The “F’s” of Stress in Dogs

We throw around the word “stress” a lot – stressed at work, stressed by money, stressed because my favorite show ended on a cliffhanger. 

What is stress really? And what does it mean for our dogs? Would you recognize signs of stress in your dog? The answers may surprise you and will definitely help you understand your dog’s behavior.

Why Stress Matters

Stress is a reaction in the body that gets an individual to take action to protect themself or to address a challenge. In dogs, stress impacts behavior, health, and learning. 

Not all stress is bad. So-called “good stress” can help a dog overcome solvable challenges. Think of a dog figuring out a new food puzzle – at first they may seem a little confused or frustrated and then yes! They figured it out and are rewarded for their effort. 

Other stress is more problematic. “Tolerable stress” is negative, but the dog can cope; they are able to get through it and bounce back. “Toxic stress” is also negative, but the dog doesn’t have the ability to cope and the effects can be long lasting. In both cases, the immediate impact of stress can include aggression or other challenging behaviors. Toxic stress can cause those behaviors to continue or manifest in new, concerning ways. 

The line between tolerable and toxic is different for every dog. Because of this, we want to recognize all negative stress as soon as possible and address it before it becomes toxic. Negative stress can cause many behaviors of concern in dogs, including aggression, fear, resistance to training, and health issues. 

If your dog is stressed and you don’t see it or respond appropriately, you are going to have a much harder time getting to your behavior and training goals and could cause more problems along the way.

Individual Differences

It is important to remember, before looking at the list of signs of stress, that every dog is an individual. This means:

  • Many behaviors can mean different things. Look at the whole dog and become a skilled observer of your individual. Examples:
    • Barking can mean “go away”, “come closer”, “give me that”, “I’m excited”, and more.
    • Sniffing could be an attempt to deflect attention or normal exploratory behavior.
  • Not all dogs will show all of the “F’s” of stress. There isn’t always a progression in order from one to another. 
    • For example: Dog A may never choose “fight”, only “flight”, while Dog B only very briefly shows “freeze” before going to “fight”, with no attempt to “flight”.

Furthermore, “stress” can be further refined to:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety 
  • Discomfort
  • Irritation
  • Pain
  • Confusion
  • Frustration
  • And More

Don’t worry if you aren’t sure exactly what you’re observing. Identifying “stress” can help you proceed, even when you aren’t sure what the specific type is. Remember, you want to decrease stress as much as possible to avoid potential fallout of negative stress.

The “F’s” of Stress

In the descriptions below, “threat” means something that causes the individual to feel scared, uncomfortable, hurt, or that feels like a conflict. 

Many “F’s” have body language in common, such as a tense body. The list aims to cover differences and behaviors you may not have noticed or connected to stress before. 

Fight

Goal: Make a threat go away
Observable Signs: 

  • Lifting lips
  • Showing teeth
  • Barking
  • Growling
  • Snarling
  • Snapping
  • Biting

Flight

Goal: Get away from a threat
Observable Signs: 

  • Attempting to move away
  • Turning away
  • Leaning away
  • Looking away, averting eyes
  • Lowering body

Freeze

Goal: Don’t get noticed by a threat; don’t escalate a threat
Observable Signs:

  • Holding still
  • Looking away
  • Closing eyes
  • Lowering body
  • Getting small
  • Tucking tail
  • Showing belly while holding still or tense
Husky rolled on back, mouth closed, looking at camera, with hand touching belly.
Not every belly is an invitation. Watch for a still, tense body.
Photo: Maxim Makarov/Unsplash

Fidget or Fool Around

Goal: Divert attention; avoid conflict
Observable Signs:

  • Sniffing random spots
  • Grabbing a toy
  • Jumping up
  • Looking around
  • Being “distracted”

Fawn or beFriend

Goal: Change threat to friend; reduce conflict
Observable Signs:

  • Jumping up (typically intensely or frantically)
  • Leaning in hard
  • “Climbing into your skin”
  • Licking face
  • Acting “desperate”

Now What?

You’ve started observing your dog and noticed signs of stress. Don’t panic, but do pay attention!

  1. Start with safety. Remove your dog from the situation and give them a break to cooldown. 
  2. Note the circumstances and environment. What might have caused the stress?
  3. Don’t try to punish signs of stress. Nothing good comes from this: whether it’s escalating the current situation or teaching the dog not to give warning signs in the future.
  4. If you can avoid or adjust the situation for the long term, you may be able to rely on management in the future. However, if your dog is showing signs of “fight”, you can’t consistently manage the environment, or you are at all unsure how to proceed, reach out to a certified professional for help.

Stress Happens

Recognizing it and knowing how to respond will help you and your dog live your best lives.

If your dog is experiencing stress and you need help, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.