Stress signals in dogs...and why they are important!!
I was watching a video the other day of a service dog in training. He was heeling beautifully beside his handler in a department store, sitting on command, performing a long distance down stay, and just being a really good dog. The handler wrote a short bit about how proud she was for how well her puppy was doing with his public access training. However, my heart truly breaks for this dog.
What the handler failed to realize is how completely uncomfortable her dog was to be there. Despite him behaving near flawlessly, his body language was screaming he’d rather be anywhere but where he was right then. Unfortunately many dog owners fail to notice subtle, yet key, signs of stress for their dog. Without knowing how to read subtle changes in body language, you can easily cause your dog to go from mildly nervous or uncomfortable, to a full on panic or rage in a matter of seconds. This is what happens when people say their dog “just had a meltdown,” or even snapped at someone, for “no reason.” Ignoring stress signals is incredibly dangerous for everyone involved.
When out training with your service dog (or your pet dog for that matter), it is important to get into the habit of carefully watching your dog’s body language. It helps to write down in a training log exactly how your dog reacts to different stimuli. This way, you will be able to clearly see where your dog is solid, where your dog is not, where you are improving, and where you need more work.
Below are signs of minor stress signals for dogs.
When I say minor, this doesn’t mean you should continue what you are doing in hopes he will just “get over it.” What I DO mean is that these are the signals which are almost always overlooked… when key stress signals are overlooked by the handler, it can lead to much greater problems.
Lip licking when no food is present
Yawning when he didn’t just wake up
Rapid sniffing of the air or ground
Stiff movement or tense muscles
Slowed movement or a laggy heel
Hyper vigilance (rapidly moving eyes trying to scan the environment)
Hardened facial features
Dog stops taking treats/food
Dog starts taking treats in a more hard/bitey manor
Hard eyes (fast/sharp blinking)
Weight shift changes
Panting when it’s not hot out
Slightly roached (curved) back
Not responding to handler’s commands
Looking away from handler
Whiney and uneasy
Nibbling on treats but not actually eating them
Leaning on the handler
Now here are some major stress signals for dogs.
If your dog is experiencing any of these, it is not only time to remove him from the situation ASAP, but to also rethink your training plan. Many of these signals will occur just shortly before a complete panic and/or bite.
Tightly tucked tail
Whale eye (dog’s eyes go wide and you can see the white rim around them)
Pulling towards an exit
Pulling away from the handler
Spinning on the leash
Not responding to the handler’s commands
Not responding to the handler’s voice
Low/tucked body position with a roached (curved) back
Heavy breathing when it’s not hot out
Tense lips and incisors (front teeth) showing while licking at the air
Laying down on the ground with their chin down and not wanting to move
Your service dog depends on you JUST as much as you depend on him. As your dog’s handler, you are 100% responsible for his mental and physical well-being at all times. No matter what situation you find yourself in, your dog’s needs should always come first.
Pushing a nervous dog into a situation where he is uncomfortable is one of the absolute worst things you can do for your SDiT, and creates the potential for much greater behavioral issues further down the road. Thinking your dog can “just get over it” is an extremely outdated training tactic. Just because your dog appears to stop fighting does NOT mean he is comfortable in that situation… it simply means he has shut down. He’s still anxious and afraid, but he’s decided there’s no point in fighting anymore. This is one of the most dangerous situations your dog may find himself in. He appears “calm,” but a second later has the potential to lash out and bite.
I get it, we are all excited to start public access training! However, the goal for service dog training should always be to create a mentally sound and stable dog in all situations. Subjecting him to situations which cause him fear or panic is just NOT the way to do that.
Hi, my name is Vincent. I’m moving to a small apartment and can’t take my 10 month old German Shepherd, Sasha, with me. She enjoys running and playing but she won’t be happy confined in a concrete jungle. My partner, thankfully, owns a large amount of land with other dogs she can socialize with. I believe that’s the best place for her to be. However, getting her to paradise is the hard part. Please, anything is helpful. I want to see Sasha happy with people who love her as much as I do. Selling her on craigslist is sketchy and especially bad for female dogs who are most likely going to be used as breeders and are poorly treated.
My 9yr old sister with autism and downs syndrome will miss her very much, but we need the money to get her to a good home with people we trust. As I said up above, my boyfriend has offered to take her but I need to pay off her expenses before he can take her and I don’t have the money for it. All funds will be used to pay off her expenses and get her to a good home where I’ll still be able to see her. I will be moving by the end of March and need at least $200 for her to go to the home she deserves. Please, please, I don’t want my dog to go to the wrong people. Anything at all will help Sasha live a happy long life with people who will love her and give her the attention she needs.
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Ivar had a wonderful day out for his first birthday. We went to Petco AND Wilco, where he got to pick out some toys and treats. I gave him a 20-minute-long belly rub/brushing, then we spent three hours at the dog park so he could play around with his friends.
Ivar impresses me unceasingly with his ability to remain calm and collected in public spaces, and while he’s made it clear that he isn’t a fan of being petted by strangers, he’s still willing and eager to take treats from them while we’re in dog-friendly establishments.
Furthermore, Ivar engaged in play at the park today with an Akita, who’s owner exclaimed that “She never plays so happily with any of the others! She’s like a completely different dog with him!”
Thereafter, Ivar astonished even me by letting a couple of kids (maybe 9, 10 years old?) play with and pet him, even if it was only briefly so. He apparently thinks that children are human puppies.
On the way home, I thought of stopping at Dairy Queen for a free ice cream for him, but Ivar was so tired that he fell asleep sprawled across the back seat. I gave him his toy (the “egg” Jolly Ball) when he went back into the containment, and he played with that for a while before crashing in the dog house. I think he’ll be sleeping straight through the night! This big boy is the love of my life.