Signs of Fear and Stress in Dogs

As humans, we are used to looking for evidence, and often when there is lack of evidence we automatically assume things, though our perceptions may be wrong. When it comes to fear in dogs, it is not unusual to hear a dog owner say something like “oh, don’t worry, my dog is fine, you can pet him, see, he is doing just fine,” while a dog trainer may see a whole different picture. The fact is, when a dog is stressed or fearful, there are evident and less evident signs of such emotions. The evident ones are pretty easy to spot, they are obvious even to the least experienced eye. The less evident ones are subtle, often barely noticeable, or they may be seen but may not be readily associated with fear or stress. This guide will help you recognize the obvious and less obvious signs of fear.

Why is recognizing subtle signs of fear and stress important? There are many good reasons to learn how to “scan” your dog*s emotions. Let’s

tahe a look at some:

Reading your dog for stress and fear plays a crucial role if you ever need to engage with the hetp of a professional in a dog behavior modification program.

Reading your dog is crucial so you can prevent your dog from going over threshold.

Reading your dog helps you to recognize problems before they become bigger and more difficult to manage.

Reading your dog gives you a better understanding of your dog’s emotions and will help you to bond better with your dog. Reading your dog helps you avoid putting your dog in situations he is not comfortable with.

These are just a few of the many benefits, but there are many more. As seen, it is well worth the effort to learn how to recognize these obvious and less obvious signs. However, consider that just as in humans, every dog is different, so each dog has his own “language.” Your dog may be more likely to manifest one sign, while another dog may be more likely to manifest another, so interpret these signs with a grain of salt; just because your dog is not showing one sign doesn’t mean you can automatically deduce he is doing fine, thera sre msny others to look out for!

What is Fear in Dogs and Why Does it Happen?

Generally, the most evident signs of fear are recognized when the fear is intense enough to create obvious physical manifestations. What exactly is fear† And how does it cause physical manifestations? Fear is an emotion linked to survival; indeed, when an animal deals with a perceived threat, it most likely reacts to move away, hide or fight if confronted or there is no escape route. This basic survival mechanism often stems from a response to a stimulus perceived as frightening, the sensation of pain or danger.

When a dog deals with something perceived as scary the flight or fight mechanism is activated, which causes several physiological changes. The heart rate accelerates, the muscles become tense, the breathing rate increases, and the blood flows to skeletal muscles as the body is ready to take action. The brain structure responsible for the activation of these reactions is the amygdala which secretes hormones that create a sense of a!am and alertness. The hormones released are: Epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. These hormones are therefore responsible for the signs of fear we see in our dogs.

Evident Signs of Fear in Dogs                                 

These are the signs most people readily recognize in their dogs, and are therefore the most obvious, though many people may not recognize them as fear. For instance, several aggressive dogs are often confused for being mean and vicious, when they are simply fearful or stressed.

Cowering/Moving/Backing Away/Hiding

  This dog’s ears are back and his lips are pulfed back in fear.  

These dogs are going into “flight mode” by trying to make themselves look as small as possible, almost as if saying “I am a harmless being, please leave me alone.” Typically they will shrink, with their body carried low, head down, flattened ears and tail between the legs. Often, the dog moves away as it cowers or hides behind the owner’s back. It is a myth hard to debunk that a cowering dog has a history of being abused. Often, the dog is simply genetically fearful, has not been socialized well during puppyhood, or has learned that cowering keeps him safe so keeps on engaging in this behavior to protect himself.


While some dogs go into flight mode by cowering and escaping from the threat, others prefer to go into “fight mode” by acting fearful aggressive. Rather than backing off, these dogs will move forwards, lunging and possibly barking, showing teeth and growling. They may also try to make themselves look bigger by erecting the fur on their shoulders, keeping the ears forward, keeping the tail up, and puckering the lips. While the cowering dog going into flight mode was saying “I am small, please be nice to me,” this dog is saying *I am big and wish to scare you away.” This *bluffing” behavior is reinforcing since the people or other dogs back oP when they see the dog aggressing in this way.


When a dog is scared, you may see him visibly shake as if cold. It is not unusual to see some small dogs shake when they are at the vet’s office. Some high-strung dogs are prone to shaking when nervous or scared.

Less Evident Signs of Fear and Stress

There are several subtle signs of fear in dogs. These are signs that are often missed and that often require an attentive eye. Other times,

these signs are not perceived as a sign of fear but of something else. Let’s take a look at a few of these.


Tf your dog is yawning, he is likely not tired, but rather trying to release tension. This is one of the several “calming” signals listed in Turid Rugaas’ book “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals.”


Dogs pant when they are hot, when they are in pain, when they are exercised and when they are scared or tense. If your dog is panting and there is no obvious reason and the context may be frightening or stressful, there*s a good chance your dog is stressed.

Licking Lips

The fast lip flicks are the dog’s way of saying “I am getting uncomfortable.” You see them in many pictures because dogs may be uncomfortable being photographed or the camera flash may scare them.

Whale Eyes

Whale eye (also known as half moon eyes) occur when the white of the dog’s eyes show. It is often seen in dogs who turn their heads but want to keep an eye on what is going on as they do this.

Dilated Pupils

This is a physiological response to the flight or fight response. If your dog’s pupils become large, your dog likely saw or heard something very frightening. Keep in mind that tight can also affect pupil dilation.

Leaving Sweaty Paw Prints

Dogs do not sweat from their skin and am pits as humans do. But they do sweat from the paw pads. Often, you see this when your dog is lifted off the vet’s examination table.

  An example of whale eyes in a dog.  

Submissive Urination

When you dog is intimidated by your tone of voice or imposing posture, he may pee submissively to tell you “I respect you, I mean no harm.” You can read more about this bgrg.

Anal Gland Emission

When dogs are particularly scared, their anal glands may excrete a brownish discharge that has a characteristically strong smell of fish. I used to get a good whiff of this smell when dogs at the vet’s office were scared of a procedure. Other dogs that perceive this smell may become nervous too.

Displacement Behaviors

These are out of context behaviors, such a sudden itch, or a sneezing fit taking place when the dog is becoming uncomfortable. In training classes, you may get a dog who suddenly has an urge to drink from the water bowl right when he is asked to do something he is not too comfortable with.

Refusal to Take Treats

When your dog is too scared, his appetite will lower and he may be unable to take treats. Yet, some dogs when scared will quicMy gulp them down. If you need to do behavior modification, you need to find a way to make the feared stimuli less intimidating so learning can take place. Often this can be accomplished by increasing the distance between the aog and the feared stimulus.

Walking in a Zig•Zag Motion

If your dog is scared, he may walk in a zig-zag motion rather than next to you. He may also be sniffing the ground as he tries to calm himself down.

Scrolling the Fur

No, your dog’s fur is not wet, in this case, the do9 ›s seen scrolling the fur after something a bit stressfu1 happened. It’s as if the dog would scroll the fur so he can forget the happening and move on.

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