Our dogs cannot talk, but they can communicate and do so very well if we just pay attention to their body language and behaviour. But we must take the clues in context, as licking of lips for example, can indicate stress or can mean 'treat please human'.
To be able to successfully tell when your dog is anxious or stressed, you need to know how they look when he is relaxed and comfortable, so observation is the key. When your dog is relaxed, you can see it in his face. His eyes will be soft and rounded or maybe slightly squinted. The eye colour will be easily seen. He will hold his ears semi-erect and forward (unless he has floppy ears). When he interacts with a person his ears may go back slightly, in a polite social gesture. His mouth will be relaxed, it may in fact look like he’s smiling.
Signs of stress are rarely just one behaviour, more usually a combination of actions that they use as warning signs. The most common signals are:
Excessive shedding All dogs shed to varying extents, but have you ever noticed how much hair can come off when your dog is stressed? You might see this happen in the vet surgery, as you pet your dog in the exam room and the hair covers your hands and the floor.
Pinned-back ears Each breed of dog has different types of ears, whether they hang low, stand up or are droopy, but most dogs will draw their ears back and low when under stress. This is an easy to recognise sign that something's not right.
Licking of the nose and lips Dogs seem to be constantly licking things anyway, so how can this be a sign of stress? The repetitive licking of nose and/or lips usually accompanies other behaviors such as some of those mentioned below.
Yawning It seems odd that yawning would be considered a sign of stress — wouldn't it just be a sign of tiredness? But the stress yawn is usually in conjunction with other behaviors such as avoidance or pinned ears.
Panting Dogs generally pant to cool themselves down when it's hot or they've been exercising. If your dog is panting for no apparent reason, possibly with her ears pinned back and low, this can be a sign of stress. Be careful if the dog suddenly stops panting and closes his mouth, as he may be escalating toward biting.
Destructive behaviors Especially in the more aggressive breeds, dogs may try to alleviate stress by chewing or biting furniture or even by destructive biting or licking of her own body. Try to examine the circumstances that increase the behaviors, such as being left alone or when other animals or strangers are present.
Avoidance There are many reasons your dog may show avoidance, whether it's avoiding other dogs or people. Tail tucked, avoiding eye contact, turning away — these are all ways your dog shows you he is uncomfortable. It's important to remember that if your dog is avoiding a situation that makes him uncomfortable, this is better than showing aggression and it is best to respect the signal.
How Can We De-stress Our Furry Friends?
As puppies, the mother will run her face over her puppies faces, ears and neck making little contented noises to comfort them. So petting your dog in this way can be a simple calming technique in the early stages.
If the stress appears to be stronger, possibly during nights of fireworks going off outside for example, then an Anti-Stress Wrap may help. This is a technique of binding your dog (not TOO tightly) with a fabric strip 3-4 inches wide, that has a 'swaddling' effect (that was and still is used on human babies) and makes them feel as if they are being held/cuddled, but still allows them the freedom to move around and go to toilet where necessary. The infographic shows the wrap method.
There are many further techniques that can be used and these will be covered in a separate article that I am working on at the moment. It is a huge area and requires a lot of research, so bear with me please and do try the 2 methods above in the meantime.