Dog Facial Expressions: Can You See the Stress?

A white dog with brown ears lies on a purple mat in a vet clinic. The muscles in the dog's face are very tight and bunched up.

In February 2013, I published a set of photos of formerly feral Clara at the vet. Trainers worldwide have used those photos, with my permission, as examples of extreme stress in a dog’s facial expressions.

Clara was terribly afraid. She panted, paced, and panicked. We were working on desensitization and counterconditioning to people slowly, in much more controlled situations. But every once in a while she had to go to the vet, and we just had to get through it.

Her fear and panic were obvious.

The photos of 16-month-old Lewis in this post were also taken at the vet. Lewis is friendly and enjoys meeting new people, even at the clinic. But Lewis was stressed as well.

I won’t go into arousal vs. distress vs. eustress here, though the interplay of these is a fascinating topic. That’s a post for another day. Nor do I want to get into “how much stress is OK?” or related philosophical and ethical questions.

My focus here is a simpler one: stressed dogs look and behave in many different ways, and some of them can be harder to spot than others.

We always need to look at the whole dog when reading body language, not just a part. We’ll get there. But this is a tricky case, in that we tend to associate the behaviors Lewis is exhibiting with happiness. I think it’s informative to look at a small part—Lewis’ facial muscles—before going to the big picture.

Photos of Stress Face

Maybe this is overkill (who, me, belabor a point?) but every photo below shows bunched-up muscles on Lewis’ right cheek between his eye and his mouth. And the corner of his mouth itself (commissure) was tight. His pupils were dilated. I took many stills from a one-minute video, and they all showed the same thing. Be sure to zoom in on at least one or two of them.

I’m showing the photos before the video on purpose because it may be challenging to see the stress in the video before you know where to look.

Video of Lewis in the Vet’s Exam Room

This is the video from which I grabbed the image stills. As you’ll see, Lewis was bouncing up and down a little, getting on and off his mat. He was gobbling food, and he was wagging his tail in a fairly happy way. He oriented to me most of the time. He was not calm, but at the time, he didn’t seem upset. But now that I have studied the video and stills, his face shows the stress.

Note: partway through the video, I started to toss treats rather than placing them on the mat. This was not a good idea, since tossing treats can add to excitement, and Lewis was already ramped up. I did it only for that brief period, and that was because it was hard to keep him on the camera screen and put treats on the mat at the same time.

What Was Lewis Not Doing?

You’ve seen Lewis now, and can tell he was excited and tense. How does his behavior compare to Clara’s, or that of another terrified dog? Here are some things he wasn’t doing.

• He wasn’t constantly panting.
• He wasn’t trembling.
• He wasn’t pacing; he just got up and down a few times.
• He wasn’t frantically looking for a way out of the room.
• He wasn’t licking his lips constantly or having trouble swallowing.
• He wasn’t hypervigilant. He oriented to sounds, but didn’t startle.
• He wasn’t flushed or shedding.

If you’d like to see the comparison, this short video includes footage of Clara’s February 2013 visit to the vet where she was so frightened.

Greeting the Vets

Back to Lewis.

It’s always such a bother when you have to drop the camera to participate in real life, isn’t it? When the vets came in, I couldn’t film Lewis’ over-the-top greeting. What you can briefly see is that I grabbed his harness firmly, so he couldn’t cannonball into the vets. Again, having a dog who likes people is awesome. But his greetings verge on frantic, and show he is not entirely comfortable with the situation.

Look at his ear movement before and after the vets entered the room.

In the photo on the left, a vet turned the handle on the door and Lewis was watching and listening, with his ears lifted forward. In the photo on the right, the door was open, and humans were visible. Lewis’ ears dropped, and you can catch briefly on the video that his tail was wagging wildly. As he greeted the vets (not shown), he exhibited puppy-like appeasement behaviors. He crouched low to the ground and flattened his ears as he shot forward. I would approximate what was going on with him as saying both, “Hi, I love you!” and “Please don’t hurt me!”

A Final Look: That “Open Mouth” Thing

This last comparison is fun. Marge Rogers and I, in our book about puppy socialization, talk a lot about looking for an open mouth and relaxed jaw in puppy body language. An open mouth is one of the easiest indicators a pup is relaxed and comfortable in a situation. But there is always nuance.

In the photo on the left, Lewis was sunning himself on the grass in the winter. The weather was cool, and his mouth was shut. But look at his soft eyes and smooth face. He was relaxed, only perhaps a little curious to see what I was up to. Here is the uncropped photo in case you want to see the rest of his relaxed body language.

In the photo on the right from the vet clinic series, Lewis’ mouth is open. But is he relaxed and comfortable? Hell no. There are those bunched muscles and tight mouth. You can even see the tightness in his lower lip. This is the opposite of the relaxed jaw we look for when trying to determine whether a dog is comfortable and happy in a situation.

This is a comparison collage of two pictures. Both show the same white dog with brown ears and ticking. In the photo on the left, the dog's facial muscles are relaxed. In the photo on the right, the dog's mouth is open but his facial muscles are very tense and bunched up.

It’s new for me to live with a dog whose stress can look like happy excitement (or for whom the two commonly combine). Now I know one “tell” to look for. Stay tuned for further adventures!

Related Posts

Dog Facial Expressions: Stress
Shelter Puppy “Smiles” from FEAR after She’s Adopted
Dog Body Language Is Crucial to Puppy Socialization
Is That “Smiling” Dog Happy?
Does a Wagging Tail Mean a Happy Dog?
Dog Body Language Posts and Videos

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

14 thoughts on “Dog Facial Expressions: Can You See the Stress?

  1. It is the quality of movement and expression. It’s always in context with other things. 🙂

  2. Mine are pretty similar – one doesn’t like strangers and so the vet is hard for that reason, while the other loves people but had a bad experience at a previous vet (I wasn’t present, but apparently they restrained her to close a surgery site that had reopened and she struggled, tried to bite, and peed on the floor during it). So I see a ton of frantic appeasement and “stressing up” at the vet with her, while my other one shakes and tries to hide. For the shy dog, medication has been a huge help, as well as things like entering the room with the techs instead of having them enter a small space with him. For the frantic one, we do lots of happy visits and work on relaxation exercises like settling on a may when we’re waiting. I’ve considered asking about medication for her as well – while she doesn’t have as many obvious signs as the shy dog, it’s still clear she has stress there that isn’t being alleviated with DS/CC alone.

    1. Alex, thanks for sharing this! Really great descriptions and I’m glad you are able to help them both. We’re still trying to find a anxiolytic that can help Clara.


  3. Very good description of stress expressions. I would note that some dogs refuse treats or any food when stressed even from their owner. Other dogs sometimes seem to take the treats in an effort to calm themselves. I realize this is conjecture on my part. 60+ years a handler, trainer, owner have shown me these responses. The taking of the treats can differ from a usual gentle take or “happy grab” to a almost frantic grab or repeated quick taking which will seem different from the usual behavior to the owner/handler.

    1. Stacey, really good points! Also a coincidence that I have a post that I’m working on about treat taking. Clara takes treats hard in some stress situations, and ultra-soft (as in, almost not eating it) in others. I’m always amazed at how long she continues to eat when she is upset. For other dogs (I’m thinking of my Zani), eating is the first thing to go.

      Interesting topic for sure!


  4. Wow, this is super helpful. I saw Lewis’s open mouth at first and then the wrinkle on the right side of his face, before I read the article. It did confuse me. I’m working to help our rescue girl, Lizzie, with separation anxiety. I watch her on camera when I leave, gradually increasing her exposure time of being left. I think I missed some body and facial language that was subtle that she was getting anxious. I pressed on to 44 minutes, and she had a huge regression. I went all the way back to 12 minutes, 6 weeks ago, and she now is laying down by the door comfortable at 25 minutes.
    Eileen, this blog, and several others of yours around facial expressions and body language would be so helpful for the training program I’m following to help dogs overcome separation anxiety by Julie Naismith. I’ll send you a private message about that soon.
    Thank you so much for posting this blog with awesome photos and video.

  5. This is a really helpful and well-illustrated post, Eileen.

    Here’s a similar observation: we brush our dogs’ teeth, and our highly reactive (late, great) Habi had such tight lips that it was hard to get the toothbrush inside them. Her Zen Master buddy Bandit had loose lips. Fast forward to today – reactive Rowan (only 10% as reactive as Habi) has tight lips after a stressful day, and not-so-tight (but never loose) lips after an easy day. Her happy, relaxed buddy Obi has floppy, loose lips. Three are/were border collies; Bandit was an Aussie. So it seems that dogs can carry a LOT of stress in those commissure muscles.

    Happy Hanukkah, winter solstice, Christmas, and/or Kwanzaa! Your posts are such gifts to all of us!

    1. Chris, that is fascinating, and wonderful that you were so observant! I’ve brushed three or four dogs’ teeth—can’t remember about Summer—but I didn’t notice that particular difference. I need to get back to brushing. 😁

      Thanks for the observant and positive comment, as always!


  6. Just got around to reading this today – the holidays kept me busy.

    The open vs. shut mouth thing really threw me off when I got Nanuk. Dolce, my last dog, used that a LOT in her communication with me. No matter how cold it was, she would open her mouth at least slightly when she was relaxed and happy. She would pant ever so softly while doing it. I could tell when I did something she didn’t like (such as wandering off instead of continuing to cuddle) because her mouth would snap shut, only to reopen the instant I changed my behavior. So, I guess she used it as a marker? She was one of those rare dogs who actually enjoyed hugs, and I never had to worry about not being able to see her face while doing so because I could hear the shape of her mouth in her breathing.

    A few months after she died, I got Nanuk. His mouth has a different shape – his upper lip is so short, I can often see the tips of his upper canines even when he’s relaxed. This happens more frequently when he’s lying down, but he doesn’t have to be on his back, just his side is enough. Sometimes it even happens when he’s sitting. What counts as a tooth display had to be recalibrated. But the bigger difference is that he almost always has a closed mouth. Unless he’s actively panting, it’s closed. And he only pants when he’s either stressed or exercising. I used to think he was constantly unhappy because of his closed mouth, and then misinterpreted his stressed pant with happiness because it sounds/looks too much liked the pant Dolce did when she was excited in a joyful way.

    I noticed that in the video Lewis vocalizes in a way that I associate with stress. Is that also a stress sign from him?

    1. Hi Martin,
      That’s really interesting about your two dogs. Their mouths can show us so much. Here is a photo of Lewis in extreme overarousal.
      Brown and white dog with his mouth pulled into a straight line. The city siren was going off.

      And yes, that vocalization was part stress, at least. I think there was some demand in there. He came with that installed, and I avoid reinforcing it, except in situations like this where I felt I needed to. So the behavior stays alive, sigh.

      Thanks for the comment!


  7. As always, Eileen, you give me a new way to look at something I know. When I look at the first photo of Lewis, I can see the stress, but what I am looking at is the corners of his mouth. They are pulled pretty far back-too far for this to be a relaxed, happy pant. I am not an anatomist (anybody out there?) but it seems like those bunched up muscles are what pull the corners of the mouth back. So we are see two sides of the same physical change. Interesting, and it gives me one more thing to look at.

    1. Lisa, I think you are exactly right. Also check out the photo I posted in Martin’s comment. An extreme version!


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