Canine Communication. Recognising Stress!
The signs that a dog is starting to feel uncomfortable are pretty universal, even if they can’t naturally communicate with us, they will still display signs of unease that we can read. In fact, even complete learned helplessness has symptoms. If we know what to look for, we are empowered to help.
Signs of Stress
Stress is shown in levels. Low level stress is more likely to reverse when we read it and back off, as the level of stress heads towards overwhelming stress though, the dog is more likely not to recover quickly, so will suffer from the reaction for lot longer (up to 72 hours depending on how severe the stress gets). Our job as the lucky guardian of these dogs is to read the earliest signs, then change the situation, to prevent the dog’s stress reaction from getting more severe.
Early signs may include the following which I have structured into loose groups including what the dog is likely to be trying to tell us.
“I’m not sure about what’s happening here”
Licking their lips or nose. A dog with learned helplessness often licks their lips with a wide and slow tongue. Most dogs lick their faces or lips if they are feeling uneasy. Sneezing or snuffling is might show the presence of stress, more often when the dog is feeling conflicted and this can be seen most often when the dog is learning or playing, often as a symptom of eustress. (The good stress that aids learning). This behaviour can also be shown by a happy dog, resulting in the appearance of laughter.
Yawning when the dog is approached, not tired or in a situation change can tell us that the change is making them uneasy. Tension around the lips and eyes may show the onset of fear and stress. The tension is something that is extremely subtle, and you might really need to look for it. Pinched lips are a sign that a dog is worried. “I’m not sure about this new thing happening"
“Please leave me alone”
A lowered head or head dip occurs when the dog’s head goes below the line along the dog’s back. A head dip is a subtle sign whilst a lowered tail when the dog feels uncomfortable, will always be lower than their neutral position. A dog that has escaped from a puppy farm may take a long time to raise their tail, which makes it all the more rewarding than they do. A tucked tail and body might be accompanied by a paw lift, which is used in a few situations, it can accompany stress and worry through general unease or a signal of appeasement.
A slightly changed ear position, ears that go out to the side of the head, even by a little bit, may show appeasement feelings. Ears that go backwards may be telling us that the dog is scared. A dog with long or heavy ears, for example a Cocker Spaniel may pinch them into the side of her head.
Averting their eyes away from the thing that worries them, including you. The dog who averts their eyes may also turn their head away. Head turning, looking away and ignoring are displayed in a way that almost appears like the dog thinks if she can’t see the stressor, it is not there. This behaviour can be an important sign of low-level stress but is also common in the state of learned helplessness. Some dogs will look at the wall to avoid being looked at.
Eye narrowing, and blinking are signs that a stress reaction might be starting, she may also show a dilated pupil depending on how quickly she is getting stressed.
“I’m busy, please go away”
Sniffing in this context is a type of conflicted behaviour. The dog can see the stressor but decides to change the subject instead. The act of intense sniffing is another way for a dog to give the impression of ignoring the stressor in the hope that is goes away. This is not to be confused with a dog’s natural need to sniff and explore with his nose, as scent is the dog’s way of exploring his world, sniffing enriches his life greatly. By exploring the entire dog’s body language and the situation in context you will be able to recognise what type of sniffing the dog is displaying.
Scratching himself is another displacement act, depending on how the dog feels in the situation he's in, he might scratch through confusion or mild stress.
Shaking off occurs when a dog has passed through mild stress and is returning to neutral state, we often see this when a harness or collar is removed or when an anxious dog comes through their own front door after a walk outside. A shake off appears like the dog is shaking water from their coat, as opposed to shivering which is a sign of severe fear or illness.