Can you tell when your dog is uncomfortable? With experience, most people can figure it out. They get to know their own dog well and tend to notice when he's not being himself.
There are some typical stress-related behaviors most of us easily pick up on, but just like people, dogs might sometimes exhibit some less common or downright unusual signs of stress. I have a friend who laughs uncontrollably when she feels intense pain, and another who succumbs to giggle fits at really inappropriate times, like during a funeral or, once, while getting fired from a job she loved. Under very stressful situations, these friends respond with some rather unexpected behaviors.
Your dog might also display behaviors that are less than "textbook" when he's stressed. It takes practice to pick up on the more subtle clues, especially when they're a little on the unique side.
The good news is that most dogs will display the more easily recognized signs. The faster you can detect your dog's discomfort, the sooner you can intervene. Doing so will help prevent the development of a bigger fear-based problem, and if one already exists, knowing when and how to intervene can help your dog overcome his fear or discomfort.
About twice a year I teach a class for FDSA on how to use counterconditioning and desensitization techniques to help treat fearful behaviors. Throughout the course I emphasize the importance of preventing dogs from "going over threshold" — that is, from putting them in a position where they are forced to cope with more than they can handle.
So how can you tell whether you've crossed that line? How much stress is too much?
First, we need to understand that signs of discomfort are often much more subtle than the bigger, more obvious signs that our dog is feeling extremely fearful.
Obvious VS. Subtle Signs of Discomfort
Examples of obvious signs that our dog is uncomfortable are crouching low to the ground, trembling, hiding, growling, barking, whimpering, drooling, or running away. Most of us can easily recognize those.
The more subtle – or easily missed – signs a dog is beginning to feel uncomfortable include turning their head away, freezing, directing their gaze away without moving their head, suddenly closing their mouth tightly, licking their lips, shifting their body weight in the opposite direction (leaning back or away slightly), pinning or quickly flicking their ears back, or yawning.
Keep in mind that while "discomfort" can sound pretty mild, it still represents a certain level of "feeling threatened," even if it doesn't look like the more typical signs of fear or panic, which we tend to recognize as very dramatic behavior in both dogs and humans. One can still feel somewhat threatened without acting out dramatically.
Why You Need to Know When Your Dog Feels Threatened
When you embark on a desensitization process to help your dog overcome a fear, you should aim to ensure he doesn't feel threatened as you very gradually expose him to The Scary Thing. It's important to recognize the more subtle signs of discomfort, or you could easily and inadvertently cause your dog to experience a fearful response.
If our dog continues to feel threatened during exposure, you won't succeed at changing his emotional response. On the contrary, you might end up sensitizing him to the stimulus he fears, making matters worse.
Identifying Your Dog's Threshold
If you want to pin-point your dog's threshold – that is, the point where he begins to feel threatened – watch him carefully and look for signs that you may have missed in the past that indicate he is starting to feel uncomfortable. These signs will usually manifest before the more obvious ones, and they're often missed because we're on the look-out for the bigger, more dramatic behaviors.
For example, if your dog freezes and refuses to jump into the car because he's afraid of car rides (this is an obvious sign), you may now notice that when you picked up your keys, he yawned and licked his lips (a more subtle sign).
If your dog runs and hides when you start the vacuum, or he lunges and barks at it (all obvious signs), you may notice that earlier, when you reached into the closet to pull out the vacuum, he began pacing a little, or breathing a little faster (maybe panting), or his ears were lowered (more subtle signs).
Back to the More Inappropriate Behaviors…
Remember my friend who giggles during funerals? I've known many dogs who, like my friend, also display unexpected behaviors when they're stressed or feeling threatened. Their behaviors are often misinterpreted by their owners, and because of this they might not get the help they need.
For example, a dog who licks someone excessively is often labeled as an overly friendly dog who "just wants to kiss everyone." Really, though, this dog might have figured out through past experience that licking makes people turn their head, stop petting, or move away. It's possible he's uncomfortable with social interaction, even if he initiates contact.
Dogs who are uncomfortable when interacting with other dogs might resort to mounting or humping. This behavior is often misinterpreted as rude or an attempt at dominance, when really all that's happened is a threshold has been crossed and requires your gentle intervention to remove your dog from the situation.
A young dog might pee when greeted by a human, again indicating a threshold was crossed a little too quickly. Owners tend to get angry or frustrated at this type of behavior. If they can learn to recognize it as a response to feeling threatened (remember that discomfort is a form of feeling threatened), they can work towards gradually helping their dog build confidence under these circumstances.
If you have a dog who is fearful of certain stimuli, play detective and see if you can spot the subtle signs that often manifest before the more obvious ones. You might be surprised to learn your dog has been expressing his discomfort long before the threshold is actually crossed.