Evaluating Your Dog’s Stress Level

Earlier we wrote about stress in dogs and what sort of stressors may be present in a dog’s life. Today, let’s discuss how to evaluate your dog’s stress level.

Every dog is an individual, and as such will display signs of stress differently. Just as with people, some dogs will become quiet and withdrawn while stressed, while others become more active. These broad categories are known as stressing up or stressing down.

Photo by Allison Nichols

Dogs who stress down can sometimes be mistaken for well-behaved or relaxed dogs by owners who miss the warning signals of stress. These dogs will become quieter and more still as their stress level increases. Some may hide or tremble, but many simply stop moving. These dogs oftentimes show signs of their discomfort in their ear and tail set. They may push their ears down or back, and their tails may be low or tucked. They will oftentimes also show other signs of discomfort such as avoiding eye contact, sniffing the ground, turning away, licking their lips, or yawning.

Alternatively, some dogs will stress up, becoming more frenetic as a coping mechanism. These dogs are often mistaken for happy dogs as they are frequently quite bouncy, with high, quickly wagging tails. They may get the zoomies and run around at top speed, or may bounce off people or furniture. Some dogs will redirect their excess energy on “killing” their toys, pestering other dogs, or barking. Some may pace. While these dogs may appear happy at first glance, there is a frantic element to their movement that joyful dogs simply do not show. They oftentimes have dilated pupils and may shed excessively. They may also show other signs of stress such as scratching, shake offs, or lip licks.

Some dogs may stress both up and down, depending on the situation. These dogs may switch back and forth between these two states quickly, going from bouncing around to lying under a chair quite quickly.

Whether a dog stresses up or down, if he reaches a certain level of stress he may be likely to shut down. A shut down dog is a dog in a state of emergency. Dogs shut down when they can no longer cope, becoming quiet and still, with glazed eyes. They may seem disconnected and may not be able to respond to well-known commands. They will oftentimes refuse to eat even their favorite treats or play with favorite toys. When a dog shuts down he is no longer mentally present, but has rather withdrawn into himself. This is a very sad state to witness.

As your dog’s trainer and advocate, it’s important to learn how your dog expresses mild discomfort so that you can prevent him from reaching a more severe state of stress. Observational skills are critical here, as your dog’s body language will tell you how he’s feeling.

In future posts, we’ll discuss how to help your dog cope with stress and how to lower a chronically stressed dog’s anxiety levels. Does your dog stress up or down? What are some common signals that your dog gives you which allow you to evaluate his overall stress level? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

22 responses to “Evaluating Your Dog’s Stress Level

  1. thank you for mentioning stressing up and stressing down, how each of those might look and how the signs are often misinterpreted as either calm or happy. my dog stresses both up and down depending on situation. low to moderate level signs of stress can include a few calming signals, perhaps some whining, a bit of restlessness, occasional scratching, occasional overreaction, some excessive dandruff, occasional mounting. severe stress (thunderstorms, vet visit) usually results in panting, tension ridges in face, trembling, hiding, increased restlessness. when she is reacting to a dog she barks and hackles come up.

  2. Hi Sara,
    Is mounting an expression of stressing up? When Boogie meets the neighbors’ dogs, he bounces around, digs, eats dirt, playbows and mounts. I see the playbows and I think he wants to play (therefore – he isn’t stressed) but other signs like the dirt-eating and mounting makes me wonder if there is some emotional conflict going on.

    • Hi Lili,

      Yes, dogs will oftentimes exhibit behaviors such as these when they’re stressed or conflicted. Biologists talk about the “5 F’s” – Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fool Around, and …Mate. It sounds like Boogie chooses to deal with confict by “fooling around” – being silly and bouncy, which is absolutely a form a stressing up.

      Great question!
      – Sara

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  6. i was be work for victoria stilwell
    my name is stilwell im look at Effect of sterss chart i do getting low level

  7. im did gettting low Efftec of steress low level right now do you understand

  8. now you using cliker treats wiht out sterss

  9. Try to out from must dog getting. Low
    Stress Try. Out. Cliker and treats how
    To training with there dog

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  11. Stress in dogs can be due to challenging situations such as staying in kennels, staying home alone, fireworks, thunder, rain, visiting the vet, travelling…

    There is a new product called Adaptil which comes in a diffuser or spray which is a synthetic copy of the natural canine appeasing pheromone proven to help support dogs in a range of stressful situations.

  12. if only I could convince my boyfriends’ parents that their wild, zooming, out-of-control, & obnoxious dog is actually stressed, not just “really excited” as I hear them say ALL THE TIME (& the ignorance NEVER ceases to make me cringe!) I’ve explained it over & over & given them books/articles to read….NOTHING seems to get through! After 2 years of this behavior, at least they can no longer resort to the “he’s still just a puppy” excuse (hate to say “I told you so”…he WILL NOT grow out of this behavior unless he gets some damn exercise! Furthermore, I tell them that it’ll be a miracle if the behavior doesn’t get increasingly worse & intolerable. After all, there are 3 grandbabies now that visit, & I guess they think it’ll be no big deal when their crazy dog jumps on one of them & knocks them to their feet, or scratches them like he often does to us. In fact, I was on pins & needles last time cuz the dog was basically demanding that the toddler give him her snack. He’d take it right out of her hands, & if he didn’t get it right away, he’d keep bullying her until he could grab it or she dropped it! That is NOT very comforting….the dog had a total lack of respect for EVERYTHING. I’d have to lay down the law if it was my toddler! I don’t care how “mean” they think I’m being….somebody has to enforce some rules.

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  17. My sons boston terrier goes around in circles and seems to not even be focused he just goes around and around and sometimes walks into walls. My son is at his wits end

    Any clue what is going on?


  18. This is a great explanation for pet owners to take a closer look at their dogs. I wasn’t familiar with the stressing down term and I bet that will help people move towards empathy rather than assume all is fine because dog is “calm.”

  19. An important point Madeline, especially when working with dogs that have separation distress.

  20. I have a 7 year old chihuahua. When we go away for a weekend in our boat he hates it. All he does is sit on the bed and not move. No happy tails when I get back on. No excitement at going for a walk. He’s really not himself. Within 5 minutes of returning home his tail is wagging and he’s running around. Now I have to leave him at home when we go out on the boat. Is there anything I can do to help him be less stressed so he can come away with us. It’s a 27ft long river cruiser so it’s not like he’s anywhere near the water at any point.

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