A guide to navigating the challenge and adventure of life with your dogs.

Do You Recognize These 6 Signs of a Stressed-Out Dog?

The agility student was getting fed up with her Jack Russell Terrier. When it was their turn to perform a training exercise in class, the dog would start sniffing the ground like crazy and ignore everything his owner said. “He’s so stubborn!” said the student. “I don’t know what to do to get him to listen. Should I be using better treats or something?”

Upon further investigation it was revealed that the dog only got sniffy when he was told to take one of the contact obstacles. On the contacts, the dog must race up and over a narrow plank suspended up to six feet in the air. They can be pretty intimidating to a beginner dog.

It turned out that the Jack Russell wasn’t stubborn. He was afraid of heights! With all his sniffing, he was trying to tell his owner that he was nervous. With a little extra practice learning how to safely perform the contacts, the sniffing stopped and the team lived happily ever after, winning lots of ribbons and titles in competition.

Braving the contacts

As humans, we sometimes suck at listening to what our dogs are saying. It’s why so many dogs end up with aggression or fear issues. It’s why so many kids get bit in the face by the family dog while their distraught parents insist, “I don’t know what happened! Fido just attacked without warning.”

To help you avoid all this drama, here are some signs that indicate a dog is getting frustrated and/or freaked out. Fortunately, dogs are pretty easy to read once you know what you’re looking for.

1. Excessive shedding.

Have you ever noticed how when you take Sparky to the vet, the fur starts flying? When dogs get nervous, they tend to shed a lot more than usual. Their coat might even get staticky!

2. Wet paw prints.

Do your palms get sweaty when you’re nervous? Chances are, your dog’s do too. Dogs have sweat glands in their paw pads. If your dog’s feet are sweating enough for you to notice, it’s a sign of extreme stress.

3. Refusing to eat.

I’ve had super-skinny shelter dogs refuse to take treats from me. They’re so stressed, they just can’t eat. Sometimes in training classes, nervous dogs lose interest in the delicious chicken or liver treats that their owners brought. Any time your dog refuses to take food that she would normally scarf down without thinking, you need to assess the situation and figure out what’s bothering her.

4. Stillness/freezing/holding his breath.

This could mean that the shit’s about to hit the fan! If stillness is accompanied by:

-tense muscles/stiff legs

-ears pinned back

-licking his nose

-mouth closed with the corners of the mouth pushed slightly forward

and/or

- looking at the source of his discomfort with wide, unblinking eyes,

the dog is saying “back off.” If this warning is ignored, a bite could be imminent. When people say “Fido just attacked without warning!”, what usually happened is that Fido displayed a sequence of behaviors similar to the one above, and was ignored. To humans, this is all very subtle behavior. But the dog thinks he’s being loud and clear. If you EVER notice your dog doing this when interacting with a person or dog, you need to drop whatever you’re doing and get him out of there ASAP.

Check out this video for an excellent breakdown of this warning behavior. The video really shows how subtle it is and how fast it happens:



5. Yawning, lip licking, shaking, stretching, and a million other seemingly insignificant behaviors.

As social creatures, dogs evolved with a complex system of behaviors designed to diffuse and deflect tension. These behaviors are called calming signals. Calming signals include:

Turning away, yawning, lip licking, shaking off like she’s trying to dry herself, scratching, stretching, blinking repeatedly and/or slowly, dipping the head, sneezing, lifting a paw like a bird dog on point.

Calming signals are subtle behaviors dogs offer when they are in potentially uncomfortable situations. It’s their attempt to calm themselves and others. If a dog yawns or sneezes at another dog or human, he’s saying something along the lines of “chill out, dude! It’s all good.”

Quick demo of the lip licking and yawning signals:

The lip lick:

The shake off:


6. Sniffing and acting “distracted.”

These are calming signals as well, but they tend to annoy people more than the others do. Just like the Jack Russell who was trying to avoid the contact obstacles, your dog might use these to avoid unpleasant situations.

Do you have a cell phone? Ha. What am I saying. Of course you do. So you know how, when you get into awkward situations, you pretend to text to deflect the tension? Well, snffing and acting distracted are the dog equivalent of pretending to text.

But what if Fido really is distracted, and not nervous? How do I tell the difference?

Not to get all New Age on you, but you have to look at the whole dog. Because you’re right: sometimes Fido really will be distracted (sniffing), or not hungry (refusing food), or he may have an itch (scratching). The real warning sign is when it’s combined with other calming/stress signals.

So Fido keeps sniffing the ground. Look at his body language. Is he relaxed and comfortable? If you offer a treat, will he eat it? Does he acknowledge you when you talk to him? Then he’s probably fine.

But what if he’s sniffing the ground, and he’s shedding a lot? Is his tail tucked low? Is he ignoring you? Does he sneeze, scratch, stretch or yawn frequently? Something’s wrong.

The bottom line is that you have to get to know your dog. Learn all his quirks. Figure out what scares him. Figure out what makes him uncomfortable. Any time you notice him getting stressed, it’s your responsibility to either get him out of the situation, or take a step back and work through the problem with him. As a result, Fido will trust you and look to you for help whenever he gets into a situation he can’t handle.

Jack Russell photo credit

33 Responses to Do You Recognize These 6 Signs of a Stressed-Out Dog?

  1. chris says:

    I have a 6 year old black lab. She is absolutely terrified of the dishwasher. If it is running she will shake violently and want outside ASAP . Then it is hard to get her back in when she thinks it is still going.
    Lately she seems afraid to come in at all and when she does, she will sit and tremble. Unbelievable!!!!!!
    No one has ever hit her, (they wouldn’t dare).
    My daughter jokingly says she see “dead people”. I am concerned and don’t know how to re-assure her.

  2. [...] End of the Leash Emma Parson's Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog Articles like this one: Do you Recognize These 6 Signs of a Stressed-Out Dog? And of course the support of my amazing foster coordinator and trainer :0) [...]

  3. [...] addition to MeadowCat's advice, I'm going to add this website: Do You Recognize These 6 Signs of a Stressed Out Dog? Read it and watch the videos. This is one of the most helpful websites I've found that breaks down [...]

  4. [...] The first few clips are of dogs being loud and clear. They are saying, in no uncertain terms, that if you don’t leave them alone you will get hurt. But the final clip is of a behavior you really have to watch out for. This dog is showing very subtle warning behavior. He’s staring at me with wide, unblinking eyes. He’s very still. Ears are forward. Unlike the others, his body is not aligned straight at me – I think he’s conflicted. He’s not sure if he’s going to retreat or fight. The stillness is important, because it often leads to a bite. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say I’m glad there was a gate between us. (For further breakdown of the subtle warnings to a bite, read this) [...]

  5. Taylor says:

    haha ninja dog tryna get it in

  6. [...] critter. To tell the difference, you need a good understanding of how dogs communicate. Please see: Do You Recognize These 6 Signs of a Stressed-Out Dog? and Dog Speak 101: a Video Introduction to Dog Body [...]

  7. Facebook User says:

    Do you know the reason the Belgian Malinois was so unhappy with the Rottweiler’s greeting, when he behaved appropriately? Is it because she is old and grumpy and she was saying “leave me alone, don’t interrupt my activity” (as my old dog was, who didn’t appreciate a big bouncy puppy bothering him when he was busy sniffing) or was it because she had pain from the spine disease and was afraid another dog might bump or hurt her?

  8. 3LostDogs says:

    Both of those seem like good explanations. But I’m not the original poster of the video. Click through to view it on Youtube and you can ask the video’s owner for better insight into what was going on.

  9. Nicole Williamson says:

    I took my dog to a large fenced area…probably close to 1/2 acre. I let her off leash there because I thought I’d let her safely run around since I do not have a solid recall with her. She DOES know “here”, but she tends to ignore me when outside. She is NOT nervous. She just wants to sniff sniff sniff! I call happily and she doesn’t even turn an ear, much less look up. I don’t reprimand her for not coming. Am I starting out with giving her too much free space? I tried in a tennis court and she did slightly better, but not much.

  10. Nicole Williamson says:

    And probably did better because there was no grass/stuff to sniff in a tennis court compared to a large grassy area.

  11. onebigassdog says:

    Nicole, recall takes a while to teach especially when you have a lot of fun distractions outdoors. And every dog will learn at their own pace. I had a dog that it took me 2 years to train a 100% recall, because small critters where always a higher value reward and a lot more fun than I was. Then I had a dog that learned 100% recall in less than 6 months. Each dog is different. For her when you are outside with her sniffing and searching for all the new smells, sounds and visuals is all more interesting than you are. You want to teach her that no matter what you are always more interesting. If you are outside just to let her sniff and play in the fenced in area let her. If you are outside practicing recall then I would recommend starting with a long leash. And only call her when you know she will come. Practice inside first. Play games, hide and seek, tag, puppy in the middle. The key is to reward her every time she comes to you and make it a big deal. If you are outside and you call her and she “ignores” you, then act goofy and start running away from her, as soon as she engages in the game tell her she’s a good girl and reward her with high value rewards when she reaches you. And always have fun! :)

  12. Nicole Williamson says:

    Alright, I will work on that. Another thing is that when I do reward her whether by lots of ear scratching (her favorite spot) and “good dog!” or with treat, she doesn’t seem THAT excited to have made me happy. She comes for the treat or pet and then keeps on moving.

    But I will try exactly what you said. In the house, sometimes she’s my shadow following me everywhere, and she is smart, so I know she can do it. It’s just a matter of me achieving that higher-than-everything-else status. Thanks!

  13. 3LostDogs says:

    Hi Nicole, I actually wrote a mini-ebook on training a reliable recall. If you sign up for the 3LostDogs email list, you’ll get a free copy (it’s not advertised on the signup page, it’s like a “secret” bonus. Shh!).

    I agree with what onebigassdog said. However, you don’t always have to be the most interesting thing around. You just have to control ACCESS to the most interesting things around. The ebook shows you how to do that.

  14. [...] because chances are, she is giving plenty before barking. This is one of my favorite references: Do You Recognize These 6 Signs of a Stressed Out Dog?. I think #5 will be the most applicable to your situation. My experience is that tongue flicks and [...]

  15. [...] outlines 6 common signs of a stressed-out dog, complete with some excellent video examples. Do You Recognize These 6 Signs of a Stressed-Out Dog? | 3 Lost Dogs My hope is that as more owners become aware of what their dog's are trying to communicate, we'll [...]

  16. Facebook User says:

    Thank you!

  17. Jules C. says:

    I have a 9 lb rescue dog, who is around 6-8 yrs old… she does this “freeze” thing around other dogs, with her tail pointed straight up in the air, and one front paw held up close to her chest. Sometimes her tail wags, sometimes it is rigid. Her body seems relaxed, though a little leaning away from the other dog, or dogs. She seems to like to meet other dogs, and will wander right up to them, often giving a tug on the leash towards the the new dog. I tend to watch her pretty closely, but her cues seem so subtle to me, and I can’t figure her out! I get the feeling the she is interested in the new dog, but also ready to freak out, and I am not totally sure how to deal… I feel like she is giving mixed signals, and I am probably reading them incorrectly. We have had other dogs, but she is our first “older” rescue, and I am finding her very tricky to read. Should I be more “wary” of her around other dogs?

  18. Lauren says:

    I have a 6month old black lab puppy, he was potty trained and rarely ever barked or whined. My husband and I left for vacation for 10 days last week and left him with his sister who has a 4 year old and 2 dogs (he got in a fight with the 1 so they separated them the rest of the time) when we got back he has been acting so bad. ex: bark, wining, hiding under the table and barking, seems more skidish than normal and needing of a lot of attention. he also looks as if he is missing some hair near his under arms. Could this be stress from staying with them? We are not sure if something is wrong or he is acting out. Please help!

  19. chinak says:

    My 7 year old lab/sheppard/husky mix is terrified of noise when he’s outside. So terrified that he refuses to go for walks. Even a noise as minor as a car door shutting puts him in a frenzy to get home IMMEDIATELY. Keeping him under control long enough to get home is torture for both of us. He doesn’t want to go for walks anymore and frankly, I don’t want to take him. I’m considering medication because I don’t know what else to do. Any suggestions? Anyone? I’d rather help him over his fears without medication but all my attempts to comfort him fail and we end up with him trying to create a real life Marmaduke cartoon. Any help would be immensely appreciated, by both of us. The poor guy is miserable being left home when I walk, and too terrified to join me.

  20. Jordan says:

    my dog spike had fleas, I treated him with advantage. flea problem is over with. he is missing hair around his eye and mouth,he scratches these areas too. just had him to the vet again ,got a skin test done,he doesn’t have the demon parasite. doesn’t have heartworms. he now has revolution on him incase its mites that is bothering his eye and mouth… he is still happy and cheery. I am military and gone a lot, maybe stress causing him to scratch ?? I dunno but spike is my boy!!! any advice, hoping the revolution ends it!!!!!!!!! thank you

  21. John says:

    My 6yr old jack russell is completely trained and very obedient but she WONT STOP LICKING THE DISHWASHER! her tail is wagging (happy), she has food and water, and none of these signs are showing (except she won’t take treats). True story she has been doing this for a few years. I’m just so confused like WTH LOLA?! Please help.

  22. kooshal says:

    My dog freaks out when she hears loud noises while she is on a walk. then she pulls on the leash and tries to run away from the noise (machines at work on the road or trucks passing by). i don’t want to avoid those situations but rather face them. Please give me some advice. Plus she’s a bit scared while on leash anywhere outside of my yard.

  23. […] dog shows different signs of stress. So, if you assume all stressed dogs pace or tuck their tail, you could be missing some very […]

  24. […] can be a sign of stress. I cannot say for sure but it is something you would want to consider. Do You Recognize These 6 Signs of a Stressed-Out Dog? | 3 Lost Dogs Calming Signals Otherwise I would probably go back to loose leash walking basics, build attention, […]

  25. HeIdi says:

    I Know this is a late response and I am not the poster either, but I believe it’s cuz they were just meeting for the first time and she didn’t “know” that dog and was Leary….the video said they were good after that….so that’s just my thought.? :)

  26. barb says:

    my jack russell goes crazy over the dishwasher. she even bites the detergent bottle when i put in dishwasher lol. she will stand forever and bark forever when it turn it on.

  27. […] Next, learn how to recognize stress in dogs […]

  28. jenny says:

    I’ve had my dog trained on things like this. My dog when first gets nervous she gets low, then she will walk in a curve away from whatever it is. Her tail drops too. The trainer showed me these signs and said to turn around and walk away from the house as it was a dog barking at the gate. He told me to walk about ten yards back in the direction I came from the turn around to start walking back. Then the very first stress sign you see in your dog turn back around and walk a few steps back on yourself. Then walkback towards the stressor again until the signs are shown and turn back around. Keep doing this and you get closer to the stressor before you have to turn back until you can eventually pass it. Your dog notices that your understanding them and trust you to take them closer. My dog barks at road work signs on the pavement in which I tend to let her sniff them when were close and drop treats whilst she does that. She’s fine with them but for stressors which seem to impact your dog a lot treats will not work.

  29. jenny says:

    When I first let my dog off it was a tennis court and she was okay with coming back as I had a ball! When I let her off on a field with all new smells and other dogs I ran away and she chased after. I have also hid behind trees before and she is rewarded for coming back when called and I have noticed she keeps an eye out for me when she roams around now.

  30. Kooshal says:

    Thanks for your advice. Unfortunately it’s no late now, my dog got lost.

  31. […] Do You Recognize These 6 Signs of a Stressed-Out Dog? | 3 Lost Dogs pretty good […]

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