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PAWS in Translation: Reading Stress Signals in Your Dog’s 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. 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.

Taking a stand

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.

The tail tells a tale

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 uncertainness. 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.

Hair-raising stories

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 if 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.

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. We’ll cover it all in future installments of Paws in Translation. And cat owners, don’t worry. We’ll include you, too!



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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