Are holidays stressful? Stress is not necessarily a bad thing; stress is simply what happens when an animal’s physiological state changes from homeostasis. The cause may be experienced as a positive thing (eustress) or a negative thing (distress). The holidays, with tempting novel foods, unfamiliar people, and unusual activities, bring multiple stressors for dogs. Learning your dog’s language helps you decipher his feelings and keep everyone happier.
People often think a wagging tail means a happy dog; in reality, a wagging tail may also express discomfort, nervousness, and other distress.
The standard happy dog tail-wag usually has a wide sweep, and recent science suggests that a tail sweeping to the dog’s right of his rear suggests the dog has positive feelings about a person or situation whereas a left sweep suggests negative feelings.
A small (not wide) wag suggests the dog is friendly but tentative, as when meeting a new person, while a very tight wag may predict a coming fight or flight response to a stimulus.
Generally, a tucked tail or a very low tail (exceptions are dogs with naturally low-slung tails like greyhounds) suggests fear, worry, or expresses “I’m not a threat” (so long as nothing is done to make the dog feel threatened).
A tail held at the dog’s natural or neutral position — generally lower than the spine — suggests the dog is relaxed.
A tail held horizontally suggests attention or alert.
A high held tail may imply a warning. (Context must be considered and exceptions recognized for breeds with naturally high tails.)
A tail held straight up may be a portend of threat. You can see why tail docking is not ideal; docking a tail also docks the dog’s ability to communicate. Ear cropping bears similar risk. A dog’s ears tell us a lot about how they feel and can help us, if we correctly read and heed the signals. Again, there are breed-specific exceptions, but generally if a dog moves ears sideward, pins them back, or flattens them, he is experiencing distress and may be anxious, nervous, or afraid; ears up and forward suggest interest or alert.
Then there are tummy rubs. A dog rolls over, presenting his belly; obviously he wants a tummy rub, right? Actually, oftentimes that dog is concerned about a situation, person, or other animal, and the belly exposure is a signal of peace and a request: “Please don’t hurt me.” Receiving this appeasement gesture, the better thing would be to give space. To read the roll over, look for compaction versus expansion. A dog seeking tummy rubs will be open in body — legs and tail flailed outward, possibly the tongue. If the dog looks away, holds any paws or limbs in toward his body, and/or tucks his tail, it might be best to resist. Sometimes lip and nose licking, or ears pressed back against the neck (in breeds whose ears are not set in that position naturally), also are appeasement gestures.
A dog performing out of context behaviors — licking, panting, scratching, yawning, or sniffing, when not eating, exercising, itchy, sleepy, or on an exploratory adventure — is using displacement as a coping mechanism, signaling distress. Other signs of general doggy distress include pacing, hypervigilance, subtle and not so subtle cowering, furrowed brows, moving or turning away, often with whale eye (that’s when the whites of the eyes show as the dog gazes at the stressor while his head faces away), and moving in slow motion.
Additionally, a dog that refuses favorite treats is probably distressed. Dilated eyes are another sign of distress, and a direct, prolonged stare, signaling intense focus on a subject, may mean a heightened risk of aggression. Avoid scolding or punishing for these signals; to do so removes a dog’s options to warn or ask for help, and these requests and warnings are what keep a dog in communication and out of feeling forced to protect himself.
The holidays can be overwhelming. There’s just so much going on at once. Perhaps this is why Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings can end up scenes of unfortunate incidents between humans: Bombardment with multiple stressors can lead to out-of-character behavior. In canine behavior we call this phenomenon “trigger stacking,” and it can lead to a surprising bite or warning of same even from the most mellow, non-aggressive dog. Knowing your dog’s triggers and not putting him in situations where he is surrounded by triggers can help keep the holidays peaceful and happy for both of you. Stack presents, not triggers.
Rain Jordan, KPA CTP, is a certified dog trainer professional. Visit her at https://www.elevatedogtraining.com.