20 Ways Dogs Communicate Stress

Dec 1 / Jennifer Thornburg
Since dogs don’t speak human (and they don’t wear mood rings), it can sometimes be difficult to tell exactly what you pup is saying. Much of the information they convey is through body language, specifically through facial expressions and body postures.

Because behavior can be interpreted differently by different people, it is important to view it objectively and pay attention to what the dog’s face and entire body are doing. Interpretations can vary depending on the context. And, just as humans can be excited and nervous at the same time, dogs can show conflicting signals too.

In order to observe body language in context, consider the following: the situation, body language signals, and the body language expressed by all parts of the dog’s body.
Body language changes based on feedback from the environment and can shift in a split second.

When we have a better understanding of how dogs communicate, we’re more compassionate and patient. If we can look at their behaviors and body language and determine that the dog is likely anxious, afraid, or frustrated, for example, we can do something to help them feel better. 

Look Away

Dogs use the look away to communicate a variety of things.
It’s usually a sign that your dog is feeling the need to communicate that 
they are not a threat or that they would rather not engage.

Big Yawn

A stressful yawn is more prolonged, shaky, and intense than a sleepy yawn.
A yawn may indicate anticipation or stress. It’s also a way of saying,
“I’ve had enough and my patience is running out”.


A dog who feels conflicted about something may slow down and stop to
sniff the environment. It’s a way to buy a little time while gathering some info.
A dog may use this as a way to diffuse a situation that could be tense.

Paw Lift

Depending on the rest of the dog’s body language and context,
a paw lift is generally seen when the dog feels conflicted,
anxious, or is anticipating something. “Loading. Please wait.”

Shake Off

Typically, a nose to tail shake off is a dog’s response to dealing with stress.
Usually, “shake offs” happen after any taxing situation.
Think of it as a full-body reset for the dog.


A dog that very suddenly scratches an ear or other body part
may be experiencing some discomfort, confusion, or stress.
Take a little break or make things easier for your dog.


A dog may stretch to relax stress-related tension in their muscles,
just as humans do. Dogs also stretch as a way to moderate excited energy.
Or it just may occur after sleeping or staying in one place for an extended period.

Privates Check

Some dogs check, lick, or even nibble their privates when they are stressed.
It could also be a sign of a medical concern.
Context and frequency are important clues.

Lip Licking

This type of licking looks very different than when you feed your dog a
spoonful of peanut butter. It’s usually accompanied by yawning and
whale eye. It may indicate stress or confusion.


Dogs who deliberately blink and/or squint are signaling that they are
mildly stressed or confused. Look for other signs of stress.
Do not confuse with soft blinking and be sure to rule out eye irritation.

Whale Eye

The dog will avert their head slightly, but eyes will stay fixed on
something or someone. May appear with lip-licking and yawning.
“Whale eye? Say goodbye.”

Pinned Ears

Dogs flatten their ears back or pin them against their head when
feeling anxious or afraid. The more fearful the dog is,
the farther back the ears may move.

Weight Shifting

A dog who is worried may lean forward as if ready for a fast get away.
Weight shifted to the rear and cowering are also signs of discomfort.
The dog in this photo also has a tucked tail.

Facial Tension

Facial tension can be a more nuanced stress signal.
Dogs that are anxious often have ridged tension lines across the brow.
This definitely depends on the breed and the context. 

Tap Out

A roll-over with a belly up may not be an invitation for a belly rub.
If the dog’s body is tense and the mouth is closed, they are likely
asking for space. Give it to them.

Raised Hackles

When the hair on a dog’s back goes up, it’s usually a sign that the dog is 
fearful, startled, stimulated or excited in some way. If you see your dog’s
hackles go up, determine the cause and make a plan for getting space.

Tight Mouth

A dog who suddenly closes their mouth, as if holding their breath,
may be indicating sudden stress. This typically means the dog
needs to concentrate on a change in the environment.

Air Sniffing

Sniffing the air and pacing around may indicate that a dog is feeling uncertain.
Because their sense of smell is so powerful, their noses are their way to
answer any questions they may have about the world around them

Tucked Tail

When a dog’s tail is deliberately tucked between their legs, it conveys
that the dog is no threat but is at least mildly uncomfortable.
Give the dog space so they do not feel the need to move to defensive responses.

Jumping Up

Frantic jumping may be a way a dog communicates that they are anxious
and confused about what’s expected of them.
Assess the situation and give that dog some help.


Fast, shallow panting not associated with heat or exercise can be stress-related.
You typically see the muscles bunched up in the corners of the mouth,
a “spatulate” tongue and other indications of tension.

Coat Changes

Dogs that are stressed will sometimes “blow their coat” or
develop sudden dandruff on their bodies. This often occurs around
the chest or shoulders, particularly if the dog is wearing a harness.


A dog who is restless, fidgeting, cannot seem to settle, and
is constantly on the move may be stressed. Since this can a be
a sign of physical discomfort or pain, it’s an important one to watch.
It could also be a toy parade! Context, context, context.


A dog who is regularly scanning or acutely aware of their environment
needs space and time to work things out. It’s best to give them that,
without touching them or gently lead them to a “safer” area.

Hard Stare

This dog’s direct eye contact and intense, fixed, glassy “cold” stare
lets you know not to come any closer.
“Continue doing what you are doing and there will be consequences.”


If a dog freezes and stands completely still, it means that they
are experiencing a high level of unease. Approaching the food
bowl this dog is guarding would definitely escalate the situation.

Sweaty Paws

Dogs have sweat glands in their paw pads. If a dog’s feet are
sweating enough for you to notice wet paw prints,
it’s likely a sign of extreme stress. This dog needs help.

If your dog is showing any of the above signs of discomfort, thank them for the information and immediately help to get some distance from the scary or stressful thing. And in the long term, get in touch with us or another fear-free trainer who can help your dog learn to feel safe.

“Listen to your dog’s whisper so he doesn’t have to shout.”

— Chirag Patel, Domesticated Manners
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