Pet Boarding & Daycare

Recognizing Body Language of a Nervous or Stressed Dog

Recognizing Body Language of a Nervous or Stressed Dog

By Professional Pet Boarding Council

Dog body postures change based on their emotions, just like humans. Body posture and movement signal the dog’s motivation and intent. Dogs are much more sensitive to the tiny shifts in weight forward or backward, and they also notice changes in muscle tension and breathing patterns. Dogs can recognize changes in all these characteristics at a much more subtle level than humans observe.

It is important, as pet care professionals, that we are also able to recognize these changes in the dogs’ mannerisms. A stressed or nervous dog could potentially progress to an aggressive dog—either towards people, other dogs or both. It also goes without saying that a pet care facility should be concerned for the general wellbeing of the dogs. A nervous or stressed dog is not a content and happy dog.

The following outlines some of the characteristics to watch for that may indicate a stressed or nervous dog.

Posture and Body Language Changes

The general posture of the body as a whole may be the first and most noticeable indicator. The weight of the dog is typically shifted back toward the rear, the body may be tense and lower to the ground with the back legs crouched. Movements in general are tense and slow.

Ears and Tails

You can also take notice to the ears and tail of the dog, these can be another gauge of what mood a dog may presenting. Look for ears spread sideways or that shift backwards from “neutral” position. The tail generally lowers from the natural breed-carriage position and stiffens.

Facial Expressions

When dogs are anxious or nervous you will see signs of tension in the muscles around the muzzle and forehead. Closing the mouth is one of the first signals you can observe when a dog goes from happy and relaxed to being nervous. Other facial expressions of an anxious or nervous dog include wrinkles in facial muscles around muzzle and forehead, narrowing eyes, mouth initially closes and opens with lips drawn back (grimace), and panting.

As a pet care professional, you may observe the anxious or nervous dog postures when you first meet a dog. Your goal is to change the dog’s emotions so it shifts to happy and relaxed. The best method is to ignore the dog and give them time to adjust to being in a new environment. Start your interactions by speaking to the dog in a happy, confident tone. When a dog is anxious or nervous it is best to let them approach you for physical touch and handling.

A dog in an anxious or nervous emotional state is in a state of stress. Just like people, when dogs are stressed for an extended period of time, they can become physically ill. The goal of professional pet care is to have healthy and happy pets in your facilities. It is very important to recognize common stress signals in addition to the body postures that reflect anxious or nervous emotional states in order to give the dogs the best possible experience while they are with you. 

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