January 30, 2020
by Haley Etheridge, OTD, OTR/L
Understanding canine body language is not just a useful skill — it’s imperative in order to fulfill handler duties and advocate for our therapy animals. Being fluent in in our dogs’ body language also helps maintain the safety of our clients. The American Veterinary Medical Association states that being able to read a dog’s body language is a key step in dog bite prevention. Even the calmest dogs have off days, or experience situations that can trigger a stress response.
The key to identifying if your pooch is stressed lies in the situation’s context. Keep in mind that many of the behaviors listed below might seem like run-of-the-mill dog characteristics, but they may indicate anxiety in certain situations. We’ll talk about some tell-tail signs that your dog is stressed during a visit, and what you can do to help. (Note: You can click the behavior photos to see larger versions if you’d like more context.)
You may be used to your dog licking his jowls when he smells something tasty, or licking his paws to dry off after walking in wet grass. If your dog is demonstrating licking behaviors in the absence of appetizing smells or wet paws, this is a signal that he is experiencing anxiety.
Is your dog in sunny spot, ready for her afternoon nap? Did she get a little carried away with the zoomies after her bath? If so, it’s normal for your dog to be sleepy and to let out a big yawn. However, if your dog begins yawning during a visit without any apparent reason, she could be experiencing stress.
Dogs cool themselves off through panting, so it’s customary for your pup to pant after a long run or spending time in high temperatures. However, if he begins to pant during a visit in the absence of physical exertion or heat, this is a very obvious sign of stress.
Similar to humans, dogs will try to remove themselves from situations that they find stressful. Many do this by turning their heads away from the trigger. Keep an eye out for this during visits, and keep track of what is triggering this stress response for future visits.
This dog body language, also called “whale eyes,” is a dog’s way of trying to remove herself from the situation, while also trying to keep an eye out for any potential signs of danger. Her nose will stay pointed forward, but her eyes will move sideways so she can monitor the situation. This is a sure sign that your dog is experiencing anxiety during a visit.
Dog’s ears have a lot to say. Ears turning backwards or flattening against the head are an indication that your dog is nervous. These signs are easier to read in dogs with ears that stand up (think about a Jack Russell versus a basset hound), but they are readable in any dog as long as you’re in tune with your partner’s body language.
A low tail or tail between the legs is a fairly well-known sign that a dog is stressed. However, tail wags are often misconceived as a happy sign. If your dog’s tail is low and has a slight, stiff wag, this doesn’t mean that he is enjoying himself. In fact, it’s a sign that your pup is worried. As a handler, it’s important to be aware of this common misconception and be willing to educate clients about the signals your dog is showing.
If you notice that your dog is lowering his body in an attempt to make himself seem smaller, this is a red flag. Dogs instinctively lower their bodies toward the ground when they are feeling anxious.
SEE ALSO: The importance of body language is also a reason why we don’t permit wearing costumes during visits. Costumes often cover areas of the body that allow us to read our dog’s cues that something is not right.
Look carefully at the context in which these dogs are exhibiting the eight signs discussed above. Both dogs will exhibit the same behaviors, but some of the behaviors will be out of context, indicating stress. Look carefully and decide which dog is saying, “I’m stressed out!”
Dog B is exhibiting stress signals. He is panting and his ears are pinned back. There are no indications that this dog has been exercising or is out in hot temperatures. Dog A is panting, but is participating in an activity that requires physical exertion, and is outdoors where it might be hot.
Answer: Dog B
Dog B is clearly uncomfortable in this situation. She is yawning while her head is turned away from a stressful stimulus. Dog A is also yawning, but it appears that he is getting settled into a comfy bed, ready to go to sleep.
Answer: Either dog may be stressed in this situation, or neither could be stressed! We can’t gather enough information from these pictures to know for sure, but here are some possible scenarios:
These pictures show how important it is to consider context when reading a dog’s body language.
First and foremost, don’t get stressed out too! Your dog looks to you for support and will become further stressed if they sense your anxiety. Remember the principles of PETS. Use PETS to calm your dog through Presence, Eye contact, Touch, and Speech. This affirmation that you are there for your pooch may be all that your dog needs to get back on track.
If you find that even after practicing PETS, your dog is still exhibiting anxious behaviors, it’s time to use YAYABA: You Are Your Animal’s Best Advocate. For example, if you know that your dog is responding negatively to being petted a certain way, calmly redirect the client and guide them on the best way to pet your animal. If there’s a particular circumstance that’s causing unusual anxiety, you could choose to move to another area of the facility to remove your dog from the source of the stress.
There might be times when you notice that your dog is overwhelmed and may need a break from the situation. If you take a short break away from the source of the anxiety and your dog still seems anxious upon returning, it could be time to cut the visit short. While we don’t want to disappoint our clients, the well-being of our animals and the safety of everyone involved during a visit are always our highest priorities. Sometimes the safest thing for everyone is to end a visit early. Explain kindly to the clients and facility that your dog is feeling a little tired, and that you have to end the visit for everyone’s well-being. Remember, it’s always best to cut a visit short rather than try to “stick it out” past the point your pet is comfortable and have an incident occur. You and your dog can visit again on another day, when there’s less stress, and everyone can enjoy visiting!
This article is just the tip of the iceberg, and by no means an exhaustive list when it comes to reading canine body language. If you’re a canine handler and are interested in a more in-depth look at reading canine body language, our continuing education course is a great way to learn the ins and outs of dog body language, whether happy, fearful, or angry. Learn more about our SHEA-endorsed body language course.