How to Tell When Fido is Stressed

Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas has devoted her life to understanding the way dogs communicate with one another. Through her research she uncovered a set of ‘calming signals’ that dogs use to communicate to others that they are feeling anxious about a particular situation.

Calming signals that you may see your dog display include:

  • Lip licking
  • Yawning
  • Turning her head away from the source of stress
  • Turning her whole body away from the source of stress
  • Sitting or lying down when a strange person or dog approaches
  • Moving very slowly
  • Holding a front paw off the ground
  • Body shake or scratching
  • Sniffing the ground in the presence of a stressor
  • Vocalisation, particularly high pitched whining
Learning to look for and recognise these behaviours will give you a much clearer idea of how your dog is feeling in any particular situation. They are the initial indicators that she is in a situation that is making her feel anxious.
During training sessions with your dog it is crucial that you remain calm. Dogs are experts at reading and reacting to the signals that we give out, so be aware that your body language, voice and touch will influence behaviour.
If you find yourself getting frustrated at any point during a training session then take a short break, have a fun game with your dog or start again tomorrow! Remember that one way an anxious dog can communicate their feelings to you is to move slowly. Consider this scenario: you have been working on recall with your dog but she is not responding as well as you would like. Perhaps without realising it, your voice and body language start to portray your frustration as you call your dog to you. She picks up on these signals and starts to give off calming signals to try and calm you down. She may start to sniff the ground, move slowly or even turn away from you. Despite the fact that she is giving off clear signals to calm down, you interpret this as misbehaviour and become even more frustrated and angry. Do you see the cycle developing here?
You can also use signals to communicate to your dog that there is no need to be anxious.

To help calm down a stressed dog try the following:

  • Take audible, slow and deep breaths.
  • Talk in a low and soothing voice.
  • Pat her with long and slow strokes in a massage like way.
  • Give off calming behaviours such as yawning, lip licking, averting your eyes and moving slowly.
  • During walks always curve past oncoming dogs rather than passing them head on.
By understanding and learning to recognise calming signals, you gain a tool that helps you to communicate much more effectively with your dog. You may also be able to avoid disaster by taking your dog out of a stressful situation before they are forced to react in a less subtle way!

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