Stress signals in dogs – essential knowledge


As animal carers, we are confronted on an almost daily basis with a multitude of signals. You will probably be able to tell whether your dog is sleepy at the moment or whether he is encouraging you to play with him. The world of such signs is so rich and complex that a great deal of research is still being carried out to help us read dog behaviour. Among them are also stress signals, the knowledge of which should belong to the canon of foundations of mutual understanding.

What is stress?

Both humans and animals very often experience a sense of stress which, in a reasonable dose, is helpful to us in life. It allows us to better mobilise our forces at any given moment, speeding up not only our thought processes but also our blood circulation and increasing the oxygen content in our body. Unfortunately, excessive stress or its prolonged influence leads to progressive pathologies. A highly stressed animal in an imminent situation threatening its safety will bite in defence as a result of escalating behaviour.

What are stress signals in a dog?

The famous trainer Turid Rugaas has dedicated her well-known publication „Calming Signals” to a precise system of signs and behaviours. These are referred to as CS (from the English term calming signals). It outlines a set of behaviours exhibited by dogs in uncomfortable and stressful situations who wish to avoid conflict with their mates.

There is currently some debate in behaviourist circles about changing their nomenclature to stress signals, as they are not fully researched in terms of how they work – whether they are merely a reaction to an unpleasant situation or a preemptive action to calm the actions of an adversary. Regardless of the nomenclature used, everyone, even if they are not the direct caretaker of a dog, should be familiar with the signals of discomfort to avoid tension and conflict in their relationship with the animal. Knowing them would certainly help to reduce the number of bites.

What are the different stress signals?

Depending on the specific situation, the amount of tension and the personality of the particular dog that is reacting, different types of signals can be distinguished.

The most common ones include:

– avoiding eye contact,
– Turning the head or the whole body away,
– closing of the eyes, blinking,
– freezing motionless or moving slowly forward,
– yawning, smiling in a specific way,
– licking your lips and nose,
– changing position – sitting down, lying down,
– walking in an arc,
– walking between other dogs or people,
– sniffing the ground, marking the territory,
– wagging tail in short movements.

Some of these probably sound familiar and you may be able to spot them in your dog or animals are shown in many videos or photos on the internet. Study these signals and note how many of them are ignored by people and can lead to really dangerous situations. Not every dog will react in the same way, it all depends on their ladder of aggression.

What is the aggression ladder?

The ladder of aggression is a kind of illustration of the successive behaviours that a dog may display as a result of growing feelings of stress. It starts with slight yawning, blinking or licking of the nose and, as the feeling of discomfort progresses, it is followed by: turning off the head, the whole body, sitting down, raising the paw, walking away, sticking to the ground with ears pulled back, curling up and tucking the tail, lying on the back with the belly exposed, standing still and staring, growling, snapping the teeth and open aggression in the form of biting. As a social species, the dog takes conflict mitigation signals very seriously and ignoring the next 'rung on the ladder’ can lead to them being missed. Ignorance and inability to understand individual gestures often result in an outbreak of „unexpected aggression”, which, after all, in many cases really can be prevented.

What can lead to stress in dogs?

It is worth noting some specific behaviours, described very well by Turid Rugaas, which can lead to stressful situations:

– direct threat (from other dogs or people),
– violence, anger and aggression in the immediate environment,
– too tight a collar and tugging on the leash,
– excessive demands during daily training,
– too much exercise for a young dog,
– too little physical activity,
– feeling hungry and thirsty,
– excessive heat or annoying cold,
– illness and pain,
– disturbing noise,
– feeling lonely,
– events causing shock,
– excessive playing with fetch and chasing other dogs,
– frequent moves and changes in daily routine.

How can you recognise stress in your dog?

Stress can manifest itself in different ways depending on its source and the particular personality and psychological resilience of the individual dog:

– displaying calming signals, shaking,
– Vocalisation (howling, squealing and barking),
– overexcitability, inability to enter a state of rest, concentration problems,
– hysterical reactions to familiar stimuli, obsessive following of objects,
– irritability and aggressive behaviour,
– licking their own body and biting,
– the destruction of objects,
– the appearance of diarrhoea and body odours,
– muscle tension and trembling,
– an unhealthy appearance of the coat, which becomes dull and stiff with dandruff,
– increased urination with a reduced appetite.

How can you help your dog?

The multitude of stress triggers, their intensity and their response varies enormously. Consequently, there is no single, perfect piece of advice to help alleviate stress for every dog. First and foremost, it is worth visiting your vet to rule out the influence of pain or illness. If the source of the stress is not rooted in health issues, it’s worth consulting a specialist who will carry out a thorough well-being interview with the animal. Usually, the daily routine, the choice of training methods, the satisfaction of necessary needs and the level of feeling of security will be analysed.


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