Updated: Apr 25
A dog barks non-stop when left alone, is howling, digging, chewing and destructive – especially around doors and windows; these are signs that most people know can be associated with a dog suffering from separation anxiety. While these are common symptoms of separation anxiety, these behaviors are displayed by a dog who is in full blown panic mode, well past the early stages of starting to feel anxiety.
In a previous post I talked about using desensitization to treat dogs with separation anxiety. Treating a dog with separation anxiety involves identifying how long the dog can be left alone without exhibiting subtle signs of anxiety, and gradually increasing the duration of those absences. We always want the dog to remain under their anxiety threshold so that they can learn that there is nothing unsafe about being alone.
But the behaviors I listed at the start of this post are way over threshold, and we need to keep the dog under threshold in order for desensitization to work. This means having the owner return at the first signs of anxiety, well before they’re in a full blown panic. And these signs can be extremely subtle and not easy to identify without a little bit of education.
Signs of dog anxiety and stress
Mouth open and panting This would be a behavior that happens when the dog hasn't been running around and the environment isn't hot. Very often the facial muscles will be tight, and the tongue may be curved in what is referred to as "taco tongue".
Mouth starts out open, and then closes Typically you'll see this when a situation changes or when something in the environment changes. The dog takes note of the change and pauses to consider how to address it.
Body freeze The dog's body actually freezes for a second. Just like in the mouth closes behavior it typically happens when a change occurs, and you'll see a body freeze along with a mouth closed behavior.
Lip lick / tongue flick When dogs are stressed they will often lick their lips with the tongue coming out under the nose and quickly moving back into the mouth several times in a row.
Tight lips The mouth is closed and the lips are pressed tightly together.
Yawning A yawn happening out of context of getting up from a rest, or going to lie down to rest.
Whale Eye The dog's head is pointed in one direction, while the eyes are pointed in another so that the whites of the eye are visible. You'll often see this when the dog is concerned about two things, such as a resource. The dog keeps their head pointed in the direction of one point of focus (ie a food bowl) and the eyes on the other (ie someone approaching).
Look away Something in the environment is so scary or stressful that the dog feels the need to turn their head away from it. Dogs will sometime turn their entire body away.
Big round eyes Eyes widen and lose the typical almond shape.
Tail Tuck The tail is pulled down between the legs. In extreme cases the tail will be pulled under the stomach.
Body posture set over back legs The weight of the dog is shifted back and set over their hips.
Tail wagging stiffly A wagging tail doesn't always mean a dog is happy. In this case the tail is wagging slowly and the body doesn't move along with it. Often the tail set will be lower than normal.
Dog body language meaning
Some of the expressions a dog may display when beginning to feel anxious are expressions that are out of context. A yawning dog who just got out of his bed after a nap is most likely nothing to be concerned about. A dog who yawns while wide awake is more likely to be a dog displaying a sign of stress.
We also see this with lip licking. If I’m holding food or it’s close to dinner time I won’t be worried about seeing my dog’s tongue lick her lips. But if there isn’t any food available and it isn’t close to dinner time, I might take note that she might be experiencing some kind of low level anxiety. Tongue flicks associated with anxiety are typically vertical, with tongue coming up over the nose and back, rather than side to side.
Another indication of dog that is becoming uncomfortable would be pacing or fidgeting. Seeing a dog run back and forth repeatedly, particularly away and then back to the door through which the owner left, turning in circles, or rocking back and forth, likely indicates a dog who is becoming anxious and going over threshold.
A complication can be that each dog is an individual, and there is no cookie-cutter list to look for to identify when a dog who has separation related problems is starting to go over threshold. So a dog who is alone and starts to scratch or lick himself may indicate stress. The key is to pay attention to the dog when the owners are present. If the dog normally engages in self-grooming behavior at other times when the owners are there, it may mean nothing when they’re absent. (Although it may mean it’s time to talk to the vet about a medical reason for the self-grooming if it’s excessive.)
The environment can also make a difference. I’ll take note of a panting dog as being fearful, unless it’s excessively hot and the panting is serving a biological purpose. A dog who shakes if he gets wet is normal, but a shake off can be an anxiety outlet. We also see this with excessive sniffing.
How the dog holds their body is another thing to take note of. Is the dog’s body loose? Or is it stiff. Just like with people, when a dog is stressed their muscles tense up and the dog will hold himself very rigid.
When we try to interpret our dog's visual communications we not only have to look at context, but also look for multiple signals happening either at the same time or in succession. It's very common to see a dog do a tongue flick followed by a yawn followed by a look away.
Reading a dog's body language can be difficult, but when training for separation anxiety in dogs it’s imperative that it’s done well. For the average dog parent this takes some education and practice. Hiring a professional dog trainer who has been certified in working with separation anxiety cases is a way to get some assistance in learning to read your dog, in addition to providing treatment plans.