Spotting Stress in Dogs: Signs, Solutions & Safety Precautions

Recognizing when a dog is stressed or may bite is important to ensure your safety, the safety of others, as well as the well-being of the dog, whether it’s your dog or someone else’s.


Signs of Stress in Dogs

Stress in dogs can very quickly escalate to aggression. Recognizing the early signs of stress can help prevent situations where a dog feels the need to defend itself through biting. Understanding canine stress responses – in general, as well as those signs specific to your dog – can help socialize dogs with other animals as well as with people. It can help ensure a dog’s interactions with others are safe, positive and not overwhelming to the dog.


General Signs a Dog Is in Distress

Every dog has its quirks. Some may display unique signs of happiness, stress or annoyance. However, most dogs will display some of the following textbook examples of stress or agitation, which could indicate a dog may be about to bite:

  • Yawning – A stress yawn is often longer and more intense than a tired yawn. The stress yawn can help a dog avoid conflict and is an attempt to calm themselves down. Yawning when stressed is how a dog says, “My patience is running low – but I don’t want to fight.” It’s often used when dogs feel uneasy or anxious about a situation.
  • Nose- or lip-licking – Another of the more subtle signs a dog may be in distress. Nose- or lip-licking can be a self-soothing behavior when a dog is feeling uncomfortable, anxious, or threatened. Similar to the stress yawn, this type of licking intends to convey the dog is uneasy but doesn’t want confrontation. It may be accompanied by a dog looking away or attempting to escape the situation.
  • Tense body posture – A dog’s body may become rigid, and the ears may be pinned back, against its head.
  • Baring of the teeth –This is usually accompanied by a fixed, hard stare.
  • Growling or snapping at you – These signs are often used to indicate, “I feel threatened – and I am prepared to protect myself if necessary.”


It can be helpful to know an aggressive dog may try to make themselves bigger – with ears up, back hunched, and hair standing on end – while a fearful dog might look like they’re making themselves smaller, crouching, with their tail tucked between their legs. Either dog may end up biting or attacking someone if provoked.


Understand Your Dog’s Body Language

Your dog may or may not exhibit some or all of the general canine indicators they are anxious, irritated, or otherwise about to lash out. Observe and take note of what your dog’s body language says about how they’re feeling in different situations, such as when they’re introduced to others at home versus on walks or when other animals are around. Stress in dogs may be subtle or they may be trying to tell you something else.


Watch the following video for examples of what your dog may be trying to say to you:


De-Escalation Strategies When a Dog Is Triggered

In most situations, a dog may act aggressively when they are feeling afraid or overwhelmed. The following general precautions should help in most situations of a likely dog bite or attack:

  • Try to remain calm. Do not panic; yelling or screaming will only serve to escalate the situation.
  • Stop what you’re doing. Reduce the intensity of the experience for the dog by no longer engaging in the activity riling them up. If you were playing with the dog but notice signs of agitation, slow then stop your movements.
  • Put distance between you and the dog. Give the dog space by moving away slowly. Better yet, if you’re in the dog’s home, allow it to retreat to its safe space, whether its a crate or other comfortable, out-of-the-way space in a quiet, less-trafficked area of the house. Do not run away as this can trigger a dog’s instinct to chase.
  • Use distraction. Redirect their urge to bite with a toy or other object they can bite on instead.


How to Prevent Dog Bites & Attacks

When your dog will be around others, let your dog dictate the duration and extent of the interaction. Never force your dog to remain in a situation when they are uncomfortable or anxious.


  • Supervise children around dogs. Don’t allow children to roughhouse with pets. 
  • Ask before petting a dog. If given permission to do so, offer the dog a closed hand to sniff first, then allow the dog to come to your hand. If the dog appears to be interested in more, try petting their chest first. Most dogs don’t enjoy pets on the top of the head because they can’t see where your hand is going.
  • Stick to normal routines for your dog as much as possible. This includes meal times, exercise, etc. 
  • Regular physical exercise is key – it can help get rid of pent-up energy. This can be especially helpful to do ahead of potentially stressful situations, such as a house party, where your dog may encounter new people and loud noises.
  • Vet visits can be crucial to identify and treat potential illness or other issues. A dog may become aggressive if it is in pain – even if you’re not aware they’re hurting.


Animal Liability Insurance Can Protect You & Your Dog

At Edison Insurance Company, we offer animal liability coverage to protect dog and other animal owners in the event their pet bites or harms others. With an animal liability rider/endorsement to your homeowners insurance policy, you can relax and enjoy time with your pet, without worry they might bite someone and the possible repercussions from the interaction.


Get the coverage you need – including animal liability insurance – by contacting your Edison Insurance agent. If you’re not yet insured by Edison Insurance Company, go ahead and get a quote online now. 

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