Signs your dog is feeling anxious
Recognising fear or anxiety in your dog can help you resolve or avoid situations they find difficult.
If you can recognise the first signs of fear or anxiety in dogs, then you’ll be able to help your dog avoid the things that worry them and keep clear of potential conflicts.
This will help prevent your dog from developing more established fears and keep everyone in the family, including your dog, feeling safe.
How to tell if your dog is feeling anxious
Many dog body language signals are subtle and often happen very quickly so it can be easy to miss them. You need to consider your dog’s whole body and the context of the situation.
It’s also useful to recognise the signs that your dog is relaxed, so you'll also know when they’re not feeling this way. Our guide to understanding your dog’s body language should help you.
If you see any of the signs below, consider what might be causing your dog to behave in this way, and how you can help them to feel better. They may be various ways you could manage the situation, including calmly moving your dog away from something worrying them, or ending an activity and leaving your dog alone.
As dogs become unsure about something, they tend to slow down as they try to learn more about it.
Leaning away and lip-licking
Dogs can find making direct eye contact intimidating, so you might see your dog turning their head away from whatever is troubling them.
Some dogs may cower and tuck their tail under to make themselves look as small and insignificant as possible. Others might hold their tail straight upright so that people and other dogs can’t miss the fact that they’re communicating they’re unsure.
Dogs might stop and look towards something that is causing them fear or anxiety.
Approaching with a lowered body
A dog might want to approach a person, animal, or object to interact or investigate, but show signs they are feeling worried at the same time. They might approach and then retreat because they feel conflicted.
A dog might show an ‘appeasement grin’, also referred to as a ‘submissive grin’ or ‘smile’. This is different to an aggressive display of teeth, and they may initially show this behaviour when they are trying to diffuse social conflict.
Other signs to look out for
You might see your dog give a full-body shake. Think about what was happening just before they did this, as it’s likely that they found it challenging and are now ‘shaking it off’.
Some dogs will start to pant – completely unrelated to temperature or exercise. Unsure dogs might also tremble or shiver even when they aren’t cold.
Your dog might start to pace or be unable to stay still or settle down. They might also be very easily startled and jumpy.
Jumping, pawing or mouthing
Your dog might become suddenly very active and seek attention from you by jumping up, pawing at you, or even mouthing or mounting when they wouldn’t normally.
They might find it difficult to follow well-known requests, like “sit” because the stress response in their body makes it harder to stay still or concentrate.
You might find your dog grabs a treat from your hand when they would usually take it gently. They might even refuse to take it at all.
These may also be signs of frustration, as well (or instead of) anxiety – see the section at the end of this page for advice on that.
Your dog might move away or actively try to avoid whatever is worrying them. Bear in mind that in some situations it might be you that they are worried about, or someone you are with, such as a veterinary surgeon.
Some dogs will try to hide or withdraw from a situation. Others might bolt when frightened, which can be highly dangerous.
More signs a dog could be anxious
When dogs try to find a way to cope with situations that they are finding challenging, they might perform behaviours that would be normal in different circumstances.
For example, a dog might suddenly stop, sit down, and start scratching with intensity when something in their surroundings is worrying them. They could also start sniffing about and licking themselves repeatedly.
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Signs a dog needs space immediately
As a dog becomes increasingly worried and frightened by something, their behaviour may become less subtle.
If your dog shows any of the signs below, stop what you’re doing immediately. Make sure that whatever your dog is feeling threatened by is moved as far from them as possible.
Let them relax. Be mindful that this might take a while if they’re very worried.
A dog might show an ‘appeasement roll’, also referred to as a ‘submissive roll’.
The dog rolls onto their side or back to show that they pose no threat. This is very different to a dog rolling over to have their tummy tickled.
The dog could escalate to showing more defensive behaviours (like growling or snapping) if the person or animal continues to approach or interact with them in this context.
Lunging forwards or freezing
When a dog is feeling very threatened by something, they might lunge forwards and even growl, bark, and snap at whatever it is. Dogs do this in an attempt to increase the distance between themselves and the thing that is frightening them.
A dog might freeze or move very slowly. They may 'air-snap' as a warning, or bite.
Signs of frustration
Frustration can occur when a dog is unable to access something they desire, when they’re unable to move away from a situation or interaction they find uncomfortable, or when their expectations are not met.
Common frustration-related behaviours include jumping up, barking, mouthing or pawing at a person, another dog, or an object.
Being able to recognise when your dog is feeling frustrated means you’ll be able to respond appropriately, manage the environment for them, and avoid triggers for the behaviour. This will help them to feel more relaxed.
Why might dogs show aggression?
Dogs are naturally very social and cooperative animals. When dogs show aggression it’s usually a clear sign that they’re frightened and feel that they’re in direct threat.
They show aggression as an attempt to increase the distance between themselves and whatever is worrying them. If the behaviour works, they’re likely to repeat it again the next time they’re in a similar situation.
The more you practise recognising the subtle, initial signs that a dog is feeling uncomfortable or afraid, the sooner you’ll be able to respond appropriately and prevent the situation from getting worse.
If you can respond to their subtle signs of discomfort, your dog will be less likely to communicate by lunging, baring teeth, snarling, growling, snapping, or biting.
The more we can show our dogs that we understand and respect how they are feeling, the more they can trust us to help them. And the safer they will feel.
Ignoring or discouraging these kinds of signs from your dog could teach them that there’s no point in showing subtle signs of fear because it doesn’t work. So next time they might feel that they have no other option than to lung or bite straight away.
If your dog shows any signs of aggression, avoid the triggers for that behaviour as much as possible. This might mean keeping your dog completely away from whatever appears to be making them feel uncomfortable. Then seek help from your vet or a qualified behaviourist as soon as possible.
Pain and medical disorders can affect your dog’s behaviour. If your dog shows signs of being fearful, speak to your vet to check if there are no underlying health problems that might be contributing to their behaviour.
If the vet finds that your dog is in good health, then ask for a referral to an accredited behaviourist for individual support.
Contact our Behaviour Support Line
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