Get Their Hackles Up

Even the state of your dog’s fur can indicate stress. You’ve heard about someone “getting their hackles up,” meaning that they’re getting defensive. Well, that phrase comes directly from the world of dogs. According to Merriam-Webster, one definition of “hackles” is “erectile hairs along the neck and back especially of a dog.” If a dog’s hackles are raised, meaning that the hair on a dog’s spine, from the neck and even including the tail, is puffed and looking like someone pet him or her backwards, the dog could be portraying some combination of dominance, fear and aggression. There’s a chance that he or she is also just very interested in something — raised hackles don’t always mean stress. But a stressed dog will almost always have their hackles raised.

Wondering How to Destress a Dog?

We touched on some of the ways to destress a dog in the section about panting, but that’s just scratching the surface of what stresses dogs and what you can do about it. The first thing you should do is get to the root of the situation. What’s causing the stress signals? Is it separation anxiety? Other dogs? Loud music? Holiday stress? Finding the underlying cause of why your dog is feeling uncomfortable is an important step toward finding calming techniques for your stressed-out dog.

The most direct tactic to help most dogs is to immediately remove them from the stressful situation. If it’s a more ongoing issue, like separation anxiety or if there’s an issue you can remove from the dog’s life, you can try extra exercise. A tired dog is a sleepy dog, and it’s hard to stress when you’re sleeping! Physical contact and attention from their people often helps keep a dog cool and collected. Pet stores have products like the Thunder Shirt, which act as a comforting embrace when you can’t be there to help in stressful situations. A trip to your veterinarian might be in order. Some medications and dog supplements might work, too, but talk to your vet first!

Don’t Stress, Use Context!

A dog’s body language shouldn’t be read in a vacuum. There are plenty of other things to consider when determining if your dog is stressed out. We’ve already covered how to read facial expressions, and next month, we’ll help you decipher the sounds he or she makes. Your dog’s actual activity, from pacing to digging to potty accidents, can tell you more than you ever thought possible, especially combined with your new knowledge about body language.

If you have any questions or concerns about your dog’s behaviors and training, don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian.


The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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