How to recognize a dog communicating stress.

How to recognize a dog communicating stress.

Dogs are constantly communicating with each other and with us. The problem is that, though they will learn how to speak human and we’re learning that they somewhat innately know how to “read” us, many humans never take the time to learn how to “Speak Dog”.

No only will learning to speak dog allow you to bond with your dog, but it will help you to recognize situations where your dog may need to “Take 5” or take a break.

I’ll be talking about different ways of speaking dog continuously but today the focus is on how to recognize discomfort.

Most dog bites are said to be “unprovoked” or it’s said that the dog gave no warning. This is not the case though, because all dogs will try to tell you if they are unhappy with a situation before a bite occurs. Many people unintentionally make situations more dangerous though by using dominance method training to teach the dog not to warn people. This means by teaching the dog not to show teeth, bark, growl, or back away from what they don’t like. The person is “fixing” a behavior rather than trying to determine what is making that behavior happen.

If your dog is showing any of the following behaviors, they are stressed and trying to calm themselves:

  • Heavy Panting even though they haven’t exercised recently and have no reason to be panting
  • Licking lips and/or nose repeatedly
  • Turns away from stimulus but continues looking at it
    • you’ll see lots of the whites of their eyes
  • Shows teeth
  • Growls
  • Tries to hide or pull away
  • Freezes.

If a dog is in a severely stressful situation for very long they will shut-down. In dominance method training a trainer may say that this is the moment where the dog accepts the person as the leader and that this is submission. This is not the case. Just because the dog does not show stress signs or doesn’t do the behavior you didn’t like any more, does not mean that the training was a success. If you train a dog to not do these behaviors you could possibly be creating a more dangerous dog who does not signal before they reach a point of “fight or flight” when a bite may occur.

If you see these please first assess the situation and try to determine what is causing your dog to become stressed. It may be a man in a brimmed hat and the dog has never encountered someone who looked that way or it may be that a stranger just came up to you and them and started petting the dog and scared them. Then help to show your dog that there is nothing to worry about. This might be by desensitizing your dog to the stimulus, for the hat wearing man, or this might be by instructing someone on how to greet your dog so they show they aren’t a threat, for the petter.

There are of course many other signals including tail carriage and how the dog is carrying themselves. As you bond and learn about your dog and become more aware of what they are telling you, you’ll learn how your dog communicates. If you use positive reinforcement training methods you’ll bond even stronger and help your dog become more confident in the world.

In the next few days I’ll be posting some methods to use to help build your dog’s confidence in stressful situations and how to desensitise your dogs to things they are afraid of which may be causing stress.

Great resources for more information on dog stress and stress signals:


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