Features August 2011 Issue

A Canine Stress Dictionary

Stress causes the appetite to shut down. A dog who won’t eat moderate to high-value treats may just be distracted or simply not hungry, but refusal to eat is a common indicator of stress.

Appeasement or Deference Signals

Appeasement/Deference Signals
Appeasement and deference aren’t always an indicator of stress. They are important everyday communication tools for keeping peace in social hierarchies, and are often presented in calm, stress-free interactions. They are offered in a social interaction to promote the tranquility of the group and the safety of the group’s members. When offered in conjunction with other behaviors, they can be an indicator of stress as well. Appeasement and deference signals include:

Slow movement: appeasing/deferent dog appears to be moving in slow-motion

Lip-licking: appeasing/deferent dog licks at the mouth of the higher ranking member of the social group


Sitting/lying down/exposing underside: appeasing/deferent dog lowers body posture, exposing vulnerable parts

Turning head away, averting eyes: appeasing/deferent dog avoids eye contact, exposes neck

Dog turns away; shuts down; evades handler’s touch and treats.

Brow Ridges
Furrows or muscle ridges in the dog’s forehead and around the eyes.

Displacement Behaviors

Difficulty Learning
Dogs are unable to learn well or easily when under significant stress.

Digestive Disturbances
Vomiting and diarrhea can be a sign of illness – or of stress; the digestive system reacts strongly to stress. Carsickness is often a stress reaction.

Displacement Behaviors
These are behaviors performed in an effort to resolve an internal stress conflict for the dog. They may be observed in a dog who is stressed and in isolation – for example a dog left alone in an exam room in a veterinary hospital – differentiating them from behaviors related to relationship.


Blinking: Eyes blink at a faster-than normal rate

Nose-Licking: Dog’s tongue flicks out once or multiple times

Chattering teeth


Shaking off (as if wet, but dog is dry)


May be an indication of stress – or response to the presence of food, an indication of a mouth injury, or digestive distress.

Excessive Grooming

Clinging Behaviors

Dog may lick or chew paws, legs, flank, tail, and genital areas, even to the point of self-mutilation.

Frantic behavior, pacing, sometimes misinterpreted as ignoring, “fooling around,” or “blowing off” owner.

Immune System Disorders
Long-term stress weakens the immune system. Immune related problems can improve when overall levels of stress are reduced.

Lack of Attention/Focus
The brain has difficulty processing information when stressed.

Lowered Body Posture

The stressed dog seeks contact with human as reassurance.

Lowered Body Posture
“Slinking,” acting “guilty,” or “sneaky” (all misinterpretations of dog body language) can be indicators of stress.

Willingness to use mouth on human skin – can be puppy exploration or adult poor manners, but can also be an expression of stress, ranging from gentle nibbling (flea biting) to hard taking of treats, to painfully hard mouthing, snapping, or biting.


Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders
These include compulsive imaginary fly-snapping behavior, light- and shadow-chasing, tail-chasing, pica (eating nonfood objects), flank-sucking, self-mutilation, and more. While OCDs probably have a strong genetic component, the behavior itself is usually triggered by stress.

Rapid shallow or heavy breathing is normal if the dog is warm or has been exercising, otherwise can be stress-related. Stress may be external (environment) or internal (pain, other medical issues).


To relax stress-related tension in muscles. May also occur as a non-stress behavior after sleeping or staying in one place for extended period.

Stiff Movement
Tension can cause a noticeable stiffness in leg, body, and tail movements.

Sweaty Paws
Damp footprints can be seen on floors, exam tables, rubber mats.

May be due to stress – or cold.

Stiff Movement

High-pitched vocalization, irritating to most humans; an indication of stress. While some may interpret it as excitement, a dog who is excited to the point of whining is also stressed.

Your dog may yawn because he’s tired – or as an appeasement signal or displacement behavior.

Comments (2)

Lucille, have you tried relaxation protocol? If your dog has a solid down-stay (which it sounds like he does) it may seem boring, but that's exactly what it's supposed to be: rewarding the dog for being still and kinda bored. It worked on my reactive puppy. Google "overall relaxation protocol," it's out there.

Long down-stays can be stressful, too, especially if your dog is ready to spring into action the whole time. It can't hurt to work through this--if anything, it'll add money to your down-stay bank!

Posted by: tmoore | March 27, 2014 6:20 PM    Report this comment

How would you advise one to treat a stressed dog during the course of four or five hours when strangers are in your home? He is put in a stay, otherwise would jump all over them (being 95 lbs this is a bit of a rude greeting), but moans and stretches and yawns and is generally a pain in the ass no matter how long they are visiting. If he is let from a stay he is a love bucket basket case but he doesn't relax. The people visiting usually don't understand that with giving him love they are reinforcing anxiety but beyond that I am clueless except to make him lie down again, which he'll do, but won't usually sleep.... just stare, ready to jump up and go at the slightest provocation. I just wish him to be calm for his very own sake and accept and be at some more sort of peace with the happening of people in his home.

Posted by: Lucille | November 22, 2011 12:22 AM    Report this comment

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