Dog Facial Expressions: Stress

Clara: Relaxed vs Stressed

Clara: Relaxed vs Stressed

Poor Clara had her yearly vet visit this past week. She is my feral dog, and although I have two socialization sessions with her every week and she is making great progress, I have not worked with her at the vet. Going to the vet is graduate school, and she’s just to 7th grade or so.

So what do you do when you have to put your dog in a situation for which they are not ready to be comfortable? What I did was take lots of food for distractions and get through it as fast as possible.

For Clara, getting shots or other procedures that cause a bit of pain is not the problem. Being in a building with other people and dogs in close proximity, and being handled and restrained by strangers is. This is by far the most frightened she has ever been at the vet’s, probably because the last time she was there I had to leave her to be spayed, then she came home (the same day) in considerable pain.

I decided to make lemons out of lemonade (not for Clara, unfortunately, but maybe for the rest of us) and take some pictures if I was able to do so while still paying appropriate attention to my petrified dog.

So here are Clara’s “Faces of Stress.” I have labeled the aspects of her expression that generally indicate stress. I’m using some of the terminology in Barbara Handelman’s book Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook.

There are lots of different shots (ya’ll have learned by now that I go overboard with photos, right?) I’ve also included two pictures of Clara when she is relaxed and happy for comparison.

I got almost no full body shots at the vet’s, not only because the room was small, but also because she stayed so close to me. Awww.

On the plus side: as agitated as she was, she took food the whole time. And she showed zero aggression. I’m proud of how very brave she was.

If anyone wants to use any photos for dog body language education project, drop me a line. I’m working on labeling some higher resolution versions and will send them to you when finished.

Does your dog have any interesting “tells” regarding stress?

I have a new listing of all my dog body language posts and videos.

Coming up soon:

Eileenanddogs on Youtube:

About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
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49 Responses to Dog Facial Expressions: Stress

  1. I know my dog is stressed when he…. pants really hard, licks his lips, whines, shakes off, hackles go up, doesn’t listen, and sniffs the ground with intent. 🙂

    • “With intent.” That’s a good description. Does he hackle up even when there isn’t a specific threat, but just from general stress?

      • Yes, unfortunately, hackles up without obvious threat. For example, just last night I took him out to potty. He’s so anxious that he put his hackles up and whined at a particular smell. He’s been particularly stressed lately because of our new puppy, this also increases his stress outside even without the puppy.

      • Eileen, these are excellent photos!
        I have a presentation that I do at vets’ offices and wonder if I may have permission to use the double-image of Clara’s face – relaxed & stressed?

  2. Picture 3 makes me sad, because long ago, I misinterpreted a similar expression on my reactive dog, Isis. Such a sweet expression, almost looks like she’s smiling, if I didn’t know better (which I didn’t). Thank you for sharing these.

    • Hi Kari, and thanks for commenting. I think the majority of us have been on the same journey with dog body language. I didn’t know better for a long time, and I’m sure my dogs would say that I still miss some stuff and probably still completely misinterpret things at times. One of the things that helps me with the smile vs stress grin is the commissures, the corners of the mouth. I don’t know if you saw the photos of Summer that I posted earlier, but if you go to this link, scroll down to the photos and look at the closeups of #7 and #8, the corners of the mouth are different. In the stressy one on her mat at the fairgrounds, which really does look happy at first glance, in the closeup you can see that the commissures are stretched very tight. In the one where she is on a happy outing, the mouth expression is somewhat similar, but you can see that the commissures have a bulge of flesh around the edge that is not stretched out. For Summer anyway, that means she’s happier. The ears in the photos are very different too, but I can’t make as easy of a generalization about them, since part of it is because she was looking up at me from the ground in one. I’m glad you wrote. I certainly have my own sad memories of things my dogs did that I completely misunderstood. They are so forgiving, though.

  3. Marjorie says:

    I’m always amazed at how much I have learned since I got my dogs and I cringe when I think of some of the things they had to suffer though in the early days. I’m so grateful for sites like these and all the info that is now available. Whenever I meet a new dog owner I always try and impress upon them how much there is to learn and that that learning never stops.

    One of Taffy’s signs of stress is when she lowers her head and hunches her shoulders (like she is trying to make herself invisible). She does this when we are at the dog park and if there is a big dog she wants to go by and she is just not too sure of them. For Teena it’s if someone gives her that intense in your face stare and tries to approach her (unfortunately, this happens a lot just because she is so dam cute). When this happen she turns her head, shifts from one front foot to the other and if that doesn’t stop them she will step back and the corners of her mouth come forward her eyes widen and she will give a warning bark and or growl. If someone approaches with a soft gaze she is very polite and eager to greet.

    Actually, when it comes to my dogs and stress I have to say that I think I now tend to feel their stress long before I actually read any signs. I suspect this is probably true for most people who are sensitive to their dogs and have had them for a while. This was not the case when I first got my dogs as I was pretty green. But once that bond is there I think it is our gut that picks it up before our eyes.

    PS I got my book today and I’m really enjoying it, or at least trying to between belly rubs and toss the snake. Thanks!

    • Marjorie those are great descriptions. Those are pretty clear signals from Teena (once you learn the language, as you say). I see that forward mouth pucker bigtime in Summer (Pictures 1 and 5 back in the contest results show that. I’ve never seen the forward mouth thing in Clara and I’m very glad. I’m pretty sure I would back off from Teena’s display, even as surprising as it must be coming from a Cavalier. My, shifting from one front foot to another. I hope I wouldn’t elicit it in the first place! Pardon me if I’m repeating myself, but I read this from someone on the subject of dog body language, that once you learn it you can’t “un-see” it. But before you learn it, so much is invisible. It sounds like you have a very kindly way of letting people know of the journey ahead.

  4. KB says:

    My friend just sent me over to visit your blog. I have a year old rescue who spent her early life in a crate, not being socialized at all, until we adopted her at age 9 months.

    Your photos are great illustrations of stress. Unfortunately, I get to see many of those signs when I take my dog to town for anything, despite my best efforts to keep her under threshold. Another one for her is that she lowers her hind end when she’s getting worried, making herself look smaller. Also, her movements become jerkier as she constantly tries to scan the environment for danger. (Neither is easy to show in a photo). She also gets dandruff, virtually instantaneously, when she gets worried.

    The pupil dilation is a huge one for my dog. Her pupils get like saucers when she’s worried.

    Thanks for a great post. I’ll be reading regularly now!

    • Hi KB and welcome! How wonderful of you to adopt a dog from those circumstances. Sounds like you know all about stress for sure. I have read about dogs instantaneously shedding from stress, so perhaps the dandruff thing is related. That’s pretty interesting, as is the jerky movement thing. It’s difficult to watch them in distress like that. We’ll have to talk sometime about late socialization. I started Clara at 10-12 weeks, after an early puppyhood in the woods where she had been patterned to fear humans. Her progress is slow but very solid and beautiful to see.

  5. Bianca says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. What a terrific resource. Hope Clara is feeling better. 🙂

  6. Great photos, terrific the way you have presented them. Thanks for another good blog

  7. t says:

    My boxer shows all of these signs, plus he completely freezes up. Sadly, he’s not very food motivated even when relaxed, so nothing eases his stress except getting him out of the situation. Your photos are fantastic, thanks!

    • Thanks, t. Sorry about your fella. That’s hard when they won’t take food. Getting the dog out of the situation as soon as you can is great though. Lots of people don’t even think to do that.

  8. t says:

    I wouldn’t call this “stressed” and “relaxed”, but this video is a nice demonstration of “relaxed” and “concerned” —

  9. Kelli says:

    Thanks for the pictures! I’ve been trying to understand my dog’s expressions lately. It seems like Lexie is becoming afraid of more things lately. I don’t know why because our routine has been the same and we adopted her when she was a puppy. It’s just my husband and I so I know she hasn’t been in any bad situations lately. She seems to be scared of simple sounds like my knuckles popping-this behavior just started five days ago when we had a bad thunderstorm. 😦 Well your pictures helped me understand her expressions. I was wondering if you had any idea what type of dog Clara is? Lexie looks almost exactly like her. In some of the pictures I can’t even tell the difference between Clara and Lexie. If you have any advice for comforting her when she seems to be stressed or scared I would love to hear it! Thanks! I wish I could post a picture of her because they look so similar.

    • Hi Kelli and thanks for writing. I’m sorry Lexie is becoming afraid of some things. First of all, good for you for wanting to comfort her. You know there is a saying going around that you shouldn’t “reinforce fear” because it can make dogs more scared. This article by Patricia McConnell dismantles that myth and also has some information about thunderstorm and sound phobias. Just to encourage you that you are on the right track to approach this problem in such a caring way for your dog.

      How old is Lexie? I’m going to ask around and try to get a professional to comment here on your situation. It would be a good idea if you could consult a behaviorist or trainer who specializes in behavior problems.

      I’ll email you in case you’d like to send me a photo of Lexie. I would love to see her! I don’t know Clara’s breeding. I did see her mother, who looked like a small lab.

      My dog Summer is phobic about some noises, including thunder. It is hard to perform desensitization and counter conditioning for thunder since you can’t control the volume, proximity, etc. But I get out the spray cheese and give her a swallow with every thunder rumble and it has mitigated her fear somewhat (and the other dogs love it). Also I have observed that 1) she wants desperately to be close to me; and 2) she feels safest in her crate in the bedroom (with me there too). So we do these things. I imagine it is different for all dogs.

      I hope some experienced trainers will speak up here.

    • Val says:

      Hi Kelli – I am sorry to hear that Lexie has suddenly started having problems with noises. You don’t say how old she is, so possibly she is going through a second fear period but if she is adult it might be that she is coming into season or similar. If neither of those, you might want to ask your veterarian to check that she doesn’t have an ear infection (which could make her super-sensitive to loud sounds). Of course, it could be that she is generalising her fear of the thunderstorm – but reacting to knuckles popping is pretty extreme, bless her. Things like making a den for her – perhaps by covering her crate with a blanket (if she is used to sleeping in a crate) or draping a blanket between two chairs so she can ‘hide’ might help in thunderstorms. If she likes playing then you might be able to play games with her when you know loud noises are coming – lots of dogs find they can cope better if they are already enjoying a game. You can get CD’s with different noises on them which you start playing to the dog at very, very low volume (just enough to make their ears twitch, but not loud enough to frighten her) and gradually – very gradually – turn the volume up a single notch when she can cope with that sound.
      If you find that she is generalising to lots of sounds I would suggest you get some help for her. Your vet may be able to suggest some things – perhaps adaptil or some homeopathic/herbal support, or consult a Behaviourist who will be able to help you plan a schedule of desensitisation/counter conditioning (helping her to have a different attitude towards noise). I don’t know what country you are in, but try to find a behaviourist who only uses positive methods – the last thing your girl needs is to be frightened more. If you are in the UK then APBC, UKRCB or CAPBT would be the organisations to look at. If you are not in the UK then perhaps ask your veterinarian for guidance to someone who works in a positive way.
      Good luck – hope things get easier for Lexie soon.

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  22. Dave says:

    An excellent article with very descriptive pictures that anyone should be able to understand, thank you! Three years ago I adopted and APBT from a fight bust that spent her entire short life on a chain in the woods. While she is adorable and temperamentally stable, she lacked socialization and was basically feral when I took her in, resulting in severe general fear issues. It was so difficult trying to help her adjust that I nearly gave up twice. I’m glad I didn’t and she has improved immensely in our time together, but there are some behaviors that will never disappear. She has taught me volumes about dog behavior, more than in the last 22 years living with and learning about dogs. If you would like to read a brief blog I wrote on her first Gotcha Day anniversary you can find it at

  23. Aime'e O. says:

    Hey Eileen I got this link from Lisa at Bancroft. I’m a RVT and went thru the small animal massage program. I would love to use your pics for multiple presentations/talks I am planning to give. If you can give me an e-mail address, I can email you. I just briefly looked over your blog posts and if any more things come up I would like to see if I could fit them into any of my talks. But we’ll keep in touch and I have to go through all of your information/pics/videos to see what fits where. One of my biggest philosophies is — the #1 reason an animal bites is…… because IT’S AFRAID!! I’m trying to teach a number of technicians/nurses/familys/children about trying to “read” a dogs signals and what to look for. Your pictures, as well as some others I have gathered, are an invaluable tool to use as examples. Thank you for your contributions and I look forward to keeping in contact with you.

    Aime’e O.

    • Hi Aime’e! Sorry for the very delayed response. I am delighted for you to use my photos. I will send you an email to the address you attached to this comment. If for some reason that doesn’t get to you, you can drop me a line through the sidebar in the blog where it says you can send me a message that won’t be published.

  24. Elyse says:

    My Leo actually “pretends to sleep” when he’s in a stressful environment. He will plop down on the floor (anywhere if I stop) and I have a difficult time convincing people to not rush up on him with their dogs. I’ve heard of it as “stressing down” as opposed to “stressing up”. Its an unusual response, but I suppose its less embarrassing than the squeaking/whining that my other dog does.

    • Yeah, I’ve seen that. Kind of like checking out or shutting down. I’m sure you are finding ways to help him; it’s possible a safer response, but it doesn’t sound like a very happy one. Thanks for writing!

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  26. Eileen- how do you differentiate between the spatulate (stress) tongue and a dog panting for other reasons

    • Donna, I can only report one difference that I have observed between heat panting and “pure” stress panting, and it’s not about the tongue. (A great observer actually pointed it out to me.) For my dogs anyway, the mouths look more moist and “juicy” when they are panting from heat. That makes sense since one of the mammalian fear responses is for saliva production to decline/cease. So the mouth is dryer in the stress or fear inducing situation.

      There’s something to look for, anyway.

      I wish someone could chime in about spatulate tongues!

    • Aime'e O. says:

      Like any animal that gives off stress signals…. ALL signals are usually in conjunction with other stress signals. (I actually just google’d “canine stress signals tongue” and “canine panting tongue” clicked on images… and you cal tell by their facial expressions which dogs are stressed and the panting dogs look more relaxed. I also noticed that the panting dogs look like they have a smile on their face whereas the stressed dogs seemed more uptight.

      But again…. stress signals is not give as just 1 signal…usually they are given in clusters and sometimes more than 1 specific signal at a time. If you look at Eileen’s pictures you can see that in every picture there are more than 1 signal present.

      Hope this helps!

  27. Dawn D says:

    Eileen, I’ve been reading several of your blogs and think they’re really great. So educational and I say more photos… 🙂 People are visual and they learn well by seeing what you mean. I have a pet sitting business and will be sharing your excellent blogs on our FB business page to help pet owners learn from them. Thanks again!

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