8 Surprising Signs of Anxiety in Dogs

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Is Your Dog the Anxious Type?

By John Gilpatrick

Strangers, thunderstorms, other dogs — the list of things canines are afraid of starts there and continues on to include all sorts of various quirks that differ from dog to dog.

Those quirks are dependent on who and what a dog becomes familiar with during the brief and sensitive period for socialization in their development, explains Dr. Michele Wan, a Connecticut-based certified applied animal behaviorist. This period lasts from three to three and a half months of age.

“During this time, they need to have positive experiences with people, animals, and other stimuli, including sights and sounds,” she says. Those experiences include objects, too. Without exposure to a particular object during this time, a dog may be suspicious of that object — a bicycle, a box, etc. — later in life.

But not all dogs express fear in obviously identifiable ways. Trembling, crying, and running away are all fairly recognizable signs of fear and anxiety, but sometimes dogs are more subtle.

Keep reading for eight surprising signs of canine anxiety.

This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM

Lip Licking

We tend to associate this behavior with hunger. After all, when a juicy steak makes our mouth water, we might find ourselves unconsciously licking our lips. That can also be true for dogs, but in certain contexts, lip licking is a sign of anxious behavior.

Dr. Kristina Spaulding, a certified applied animal behaviorist from upstate New York, differentiates between these two behaviors by calling the fear-based version “tongue flicking,” which owners might notice in the presence of something potentially frightening to the dog, or accompanied by other anxious behaviors.

Physical Tension

Wan says you know your dog’s body language better than anyone, and if you spot your dog’s face tightening or her ears falling back, it might signify anxiety.

Tail Wagging

The way your dog’s tail moves back and forth can be indicative of fear. “We tend to associate this behavior [tail wagging] with the dog being very happy, but it could also mean the dog is extremely over-stimulated,” says Wan. The height the dog is holding its tail can be indicative of its mood. Generally speaking, the tail held at mid-height is relaxed, held high is alert or threatening, and held low is submissive or fearful.


Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?


Many dogs love to be around people, and almost all dogs love to be around their human families. That’s why avoidance is a particularly noteworthy sign of anxiety, and Spaulding says it can take several forms, including turning away or diverting the eyes.


Yawning is another anxiety sign that might give off the impression of boredom or exhaustion. Similarly, closing their mouths suddenly can be indicative of a problem. “If they're panting and suddenly close their mouth, that's often a sign that something has changed,” Spaulding says. “It may be that they've just noticed something different, but it is often associated with anxiety.”

Rolling Over

“Lots of dogs like to have their belly rubbed, but in certain contexts, rolling over and showing her belly is a dog’s way of saying she’s had enough,” Wan says. She also calls it “tapping out,” and says it’s particularly common when a dog is around children — even familiar ones — who get too close or touch too much.


Visual Communication: Interpreting a Dog’s Body Language

Scratches on the Doors and Windows

This is one of the most clear-cut signs of separation anxiety, which is a different beast compared to other fear triggers because (by definition) you can’t easily observe it while it’s happening.

Dogs that are suffering from separation anxiety are often panicking when they’re home alone, so they don’t really have control of their behavior, Spaulding says. In addition to destroying things and eliminating in the house, they often try to escape, which is why they scratch up the doors or windows. You might also notice them whining or being particularly clingy right before you leave or after you get home.

Separation anxiety can be serious, says Wan. “Trained dogs may start urinating or defecating, and in some really severe cases, they will break teeth and injure their paws trying to get out.”

If you suspect problems with separation anxiety, Wan says you may want to consider setting up a camera or smart phone in such a way that you can monitor your dog while you’re gone, even if it’s just for a few minutes. When you get home each day, give your dog a “high value reward” — like cooked meat or chicken — that she can associate with being alone. And if the problem persists, consult with a certified animal behaviorist to work on coping.


Nature and Nurture: Why Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety is Not Your Fault

Destructive Behavior in Dogs


Aggression isn’t necessarily difficult to spot. Is your dog growling, snapping, or biting? Owners don’t usually associate aggression with fear. As such, Spaulding says, many owners instinctively punish dogs for acting aggressively. But this can exacerbate the problem because dogs can misinterpret what they’re being punished for.

“When dogs are experiencing strong emotions, it's hard for them to think clearly. Punishment is likely to make them more scared,” said Spaulding. “And if they’re punished for warning behaviors, like snapping or growling, it could teach them not to warn,” she says. “We don't want them to be feeling those emotions, but if they do, we do still want them to communicate so we can help them.”


Aggression in Dogs: An Overview

What You Can Do

With many of these signs of anxiety, Spaulding says it’s helpful to redirect the dog using food or play. “You also want to remove them from the situation as soon as possible,” she says.

For cases like thunderstorms, in which you can’t simply make the fear trigger go away, try turning up the television or temporarily moving your dog down to the basement. To lessen the alarming sound of thunder, you can also try placing cotton balls in your dog’s ears to help muffle the noise. 

When you’re personally trying to calm your dog down, Spaulding says it’s important to maintain a “mildly upbeat” tone. The calmer you are, the better it is for the dog. Be light and happy, but don’t go overboard, she says.

If the anxiety appears to persist or is more frequently turning toward aggression, you should consider meeting with a certified dog behaviorist. For extremely serious cases, medication may be prescribed following consultations with both a behaviorist and your veterinarian.


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