Category Archives: Dogs

Picture of a tan and white terrier with ears laid back to illustrate signs of stress in dogs

Know the signs of stress in dogs

Do you know the signs of stress in dogs? While every dog is an individual, they all share some common body language that lets you know they’re not happy. Recognizing that your dog is anxious lets you calm the situation before something bad happens.

Every so often we’ll see a shared video on social media that shows a child and the family dog. The video is supposed to show how sweet the relationship is. Oftentimes the child will hug or kiss the dog. Most of these make us cringe while we wait for the dog to bite or snap. If it doesn’t happen, it’s a tribute to that dog’s restraint. When it does, the person taking the video always seems to be astonished. We’re not. We’re dog trainers and we saw it coming a mile away.

Do you recognize typical stress signals in dogs? Most healthy dogs give a good number of warnings that they’re not happy. Dog anxiety manifests in many ways, and most of these videos show multiple examples of the dog’s discomfort with the situation.

What are the signs?

One of the first signs the dog isn’t comfortable is called “whale eye.” It’s when the dog turns their head to the side, still looking in the same direction. Some of the white of their eyes shows and that’s called “whale eye.” It’s usually an early warning signal that allows you to stop whatever’s happening and give the dog time and space. It’s the most common stress signal we see in the child/dog videos. If the people taking the video recognized the sign, the situation wouldn’t escalate into the danger zone.

Another stress sign for dogs is lip-licking. Again, it’s one of the first signs of discomfort and clear to anyone paying attention to the dog’s body language. This is actually an appeasement behavior, indicating “I’ll be good if you give me a chance.” Give your dog the chance.

There are other low-level stress signals dogs give. Yawning, stretching, and scratching all show the dog either doesn’t understand, is unsure, or is unhappy. We often see dogs stopping to scratch during Obedience and Rally classes. Dogs want to get things right. When they’re a bit confused, they’ll stop and scratch their ears. Sometimes it seems like they’re giving themselves time to think things through.

More serious indicators

There are obvious signs that the dog is anxious, wary, or tense. Everybody knows what it means when a dog is growling, snarling, or showing its teeth. Anyone persisting in aggravating the dog at this point is asking for trouble. That dog needs time and space. 

Picture of a tan and white terrier with ears laid back to illustrate signs of stress in dogs

There are all kinds of videos online of people “testing” their dog’s growl or snarl response, teasing them over and over. It’s not funny to harass a dog, even your own, into this highly aroused hostile state. Even if it’s a toothless, old little dog that can’t do any harm. The stress hormones flooding the dog’s system will take days to dissipate. 

Less obvious, but still serious stress signs include when their ears are laid back against their head, staring, slow tail swings, and lowering shoulders. 

Fear signs are stress, too

Fear can also cause dogs to be labeled “aggressive.” When a dog is feeling trapped and doesn’t know what else to do, it can react by growling, lunging, and biting. Fear aggression is usually why little dogs are reactive. Knowing the signs your dog is afraid lets you take action before the situation escalates. Things to look for include drooling, panting, and shivering. Some dogs may also “pancake” to the ground when confronted by something they fear. 

Know and pay attention to your dog’s signs of stress. Most of the time all dogs need to recover their equilibrium is a little time and a little space. That ounce of prevention saves a world of hurt.

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Picture of two dog paws being held to illustrate fuzzy dog feet

Fuzzy dog feet and why it matters

Picture of two dog paws being held to illustrate fuzzy dog feet

Is your dog wearing fuzzy slippers? That’s what we call it when the fur on the bottom of Tango’s feet gets long and starts to cover his toe pads. You can see “before” and “after” in the picture. At (almost) 15 years old, Fran’s Brussels Griffon boy has enough trouble with mobility. He doesn’t need the added obstacle of fuzzy dog feet.

Even if your long-coated dog goes to the groomer on a regular schedule, it may help your dog get around more easily if you trim the fur on their feet between visits. For older dogs, who may not see too well and may have some issues with their joints, it’s a way to make sure they have better traction on hard floors.

Floor covering matters

What to use as floor covering is a balancing act when you have dogs. Hard floors like wood, laminate, tile or vinyl are easier to keep clean and fur-free. On the other hand, they’re not great for traction for the dog. We always cringe a bit when we see videos of people playing fetch with their dogs on hard floors. We don’t think it’s the least bit funny when the dog goes slip-sliding after the ball. 

Unlike people who walk on the soles of their feet, dogs walk on their toes. The pads provide shock absorption and traction and their weight is supported only by the center two toes. The outer toes are non-weight bearing. It’s important to keep your dog’s nails short so their gait doesn’t suffer. If the nails grow past the pads, it has a negative impact on the dog’s ability to walk and run. Their nails shouldn’t hit the floor first. If you always hear the tip-tapping of paws, it’s time to trim their nails. 

Check their toes

If the dog’s fur starts curling around their toe pads, it’s much more slippery for the dog to walk. The coarse skin dogs develop on their pads helps with traction, but the fur can interfere. Even some dogs with short coats, like our own Boston Terriers and French Bulldog, can grow longer fur between their toes that can cause problems with fuzzy dog feet. It’s a quick and easy fix – just take a look and trim off any fur that’s longer than their pads.

If your dog isn’t great for nail trims, or doesn’t like you to touch their paws, you can train them to accept it. Just take it slow. Introduce the concept just by giving the dog a treat when you touch or hold their paws. Having another person holding the dog makes the process easier, but most dogs will accept toe-fur-trimming when they realize it doesn’t hurt.

Tango lies tummy-up on Fran’s lap and falls asleep during the process. If your dog isn’t able to relax for the process, limit how much you do at any one time. If all your dog will allow is one foot, there’s always next time. 

Time for a good look-see

Toe-fur trimming is a good time to check your dog’s feet for any issues. Look for anything abnormal. Over the years we’ve discovered various and sundry little issues that never became big ones. We’ve found swelling and infection at the base of Tango’s nail, Simon skinned a pad, Torque had an ingrown hair between his toes, etc. Caught early, none of these turned into a problem with a vet bill attached. 

The whole toe-fur trimming is all about using an ounce of prevention. Just a couple minutes every few weeks is just a little bit of time that can prevent large problems.

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Close-up of a black Brussels Griffon dog's face to illustrate don't stare at dogs

Don’t stare at dogs

Gazing into each other’s eyes is a great way to connect with your dog. But it has to be your dog. Meeting a strange dog’s eyes can be seen as threatening, intimidating, or even cause for aggression. Unless it’s your dog, just don’t stare at dogs.

Sometimes, it’s not even a good idea to stare at your own dog. One of the exercises we practice in competition Obedience requires the dog to stay for a minute, with you six feet away at the other end of the leash. Some dogs need constant eye contact to maintain the position and reassure them that they’re doing fine. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve trained dogs that would move immediately if you made eye contact. For those dogs, we spend a lot of time looking at the space between their ears. We could see what they were doing, but weren’t looking directly at them.

Stranger danger

That’s one of the ways we developed the technique of looking indirectly at dogs we’re just meeting. It seems contradictory that an animal who considers butt-sniffing the height of polite greetings will take offense if you meet their eyes. But there you have it. 

When meeting a dog for the first time, it’s a good idea to look slightly to the side until they have a chance to get used to you and relax. When we meet dogs who are considered reactive or even aggressive, we try not to look at them at all. Instead, while we chat with their people, we randomly throw treats in front of the dog, never looking directly at them. It’s a good way to defuse the problem before it even happens. 

They started it

Close-up of a black Brussels Griffon dog's face to illustrate don't stare at dogs

It’s kind of funny to us that people can get defensive about iffy encounters they’ve had with dogs. Maybe the dog was staring at you. That doesn’t mean you have to stare back! Ages ago one of our dogs (Whimsy, pictured, a black, smooth Brussels Griffon) was absolutely fascinated by a friend of ours. He would stare at her for as long as she was with us. We would joke about her being “Whimsy TV.”  She’d never done anything negative to him, other than pet him on top of his head, which he loathed. Apparently he decided he had to keep a wary eye on her for the rest of his life. 

Because dogs are all unique, there’s no single good way to train. One of the first exercises in most basic obedience classes is to get the dog to “Watch!” As soon as the dog meets the owner’s eyes, the dog gets a reward. For most dogs, this is a fun game and they learn quickly to stare into their people’s eyes non-stop. They wind up walking almost sideways, trying to maintain eye contact.

But it’s not always the case. Apparently herding dogs, like Shelties, use their stares to get the job done. They intimidate the heck out of whatever they’re herding by staring at them. When we had a Sheltie in class, he was the least confident dog in the house and the other dogs kept him cowed by staring. When the owner tried to teach the dog “Watch!” the poor little guy was terrified. It wasn’t the right match for this team. 

Know your dog

There’s a saying in dog training that you have to “train the dog in front of you.” That translates into accepting your dog for who they are and adapting to your dog’s preferences. If your dog likes meeting your eyes and finds the direct contact reassuring, go right ahead. If, like the little Sheltie, they think it means they’re in trouble, then avoid doing it. 

Funnily enough, the same dogs who avoid eye contact also seem to hate posing for pictures. We’re not sure that dogs recognize a camera lens (or back of a phone) as another eye looking back at them. But we think it’s interesting that they seem to know. 

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Picture of a Brussels Griffon to illustrate old dogs are awesome

Pick your dog battles

When most people plan on getting a dog, they imagine what life will be like. They decide on rules for the dog, where it will sleep, when it will go out, who’s going to do what dog chores, who’s going to train the dog. Then real life happens when your dog arrives home. And you realize you have to pick your dog battles.

This week we read a humor column from a writer in The Trentonian who laid out in detail why, despite his wife’s contrary wishes, he would never allow their dog to sleep in bed. Most of his reasons were based on hygiene concerns. We’ll concede that dogs aren’t the cleanest creatures on the planet. The funny part was the last line (spoiler alert!) “Maybe I’m a Grinch, but there’s no way I am sleeping in the same bed as a hairy, snoring, drooling animal. I have no idea how my wife does it every night.

Reality takes over

The fact of the matter is that your dream dog is just that – they live only in your dreams. Your actual dog has a personality. There are things they like, things they don’t, and a vast array of creative naughtiness that you never imagined until they came home. 

A friend of ours is a good example of expectation vs. reality. Her latest dogs would invariably grab anything out of the bathroom wastebasket and strew used tissues around the house. She couldn’t quite bring herself to let them “win.” So instead of just removing the wastebaskets from the bathrooms, she grabbed everything in the wastebasket as soon as you were out the bathroom door. Once we caught on to what she was doing, we took our bathroom trash to the covered kitchen container ourselves.

Picture of a black Brussels Griffon to illustrate dog battles

One of our absolute dog rules has always been that the dogs must be housebroken. No messing in the house, ever. The only exception would be if the dog was sick. Other than that, the first order of business for every dog on arrival was potty training. It worked for us. And then Tango became an old, wobbly dog who doesn’t always really know when he has to eliminate. So the rules adapt. All dogs must be housebroken except Tango, who we cheerfully clean up after. 

No guarantees

Nobody really has the classic, happy family illustrated by Norman Rockwell. Everybody’s life is a bit messy, a bit disorganized. And some days are definitely smoother than others. No dog is really Lassie, or even Snoopy. But for most of us, the reality is even better than we could have pictured. Because until you know the unconditional love of a dog, you don’t know how precious it is. Until you’ve connected so you’re totally in sync with another being, you can’t even imagine what it’s like. 

If there are absolute lines you don’t want your dog to cross, you have to be not only willing to take the time to teach them, you also have to enforce them. And that’s why you have to pick your dog battles carefully. And decide if it’s a battle worth fighting.

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