Updated: Feb 20
When it comes to reacting to stress, most of us know about the 'fight or flight' response - getting ready to fight for your life or run for it. Well, dogs are no different. They react in certain ways to real or perceived threats. Reactions I didn't really know about till I started learning more about dog behaviour and psychology.
So I thought I'd share five of the most common stress-response behaviours with you. Not only because understanding our dogs makes our bond with them even stronger, but because knowing what signs to look for can help ease their stress and prevent some situations from becoming dangerous.
If your dog has seen, heard or been exposed to a threat - another dog, a cat, a car, or the postman - they might respond to this stress with a fight reflex.
While some dogs might jump straight into fight mode, most usually start with less confrontational behaviours - like snarling or lifting their top lip. Nevertheless, these are red flags that doggo is not happy and not coping with the situation.
If the 'threat' doesn't stop, the dog will dial up its response by growling, barking, snapping or lunging. And if the stress still doesn't ease, it can end with the dog biting.
Running away from a source of stress seems like the most obvious thing to happen here. But it's not always the case.
As with 'fighting', dogs can show more subtle signs about their next steps well before making them. In the case of a dog getting ready to bolt or hide, it could be as discreet as a shift in weight or a glance in the direction they're planning to run.
But running away doesn't always mean taking off into a wide open space - it could be about fleeing and hiding in a confined space too. This is when stress responses can cross over. If a dog runs, hides and is then cornered, he could quickly move into 'fight' mode.
Ever been walking your dog when they've suddenly stopped, frozen solid on the spot and refused to move? It's possible they we're scared.
But, like all stress responses, it's not always this easy to recognise. Some dogs only freeze for a second - but it's still good to recognise as a sign your dog is uncomfortable with the situation.
It's often one of the first things dogs do when they're afraid of something. So spotting this reaction early and removing your dog from the scenario can prevent stress levels from rising and behaviours escalating.
While we might bite our nails, twirl our hair or rock back and forth on our feet, dogs fidget as a sign of being nervous. This is a broad category, but it basically covers any sort of behaviour that's excessive and/or out of the ordinary for your dog. It could be constant scratching when there's no itch, non-stop licking, looking around at nothing, or jumping up when this isn't something they'd normally do.
These sort of behaviours - also known as 'displacement' behaviours - are signs of stress.
Giving your dog something else to do - like fetching a ball or playing with their favourite toy - is often good way to help put them at ease. While at the same time, being careful not to overstimulate them.
5. FLIRT or FAWN
This one's not as well known as the others. It's something I came across during Sarah Whitehead's 'Learn to Talk Dog!' programme. As Sarah explains, it's similar to 'fidget' but not quite the same. It often happens when a dog is under pressure to do something they don't want to do - like taking a bath, having their ears cleaned, or doing a trick they don't like doing.
Rather than acting nervously, dogs might try to pull on the old heart strings in the hope of 'charming' their way out of doing something.
They might beg, show their paw to shake hands, or be cute in an effort to avoid an unpleasant experience. Let's face it - they're not the first to try it.
Now you know what these stress behaviours are, it'll be easier to know when your dog's not okay with something. Reading these signals early means you can actively prevent their stress from escalating and potentially causing injury to you, your dog - or someone else and theirs.
Want to learn more?
If you’re worried about any behaviours that seem out of character for your dog, talk to your vet or seek the advice of a qualified animal behaviourist - like Emma at The Centre of Animal Behaviour working with dogs across Cheshire, Derbyshire and South Manchester.
You've probably also noticed how the internet is full of advice on dogs and puppies. But not all of it is good advice. So if you're looking for a trusted source of general info, I recommend heading to Sarah Whitehead's website at www.cleverdogcompany.com for FREE advice and fact sheets on puppies and dogs. Sarah's a leading expert in positive-led dog training and behaviour and her approach is proven to work.
If you're looking for some natural calming treats and herbal teas to help ease your dog's nerves, we have a wide range to choose from right here at The Puppy Playground. If you need any help choosing, just give us a shout, yap, bark or howl.
In the meantime, keep being pawsome!
I'm a student of canine psychology & behaviour, a socialisation and training helper at The Puppy Nanny, and experienced dog mum to Indy & Mav (RIP my precious Jewels & Russ).