Spotting signs of stress in your dog

June 15, 2022

Many dog owners know that a relaxed, wagging tail is a sign of a happy pup, while ears that look pinned back might signify anxiety. But what are some of the lesser known behaviours to look out for?

There’s no denying that scientific studies have been extremely valuable in helping us interpret our dogs’ actions and behaviours. And our innate instincts as owners also help to guide us on the right path when it comes to caring for our pooches. But sometimes, we can become so accustomed to our dogs’ ways that we don’t always pick up on slight changes to their demeanours.

While it is true that every dog is unique (and boy do we love them for it!), there are certain subtle but distinct signs that your dog might be feeling a little stressed.

Illustration of brown and white dog yawning


One of the most difficult things about trying to gauge your dog’s mood is that certain behaviours can be easily misinterpreted. Logic would say that a yawn from your pup indicates they’re simply in need of a little pick-me-up snooze, but this isn’t always the case. Yawning can actually be a sign of stress, anxiety or fear.

Although yawning is a natural reflex and usually no cause for alarm, it’s good practice to analyse your dog’s surroundings to check if there’s anything that could be worrying them. Or perhaps think if there’s been a change to their routine that might be throwing them off. For example, if your dog has had less exercise that day, a simple walk may be just the ticket to calm them down.

Illustration of brown and white dog licking their lips


Again, you may assume that your pup is licking their lips to clean their chops after (or in preparation for) a hearty meal. But, if food is nowhere in sight, this could be an indication that they’re under stress.

Lip-licking is something we often see when feeding the dogs in Sri Lanka your lovely meals, and it’s something we’ve learnt to become very wary of. If a dog is leaning away whilst licking their lips, we know to be cautious and give them their space. Lip-licking could be an effort made by your pup to ward off aggression, so it’s important to assess their environment for threats that could be making them feel uncomfortable.

Illustration of brown and white dog looking sad with the whites of their eyes showing

Whale eye

Though a dog’s eyes can tell you a lot about how they’re feeling, something you may not know to look out for is whale eye. This is when the whites of a dog’s eyes become visible and it’s commonly a sign of stress, anxiety or discomfort. Hard staring and a wrinkled brow are also telltale signs that your dog could be on edge. Again, these are things we have come across when out on feeding rounds, so we always make an effort to keep our distance from these dogs and feed them away from other animals if necessary.

The root cause of your dog’s unhappiness might be immediately obvious, and this should be rectified straight away so your dog can resume a relaxed state. Or if not, try and comfort or give your dog space in order to calm them down.

Brown dog stands in front of the tuk-tuk with their head down looking up at the camera

A quick note to say...

These are just a few common signs of a stressed out pooch, but there are many other behaviours a dog might exhibit to demonstrate their anxiety. It’s also important to note that every dog is totally unique and communicates differently. So a certain level of judgement must be used when analysing your pup’s body language.

If you are at all concerned about your dog’s behaviour, we would advise consulting a vet to check out any possible medical issues. Your vet can then refer you to a dog behaviourist if necessary.

Dog illustrations by Emma Judson

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