Canine Stress: Recognizing the Signs and Supporting Your Dog

It is normal to experience stress at different points throughout a relationship with your dog. Even a highly disciplined family pet can experience anxiety that may inhibit his or her ability to perform trained tasks. Throughout this article, we hope you can gain a greater understanding of canine stress, build confidence in recognizing the signs of stress, learn ways to help reduce stress in your dog, and have a better idea of when it is time to ask for help. 
owner kissing puppy
Stress Can Look Different for Every Dog 
Has your dog ever “ignored” repeated cues/commands while not appearing distracted? Has their demeanor ever shifted on a dime with no known cause? Or have they ever exhibited behavior that is out of character for them, either in your home or out in public? At times, stress can be a contributing factor to changes in a dog’s behavior and/or your effectiveness while working as a team. 

Potential Signs of Canine Stress
Please keep in mind that this list is not all inclusive, and even if your dog is showing signs from this list, it does not guarantee they are stressed. While you may not be able to visually see some of these signs, many Dogs can become uncomfortable for a variety of reasons including but not limited to: 

• Heavy panting
• Ears pinned back
• Tail tucked 
• Crouched/low posture 
• Eyes wide (also known as whale eyes, or when whites of the dog’s eyes are more easily seen) 
• Tight lips and face 
• Tense, tight body 
• Trembling 
• Rapid movements 
• Increased “shaking off” (what dogs do when wet) 
• Abnormal pull into collar/harness, refusal to move forward, or “flight” behavior (trying to quickly leave an environment) 
• Feet tense/nails engaged 
• Disengagement from handler/reinforcement 

Depending on the level of stress a dog is experiencing, they may exhibit just one outward sign; while in periods of more significant stress, a dog may present with a combination of signs. 

Potential Causes of Canine Stress
Dogs can become uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:

• Elements of the environment
• Surfaces, new vehicles, noises, smells, or simply busy areas that can be overwhelming
• Changes in routine
• New routes, a new home, decreased exercise/mental stimulation/enrichment, or even new and/or absent household members
• General confusion can also lead to stress for some dogs
• Unclear instructions, repeated unsuccessful cues/commands, or general unrest

General Tips for Navigating Canine Stress:
The most important thing to remember, and the best thing you can do for your dog is to be a supportive partner during times of stress. Corrective handling (verbal corrections, leash corrections, etc.) only compounds stress in the moment. Using supportive handling will help your dog get back on track faster. So, what does Supportive Handling look like? 

Increasing the overall amount of food reward, meaningful touch, and verbal praise you are providing your dog. 

EXAMPLE: If your dog shows signs of stress in busier environments, use high value food reward every time you are in these environments, pairing it with calm petting and praise. Remember to reward frequently for good behavior, even smaller good behavior. 

Using your own energy to offset your dog’s potential anxiety. Calm, gentle, and slow praise and petting have the potential to lower your dog’s stress and arousal levels. 

EXAMPLE: Stop walking and try resting a flat palm between your dog’s shoulder blades for a few seconds while taking a breath together to help create calm and connection. 

Providing additional guidance through your words or leash. 

EXAMPLE: Giving a gentle leash cue in the direction you want to go or for the position you want your dog in. Ask for specific behaviors they can succeed at, like ‘sit’ or ‘down.’ 

Staying in-tune and connected with your dog. 

EXAMPLE: It can be easy to become disengaged from your dog while having conversations with friends or navigating new environments, but your dog may need your support! Stay connected, take a break, and “shake it off” together, either through play, petting, or just taking a few deep breaths together. 

Allowing your dog a break from “training mode” to settle next to you as a mental reset. Your dog might “shake off” physically after a short break, potentially indicating the release of tension. 

EXAMPLE: If certain environments prove stressful for your dog, consider taking a moment upon arrival to have your dog sit and calmly observe the environment, allowing you to connect as partners. Sometimes building in time to process being in an unfamiliar environment can have a positive impact on your dog’s mindset and ability to transition into their training. 

Overall, consider how you can make working through unpleasant feelings easier and more rewarding for your dog, like how dentists offer children a special toy after each visit. What can you offer your dog to motivate them through stressful situations? How can you act as a source of calm, consistent support for them? 

Help Your Dog Decompress
If your dog experiences stress on an outing, or even within the home, consider how you can help them decompress and release that stress to encourage relaxation after the experience. 

• Offer a favorite or novel chew toy; consider holding it for your dog as they chew to promote connection and relaxation. Chewing can be a helpful decompression activity for your dog. 
• A Benebone, Lunabone, or Nylabone are acceptable bone choices, while a Kong or other durable rubber toys, such as those made by West Paw or BARK Super Chewer, are preferred by some dogs. 
• Alternatively, some dogs benefit from a chance to “zoom” around in a more active manner to recover from stressful experiences. 
• Consider playing with your dog one-on-one, tossing a toy in the yard, or however your dog enjoys releasing energy. For some dogs, their enjoyment comes from less active options in the yard, such as a free sniff. 
• Offer your dog “quiet time” in a low-traffic area in your home so they can deeply rest; some dogs prefer alone time to decompress. 
• If your dog has a kennel or favorite dog bed, ensure others in your home respect this as their space and allow them to rest if they go to their “place.” 
• If your dog enjoys touch, consider offering a slow, full body massage session. (WATCH: Canine Massage with Jody) 
• Consider offering an enrichment food toy such as a frozen stuffed Kong, Toppl, or lick-mat. Focusing on an activity can be a healthy outlet for pent-up energy or stress; licking can also be a soothing behavior for some dogs.  

Please Reach Out for Help: 
If you notice signs of stress in your dog, we encourage you to reach out for help. A certified trainer or your veterinarian can assist with brainstorming alongside you in a judgment free zone, provide you with tools and guidance for navigating the experience, and offer ongoing support to help ensure your goals of reducing your dog’s stress are attained! 

This post was originally written to support our guide and service dog handlers. We adapted it to support everyday dog owners in case their pets experience stress. To learn more about our work providing service dogs for veterans, active-duty military, and first responders, click here .