Learn to Recognize Stress Signals From Your Dog

Dog on right is using a calming signal

Evaluations can really be interesting events for me as a dog trainer.  In a nutshell, some folks get it, and some folks don’t.

What in the world do I mean by that?

When I evaluate a dog, as I talk with dog owners, I discover that some owners really do understand how their dog communicates, and some owners totally misread their dogs, and those situations can really be problematic or even dangerous!  Some owners can tell that their dog is aggressive, and others call that same behavior “excitement.”  Here’s something important to note:  When a dog is in an over-excited, over-stimulated state, they can either be happy with that excitement, or….they can become a  little bit or a lot….aggressive!

A Dog’s Primary Language…

A dog’s primary language is body language and facial expression.  Barking is a language, but not the primary way that a dog communicates. And dogs speak all the time.  I’m fascinated just watching Rugby outside.  His ears are always in motion….picking up sounds, wind, etc.  They change from being perked up high on his head, to relaxed, which is lower on his head, to frightened, like bunny ears….pinned back tightly against his head, etc.  And those ears are simply one body part!  But….ears are a very important body part in learning to read your dog’s communication!

When I ask young kids how their dogs talk to them, they always….without exception….tell me that he barks.  They’re not entirely wrong, of course, because barking is a language that a dog uses to communicate.  But it’s only “a” language, and it’s certainly not their primary language.

Dogs speak primarily through their bodies and their facial expressions.  And they are talking all the time.  Constantly.  The problem is that many owners don’t understand what they are seeing, and they ignore critical communication from their dogs, until it’s too late.  Owners often miss stress signals and subsequent calming signals which their dogs are sending to them.  These signals can be obvious, like a yawn, or subtle like a tongue flick.  Being able to understand how your dog expresses his stress or anxiety….even in a subtle way can really be helpful in diffusing situations which could lead to a dog bite.

When dogs feel themselves getting anxious, they will try to calm themselves by doing various signals or behaviors, to help themselves.  It’s important to learn these, because on occasion, when a dog exhibits a calming signal, an owner can misunderstand what their dog is saying and respond in an inappropriate way, which will leave their dog feeling confused.

Some Common Calming Signals….

  • Yawning
  • Licking lips or tongue flick
  • Turning away or looking away
  • Play bow…more like a stretch than invitation to play
  • Sniffing the ground when it seems out of place in the moment
  • Walking slowly
  • Sitting down (especially with his back to you)
  • Paw lift
  • Walking toward you in a curve or arc
  • Smiling or smacking his lips
  • Scratching when it seems out of place
  • Urinating on himself
  • Pinning his ears flat against his head (sometimes called “bunny ears”)
  • Laying flat against the ground
  • Shake offs (often as if he’s trying to shake off water)
  • Blinking
  • Licking your face or mouth

Do Dogs Bite Without Warning?


Often I hear owners tell me that their dogs bit without any warning.  They are often very surprised, because they didn’t see the aggressive signs that had been brewing for weeks and months with their dog. I hear it almost every time I evaluate an aggressive dog.  Let me tell you that dogs rarely just wake up one day and decide to bite.

More often than not, a dog begins communicating his stress and anxiety with his body and his facial expressions.  Often, his owners ignore what he is saying because they don’t think it’s very important, or they just don’t know what they are seeing.  When dogs get repeatedly ignored, and nothing changes….their behavior often progresses into uglier and uglier behavior…until they finally bite, because they feel as if they’ve been left to solve their own problems.  But the actual aggressive behavior usually started months or years earlier, in most cases, and they were ignored.

It’s so very important to know what you are seeing from your dog!!  Dogs are honest in their communication.  They say what they feel, and it’s really important that we know how to recognize what they are communicating to be able to help them.  When they communicate that they are uncomfortable, it’s NOT the time to punish them, but to calm them and remove the source of the stress!  I see this when I train dogs every day.  When I start seeing any stress signals, I back off and bring the dog to a place of comfort, confidence and relaxation before I try again….and I slow things down so the dog won’t feel so stressed about what I’m teaching him.  Owners who don’t understand this scold their dogs and accuse them of being obstinate, willful, stupid, etc.  This is the value of working with a qualified, experienced professional dog trainer!  I take time to explain to owners on a daily basis what their dogs are saying, so that they can learn to “speak dog,” and help their dog when it matters most.

Imagine being your dog, and talking and talking but your humans don’t understand and don’t listen.

Imagine being put in uncomfortable positions over and over and no one helps you, because they aren’t paying attention and don’t know what’s going on with you, even though you’re telling them repeatedly how you feel.

Imagine how helpless you would feel…how scared….how anxious….how worried.

Remember that when you brought your dog home….

  • You promised to care for him….
  • You promised to love him…
  • You chose him….he didn’t get to vote on what home he got.

Be there for him.

Give him the best home and best life he can have.

Take the time….make the time…to learn how your dog communicates.

Your dog is worth it!

For more information about this subject, please refer to an earlier blog post I wrote which is called: “Book Review:  On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals.”



  1. Sarah Thomas says

    THANK YOU, MISS MAMA SALLY!!!! I needed this blog, because Marley tends to be aggressive towards anyone who comes near me, especially if he's in my lap, or he has a high-value treat. He tends to get snappy when there's quick movement, and he snapped at a toddler a few weeks ago. I have this book, but I haven't opened it yet, because I've been working so much (poor excuse, but true). I'm cracking that baby open this week! I also have some yummy Kronch on it's way, so that will help with some training. Love you Mama Sally and Rugby! We needed this!!!!!!!!!!! <3 <3 <3

    • Sally says

      Thanks so much for your comments, Sarah! In all honesty, Marley needs professional intervention now! He really is in early stage aggression, and if he's gaining confidence to be snapping.....you really need professional help to stop this stuff right in its tracks so he doesn't begin making contact and biting!! Definitely read the book, but I think you need additional help from a professional to stop things from getting worse! If you'd like help finding a trainer in your area, please let me know! Give that cute Marley a belly rub from me!! <3


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