Reading Dog Body Language: Stress Related Cues

Dog Body Language

Dog Body LanguageWhy is Dog Body Language Important?

Dog body language is the single method of communication that your dog has to convey their mood and physical health.

For humans, body language refers to posture, non-verbal cues, and actions. This is no different for dogs, however, reading dog body language can present some challenges for non-dogs.

Dog Body Language Simply Didn’t Play into Our Evolution

When observing human body language, most of us know what different cues mean. We have spent our lives around (as well as evolved around)  humans. Understanding human body language has been crucial to our survival. Most of us, however, have not spent our life in anticipation of a dog’s next move – why does it matter what our dog is going to do next? Our dogs don’t control our food supply, they don’t compete for our basic resources, we don’t depend on them for survival…

While this is true, learning to read our dog’s behavior by understanding dog body language is important because it allows us to keep our dogs safe as well as keep ourselves and those that we love out of dangerous situations.

So, what are you looking for?

A Basic Crash Course in Dog Body Language

Before we begin, it’s important to remind ourselves that EVERY dog is different. While certain body language cues are noticed with greater frequency for specific situations, these cues are not always reliable predictors of behavior. Individual dogs can display unique postures, behaviors, and movements based on a variety of other factors including but not limited to pain and physical deformity. Due to this, it is always important to pay attention to the specific situation that you find yourself in as well as to dog body language.

Stress Related Cues

The first type of body language we are going to look at are stress related postures and expressions. These are cues that are very often overlooked, misunderstood, or not seen because dog owners do not know what they are looking for.

Neglecting these types of cues as an owner is exceptionally frustrating for your dog – imagine telling someone over and over again that you don’t like what they are doing, but they ignore you. Neglecting these dog body language cues can also lead to “aggressive” behavior, that is behavior that is often seen as aggressive, but is actually the result of continuous pressure on your dog.



Fearful Dogs Often Crouch on Approach

Body Posture

  • The ears are held low
  • More pronounced whites of the eyes
  • The head is held low
  • The body may take on a slunk down posture


  • Yawning
  • Digging
  • Barking
  • Spinning in circles
  • Pacing
  • Drooling
  • Lip licking

Most Often Seen When…

  • Dogs are exposed to situations and stimuli that make them uneasy or fearful.

When You Observe This, You Should…

  • If this is your dog, do your best to remove the stimuli or change the situation until you can work on lessening your dog’s anxiety. Lessening anxiety is a long process and takes dedication.
  • DO NOT baby your dog by holding them or constantly reassuring them, instead, remain calm and control the situation since you cannot immediately control your dog’s behavioral response.
  • If this is not your dog, mention to the dog’s handler that they seem uncomfortable and ask if there is anything that you can do to help the situation.


Feeling Overwhelmed

Frustrated Dog

Body Posture

  • Wide eyes with the whites showing – this is often referred to as “whaling”
  • Turning the head or body away from the situation/person/thing causing them to feel overwhelmed
  • The ears may pull back against the head
  • The top lip may raise to show teeth if the dog is pushed too far


  • Looking for safety – a crate or a responsible adult handler
  • Pulling away from the bothersome individual
  • Getting up and moving away from a situation or individual causing them bother
  • Lip licking or nose licking
  • Yawning

Most Often Seen When…

  • Dogs are repeatedly bothered or put outside of their comfort zone. This is often seen when small children with no knowledge of appropriate behavior are allowed to “play” with dogs.

When You Observe This, You Should…

  • Intervene. Whether you are the dog’s handler or the cause of the dog being uncomfortable, it is up to you to change the circumstance. Allowing a dog to be pushed too far will result in a dangerous situation, ALWAYS react when you see this type of response.
  • You should also take this opportunity to teach children the right way to interact with family pets if you have not already done so.


Fearful Dog

Body Posture

  • Eyes wide
  • Ears back and flattened to the head
  • Head down
  • The body may be hunched over and drawn backward
  • The body may also be turned away
  • Tail tucked between the legs tightly


  • Teeth baring or snarling
  • Moving backward
  • Reluctance to look away from the fearful stimulus but refusal to make direct eye contact
  • Retreat
  • Reluctance to be touched or approached

Most Often Seen When…

  • A dog is being forced to confront anxiety inducing stimuli

When You Observe This, You Should…

  • If this is your dog, remove them from the situation if possible or remove the fearful stimulus.
  • Should this be the first time you are seeing this behavior from your dog use caution because a fearful dog can bite (yes, even you). Do your best to diffuse the situation through refocusing your dog’s attention, eliminating the situation or stimulus, and re-engaging your dog in a routine or enjoyable activity to bring them back to their center.
  • DO NOT baby your dog, try to lift/touch/pet your dog, or release your dog from their leash in this situation if you have never experienced it before with your dog. A fearful dog is an unpredictable dog.
  • If this is someone else’s dog, remove yourself and your dog from the situation as safely as possible to make it easier for the dog’s handler to recenter their dog.
  • When faced with a confrontation with a loose dog, DO NOT take your eyes off the dog but DO NOT  make eye contact, stay calm and back up slowly until you are out of their sightline and then get to safety. Once safe, call animal control and report the incident.
  • In the case that this is a confrontation with a loose dog and the fearful dog is close enough to bite if they feel pushed, make sure to avoid eye contact and once again remain calm. If you have a cane or can reach for a stick, hold this out between you and the dog to create a longer reach and larger space between you and the dog. In most instances, this will cause the dog to back off. On the very slim chance that a frightened dog does try to attack, try to lodge something in the dog’s mouth before they latch on to you. Should the dog manage to latch on, however, do not try to pull away, instead, reach back and grab their back legs with your free hand, forcing the dog to the ground. If you are unable to do this, consider throwing your arm as far down the dog’s throat as you can.OBVIOUSLY, an attacking dog is something that none of us want to be faced with, but when attacks happen it is always best to be prepared. Know that keeping calm is your best bet at de-escalating the situation. Your next step should be to retreat. If the dog advances, pepper spray is a useful deterrent.



Suspicious Dogs

Body Posture

  • Staring
  • Wide, alert eyes
  • A firm stance
  • Ears perked and turned forward
  • Leaning forward
  • Tail held straight out from the body or up and out from the body
  • The fur on the back of the neck and down the back may or may not be raised


  • Reluctance to break eye contact
  • Moving forward
  • Not easily distracted or not distracted at all

Most Often Seen When…

  • A dog encounters a stranger in their territory

When You Observe This, You Should…

  • Where a fearful dog is very unlikely to attack, a suspicious dog very well may do. If this is your dog, your first instinct should be to remove the offending stimulus from the environment so that your dog does not attack.
  • If this is someone else’s dog, remove yourself from the situation before any escalation occurs.

*Note, when I talk about ‘suspicion’ here, I am not talking about intrigue, I am talking about an overly curious dog that shows signs of testing boundaries.*


Feeling Threatened

Dog Feeling Threatened

Body Posture

  • Leaning or lunging forward
  • A slightly crouched but stiff body
  • A tail straight out behind the body that waves


  • Barking or growling
  • Standing their ground
  • Snapping at the air
  • Staring with an unwavering stare

Most Often Seen When…

  • A dog experiences behavior that they consider threatening to their safety

When You Observe This, You Should…

  • One step beyond suspicion, feeling threatened is the last chance for the target of your dog’s attention to remove themselves from the situation before an aggressive response. In the even that this is your dog, do everything you can to distract them if the stimulus is temporary. If the stimulus doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, block it from your dog’s view or ask them to leave if they are a person. Should this be someone else’s dog, get out of there ASAP. Do not make eye contact. Do not turn your back on the dog. Look to the side of the dog to keep them in sight and back up slowly and calmly until you are in a safe location.



Dog in Pain

Body Posture

  • Tail tucked
  • Crouched or hunched over posture
  • Ears pulled back or flat to the head


  • Panting
  • Drooling
  • Pacing
  • Constant shifting of posture
  • Limping or any unusual movement
  • Licking or biting a painful area
  • Unusual snapping or growling

Most Often Seen When…

  • A dog is experiencing sickness or injury

When You Observe This, You Should…

  • Assess your dog’s vital signs. If you know the cause of their pain and it can be addressed at home, do so immediately. If you do not know the source of their pain, it’s time to visit your veterinarian. If you do not know the source of their pain and their vital signs are “off” it’s time to visit your emergency veterinarian.


More to Come

In the second installment of this article (to be published tomorrow), we will take a look at anger and aggression related body language in dogs. We will cover stalking, impending aggression, and anger.

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