Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sarah Kalnajs Seminar: Signs of Stress

Today's post is all about the things our dogs do that Sarah said are signs of stress. Remember, you need to take all of these in context, so don't freak out if the first time you see your dog do one of them. Look at the whole picture. Still, it's important to notice even possible signs of stress, because stress can lead to aggressive behavior (more on this in a future post). By recognizing early warning signs, you can take steps to protect both yourself and your dog, so let's get started!

Note: I have included pictures when I had them available. Some categories are difficult to catch in still photos, and some are things Maisy simply doesn't do. If you have a photo of one of the missing categories, and would be willing to share it so I can post it (with credit of course), please email me. My address is on the “contact” tab above.

This is one of the most common signals you'll see; almost every dog does it when feeling stressed.

Dilated Pupils
When the pupils are larger than they should be, given the amount of ambient light, it's probably a sign of stress. This is an involuntary action; it naturally happens when under stress as part of the fight-or-flight system because dilated pupils allow the dog to take in additional visual information which might be helpful.

(Click to embiggen. It's the only way to see the pupils clearly.)

Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Lip Licking
If your dog licks his lips, especially in the absence of food, it's probably stress-related. Pay attention to when the behavior begins and ends to determine what's stressing him out.

A stress stretch looks very different from one done upon waking or when very relaxed. It will be very quick and abbreviated, typically only half of a normal stretch. It can look a lot like a play bow, so it's important to observe the dog for additional signals and check out the context in which the behavior happens.

Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Pinned Ears
Also called “bunny ears,” this happens when the dog's ears are pulled back against the head. It will look slightly different from dog to dog since there's such a wide variety of ear types out there.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Smith.
This excellent shot of Toby includes pinned ears, dilated pupils, some muscle ridges,
and a head turn (which will be featured in the post on appeasement signals next week).

Excessive Shedding
Often combined with a very stiff posture, a sudden onset of shedding is an excellent indicator of stress. It's not limited to dogs, either- one of my cats is a fur-generating-machine when at the vets!

Slow or Little Movement
This is a very significant behavior, and indicates a very stressed dog. A dog demonstrating this signal is neither loose nor stiff. There's no acceptance of what's going on, nor is there any struggle. Instead the dog is checked out. Sarah described it as “the lights are on but nobody's home.” If you see a dog doing this, she recommended doing something to get the dog moving- squeak a toy, toss a treat- whatever it takes!

Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche, who shared that Layla didn't move 
for hours after waking up from sedation to find this bandage on her foot.

Not Eating
If your dog normally likes a food item and suddenly refuses it, it's probably due to stress. Pay attention to your surroundings; is there a pattern to when he stops eating, and when he starts again?

Uro-Genital Check-Out
This is where a dog looks back at his own genitals. Some dogs are brief, and do just a quick glance, while others will do a prolonged search and sniff. Either way, Sarah said that it's a sign of stress, and often serves as a displacement behavior since the dog isn't sure what else to do.

This picture demonstrates Maisy's own take on the check-out: spinning or biting at her tail. I've noticed that she often looks back and/or snaps at her tail when she's over-aroused or stressed. It's similar to the check-out, though not identical, proving that dogs don't read the books on body language!

Pacing or an Inability to Settle
If your dog can't stop moving, he's probably stressed. He may switch positions (sit to down, for example) repeatedly, he may walk back and forth, or he may just seem hyper. No matter how it looks, it's stress.

(Discussion on this video is available here.)

Photo courtesy of Melissa Smith.
This photo of Toby would be funny if it weren't so sad.

Tucked Tail, Weight Shifted Back, Low Body Posture
This is the classic “scared dog” posture.

Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

 Many dogs will put their tail between their legs and touching their bellies, but interestingly, this is as far as Maisy's tail ever tucks. I think it's because she has such a high tail set to start with, once again demonstrating that each dog is an individual.

Maisy is cautious and low, but interested.

Tucked tail.
Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Muscle Ridges Around Eyes and Mouth
Easy to see on dogs with short hair and expressive faces, but ultimately challenging on a dog like Maisy, muscle ridges are similar to furrowed brows in people, and a great indicator of stress.

 Ridges around the eyes, courtesy of 2dogcrazy.

Ridges around the mouth. Photo courtesy of Sara Reusche.

Lots of ridges. Photo courtesy of 2dogcrazy.

Increased Respiration Rate, or Shallow/Fast Breaking
If a dog is panting more than seems reasonable given the weather or the dog's activity, it's probably stress.

It's hard to tell in this picture, but Maisy is definitely panting in this photo. I don't know if this is true for all dogs, but Maisy's stress pants have her mouth opened only a small amount, as opposed to her tired/happy panting, which is with a wide open mouth.

If the dog is shaking, shivering, or trembling, he's probably stressed. This great video example is courtesy of Sara Reusche:

Sweaty Paws
This is a more significant signal- if you can see sweaty paw prints or feel a damp paw, Sarah said you should immediately adjust the dog's environment. Interestingly, the only time I've seen Maisy have sweaty paws is when playing ball- which is a happy thing for her. As a result, I'd classify this as more of an anticipatory behavior, at least for Maisy, and in that one context.

Photo by Aditi Terpstra.
(And his foster mom reports the sweaty paws are disappearing quick!)
Excess Salivation
The more you see, the more stressed the dog likely is. Again, you'll need to take other factors into account, such as tasty food items in the vicinity and breed of dog, but salivation for no reason, or more than seems normal, is probably stress.

Cheek Puffing
When the dog's cheeks puff out, it's a sign of extreme stress. Sarah said it's not very common.


Sophie said...

Very interesting! It's weird how some of those behaviours I know are stress signals, but which are employed by Lola during times of intense excitement (stressful excitement): I'd say for her she has a continuum of anxiety-excitement stress signals.

For example, when I get her boomer ball out (which she gets for an hour three or so times a week), she will instantly stand still and tremble, and then start leaping at it (she bounced today and hit my stomach, knocking at the ball which was at shoulder height!) As soon as I put it down she'll flinch toward it, but won't break her position of sit/down/etc that she last fell into until I tell her okay and kick it. She will then chase it around, barking and biting, sometimes giving her frantic yip if it gets caught in a corner or whatnot, and will drool excessively - slobbering all over it so that the fur around her mouth (and the floor!) is soaked. If I interrupt her fixated stare on it to move it away, she'll sit back and watch with her mouth slightly open - not quite panting, but not her usual closed mouth (but she also has the slightly open mouth when playing with Jess indoors).

But throughout all of the ordeal, she has generally loose body language, and her tail wags - doesn't just vibrate quickly, it happily wags. So is she stressed by the boomer ball? Yes - but is that a bad thing? I'm not sure, myself.

Ninso said...

OMG it's a post all about Jun!

2dogcrazy said...

When Kane is super-excited stressed, he starts shedding like nothing else! He also gets a major case of dander, right between his shoulders.

I think I may have a picture of the muscle ridges, somewhere in my billions of pics of Kane.

Anonymous said...

Sally cheeks puff when she's thinking - or anticipating a cuddle - I'd say not super stressed times for her but it is pretty Sally unique around here ...she forgot to read the book too :)

interesting post - even if blogspot won't let me sign in

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Sophie- Maisy does a fair amount of stress-behaviors around her ball, too. Some are what Sarah classified as "anticipatory," but some- like the sweaty paws- aren't. I think you're right to look at the context- what else is the dog saying? Loose, waggy body language indicates more of an excited stress to me, too. So, is that stress bad? I don't entirely know the answer, but I'll be writing about it soon. :)

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

2 dog crazy- the dandruff is interesting. I can't remember if I've heard that one before or not.

Andrea- sorry blogger won't let you log in! Do you have video of the cheek puffing? I'd love to see it. :)

Kristen said...

Another link for my students. Thanks!

Laura and The Corgi, Toller, & Duck said...

I certainly have plenty of pictures with Vito's eyes dilated and trembling! But of course that goes back to the excitement vs stress or good stress vs bad stress thing.

And no eating can be a daily occurrence, but especially when stressed. Actually excitement too. Vito actually has a rule that says he must swallow the treat I offer him in order for me to throw his ball. He can do it at home or at the club but still can't follow that rule outside so I don't even bother.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Yes, that stress question is very interesting. I have some notes on Sarah's thoughts on stress, which I'll share.

I'm also excited to talk to Dr. Duxbury about it next month. I really want answers about the specifics of stress in Maisy. :)

Tegan said...

Your twitter button works. :)

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Good to know! Thanks for the comment (and the tweets!) Tegan!

Karen said...

Last night at our 3rd Canine Good Citizen class, Rainy exhibited many stress signs you've listed, Crystal. But she also had moments of laying on her side & also wanting to play with her neighbor. I'm anxious to learn how to help my Springer calm herself.

Ci Da said...

I noticed my dog cheek-puffing when I put her head collar on. I'd never understood it as a stress signal before. I'd gotten lazy CCing when I put it on -- will have to step up my game.

Thanks for the entry!

Kirby, CGC said...

I love your posts. Kirby has shown yawning and stretching around other dogs. The cheek puffing is interesting, because of his hair around his mouth I can't tell, but he will "huff" when he smells another dog in the area. I have never seen his tail between his legs it is always on his back and is only down when totally relaxed. Thanks for your posts on this topic!

Cheryl-Kirby's mom

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Cheryl- I agree that body language can be difficult to read on the fluffy dog! :) I can't see facial ridges or piloerection, for example. (That, or Maisy doesn't do them- and though these are great generalizations, every dog seems slightly different in their use of body language.)