Stress and anxiety in puppies and dogs is something that we often see and many fail to recognize.  The internet is a fun and fascinating playground for the mind, and we are seeing more and more images that just aren’t that funny once you learn to recognize the signs.  Many of our clients don’t understand why we are upset when we see what they think of as a cute or funny image that they share with us.

No one wants to put a dog in a stressful situation and certainly if the dog were standing with his back arched and his tail tucked and averting his eyes and being avoidant, most of our clients would recognize the dog as upset.  The problem lies in the less obvious signs; those that are not extreme in their presentation.  If we saw a child who would not meet our gaze, who was all hunched over and blinking rapidly, who was afraid, we would not post that image on the internet to share as funny.  We need to stop doing this to dogs, but this phenomenon won’t stop until people recognize stress when they see it. Here is a short primer on how to know when a dog is stressed, and what you can do to alleviate stress in your dog or puppy.

One of the first questions that is often heard in this conversation is “How do YOU know?”  Dog body language is an area that we have spent a lot of time studying.  As early at the 1860s, Darwin was writing about the signs to look for in dogs to help you to understand what the dog is feeling.  Since then we have been collecting images, data and information to help us to better understand the behaviour of our canine friends.  The more you learn and know and the more you work with dogs, the more able you are to fine tune and develop an eye for what might happen.  When you work with dogs who might bite, you learn to notice when the dog’s eyes and ears, mouth, posture and motion tell you that you might be in danger.  A great book to read about dog body language is Barbara Handelman’s “Canine Behaviour; A Photo Illustrated Handbook”.  I was one of the editors on that project and it is a very good compendium of information about canine body language.

darwin dog 2
One of Charles Darwin’s drawings of a dog in distress.  No confusion here about what this dog means!

Let’s start with the eyes.  Eyes tell us a lot.  When the eye is almond shaped, we know the dog is relaxed.  When it is huge and round, we know the dog is really stressed out.  As always, the dog’s natural structure and facial configuration are going to contribute to the overall picture.  In a Pug or a Boxer or a French Bulldog, or any of the brachiocephalic breeds (those with the squished in faces), their relaxed eye is going to be much rounder than the relaxed eye of say a Labrador retriever.  See the images below and compare them.  The round eye is the eye of a dog in distress and the almond shaped eye is the eye of a relaxed dog.

 Copy of w
This Pug has a naturally rounded eye, and it is as relaxed as it can be due to the structure of his face.  Brachiocephalic dogs often have difficulty in social situations with other dogs because their eyes look rounded even when they are not upset or tense.

Staying for a moment in the eye department the other thing we look for in eyes is a huge rounded pupil.  Pupils should be big enough to allow in sufficient light to allow the dog to see, but under normal or high light conditions the pupil should not make up more than 50% of the dog’s eye.  When it does, there is either a medical condition or the dog is stressed.  Along with these big blown out pupils, we also see one of blinking.  When you see a dog blinking more frequently than is normal, you know that the dog is stressed.

Tense, frightened, rounded, blown pupil eye.
Compare the image above to this one.  This is the same dog in a different situation.

Sometimes what we see are dogs who look sleepy.  These dogs are often living with chronic stress.  If you look carefully at their eyes, they may be almond shaped, but more often they are pinched shut, with big pupils underneath.  These are dogs who live with so much distress that they don’t sleep well and they are legitimately tired and sleepy.  Like a pen that has been clicked too often, their systems just don’t respond terribly well, and they are almost in a state of stupor much of the time.  These dogs can be quite dangerous because by the time that they are in enough distress to bite, they don’t have any early warning signals to share with you; they just don’t have the energy.

Then let’s look at the mouth.  When a dog is panting to distribute heat, his tongue is full of blood and the vessels on the bottom of his tongue are dilated to shed the heat as quickly as possible.  His tongue should be a healthy pink and very moist.  When a dog is stressed, he may also pant, but the panting is much different.  Just before a dog bites, he draws his tongue deep back into his mouth and pulls his lips out of the way.  When a dog is stress panting they will often pant with their tongue drawn back into the mouth and their lips held close in so that they don’t hurt themselves if they do bite.    When you look at the corners of a stressed dog’s lips they appear to be pulled forward and the flews or lip flaps are tense.  Sometimes the only thing to see is a puckered whisker bed.  That whisker bed is telling and the story it tells is often chilling.

This image is of a dog doing protection work, immediately before he bit the sleeve.  Notice that he lips are pulled out of the way of his teeth and his tongue is pulled deep into his mouth and out of the way so he doesn’t get hurt.

Ears are another facet of the dog’s face that we can use to tell us what is happening internally with the dog.  When the base of the ear is pinned back against the head, and the skin between the corner of the eye and the corner of the ear is pulled taut, then the dog is telling you that he is afraid, worried or concerned.    It is important to realize that in a drop eared dog, you aren’t going to have the pointy end to look at; you are going to only have the base, so look at the base not the edges of the ears and the distance from the corner of the eye to the corner of the ear.  In a relaxed and happy dog, the skin between the eye and the ear should appear relaxed.

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You should recognize the tense eye now, and look at the tension in the area between the eye and the ear; the ears are pulled all the way back.
 Copy of zd
Eyes and ears together tell us that this dog is unhappy.
This image is of the same yellow lab above, in a relaxed and happy moment.  Notice that the skin between his eye and his ear is loose and relaxed, as is his mouth and his whisker bed.  This dog is relaxed and happy.

Just looking at the face, at the three points of eyes, ears and mouth, should give you enough information to allow you to determine if a still image is one of a relaxed and happy dog or if it is the image of a tense, stressed or frightened dog.  Once you know what you are looking for, the exercise becomes much easier.  The question now is “How do we help stressed dogs?”

Once the picture is taken, there isn’t much you can do to alleviate the distress in the dog, but you can do your part by recognizing when a dog is stressed and stop sharing the images.  When people send you these images, let your mail box be the last stop and return the information to the sender to help them to understand that the dog they are laughing at is uncomfortable and under stress.  When the dog is in front of you though, you have to ask yourself what is the source of the dog’s distress.

Eyes, ears and mouth together.  By now, you should recognize that our yellow lab friend is distressed and needs help getting out of what he thinks of as harm’s way.

If the source is obvious, the answers are easy.  If the source of the dog’s stress is a piece of pain inducing or traumatic equipment, get the equipment off the dog.  If the source of the dog’s stress is a confusing training situation, make the problem easier.  Repeated successes increase the chance that your dog will feel less not more stress.  When the dog feels threatened by a situation, get out of there.  If the dog is in pain, address the pain.  When the cause is simple, the answer is straightforward.

Sometimes though, the cause is not simple.  Sometimes the cause may be something known as layered stimuli.  If you have a dog who doesn’t like going to the vet, doesn’t like car rides, doesn’t like wearing his collar, doesn’t like other dogs and doesn’t like cats, then any one of those stimuli could cause him to be upset.  When you present your dog with all of those situations at once, you have layered all the stressful stimuli on top of one another, and your dog will be even more distressed.  Taking even one of those stimuli out of the picture might make things much easier for your dog.

Recently I worked with a dog who was aggressive towards other dogs, and who didn’t like being touched behind his ribs.  He walked normally, and he moved comfortably, but he didn’t want you to touch his back end.  We worked with the veterinarian and found out that this dog has severely impacted anal glands.  The problem had likely been creeping up on the dog for a long time, and he had become crankier and crankier towards other dogs over time.  By the time he saw me, he was very cranky with other dogs, and he was in a lot of pain.  When we addressed the pain issue, this dog was able to start to learn that he was not under threat.  In evolutionary behaviour we learned about something called ultimate and proximate causes.  The proximate or close cause of this dog’s problem was defensive behaviour to protect himself from the ultimate cause of being in pain.  When we addressed the ultimate cause, we were better able to address the proximate cause.

Below is the image that caused me to think about how we often don’t recognize that a dog is in distress.  Funny picture?  Not really, but the people who have been sharing it thought it was.  This is a dog who looks to me like he is very stressed and frightened.  This is a dog who looks to me like he learned his trick with a lot of force, but it is completely possible that this was gently taught.  The dog may be so conflicted about not taking the cookies that he looks very distressed.  When you are presented with a dog who is showing these signs, point them out and help others to learn that part of protecting your dog’s best interests include ensuring that he is not under distress.


Below are three images from my archives.  See if you can pick out which dogs are stressed and which ones are not.

airplane ears
Look at the eyes, the ears and the mouth.  Is this dog having any fun?  Not really.  If the handler isn’t careful, she will get bitten.  Photo:  Barbara Handelman
Keep in mind that this dog is a brachiocephalic breed and cannot make his eyes any less round.  Look at the distance between the corners of the eye and the ear.  The mouth looks a little tense, but again, due to the shape of his face this dog likely cannot make his mouth less tense.  This dog is quite relaxed.
 aggressive stance with paw lift 538
This lovely image really shows you how far back a dog can pull his tongue out of the way.  Although his eyes appear almond shaped, look at the tension between the corner of his eye and ear; likely his eyes are rounded and pupils blown, but his ear is pulling the eye out of shape.  This is a very unhappy dog.  Photo: Barbara Handelman

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