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!

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Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson