How Do You Know When Your Dog Is Stressed?

She doesn’t bite her nails. Or twist her hair into knots.

How can we tell if our dog Honey is stressed?


Honey the golden retriever in her life jacket in the boat at Hampton dock.

Uh oh, the lady dressed me in my life jacket. I guess it’s a travel day.


Looking For Signs

Every day we watch Honey, looking for signs of stress.

It’s not easy.

Honey is a sweet and adaptable dog with an intense desire to please.

When we were fostering puppies, we had to step in when one little stinker or another would use Honey’s tail as a tug toy. And Honey will endure a lot from a humping wannabe before she puts her paw down and insists on being left alone.

Zoe the foster puppy nips Honey the golden retriever.

It’s a good thing I’m so patient, Zoe.

Because Honey will put up with so much, we have to make sure we advocate for her. Because she will not advocate for herself.

But that changed the other day.

Everything Is Better Together

Honey is not a morning dog.

On days that we have to leave early to sail to a new spot, we have to wake her up early to have breakfast and a walk before we go. She even looks a little surly about it.

Eventually we figured out that if she’s happy sleeping, we’d just leave her below in the cabin on those early morning days. For one thing, it’s one less body to trip over while we’re trying to pull in lines and steer away from a dock in high winds.

Honey the golden retriever sleeps with bear in the cabin.

It’s too early. Bear and I will just hang out here in the cabin.

Most of the time it works out fine. But not when we were leaving Hampton, Virginia.

We set out in high winds. And as we left the shelter of the harbor and into the shipping lanes we found ourselves bounced about by strong waves. Now we were really glad we had left Honey in the safety of the cabin. But she had other ideas.

For one thing, she couldn’t get comfortable. Even under motor, the waves kept knocking her onto the floor.

When I wasn’t needed on the cockpit to look out for way markers or big boats, I’d go below and try to comfort Honey. When we couldn’t be with her, Honey would cry and try to climb the steep companionway ladder.

At one point, I climbed down and crouched on the floor next to the ladder. Honey crawled up and settled all 50 pounds into my lap. We sat that way until the waves calmed down and I could bring her up into the cockpit with us again.

That day was the first time I’ve seen Honey show major signs of stress. She wasn’t even this upset on the day it took us all day to sail back to safety after fouling our propeller.

Mike at the helm with a container ship behind.

Luckily Honey didn’t see the giant floating building (some people call them container ships) sneaking up behind us.

How My Dog Shows Her Stress

So what are Honey’s stress signs?

Like many dogs, panting is one. And this last trip, I heard a sound I’d never heard before: whining.

But Honey’s biggest sign of stress is also a sign of affection. When Honey feels scared she crawls as close to us as she can.

I’m not a good enough writer to explain the difference. But I can feel it. And it makes me feel terrible.

Honey the golden retriever dozes in the cockpit.

Now that things are quiet again, I just want to be as close to my people as possible.
Of course, that’s what I always want.

Helping A Stressed Dog

I don’t want Honey to feel bad on the boat. It has to be fun for all of us.

So what can I do to help my dog when she feels stress?

Remove the stressor

Believe me, if I could have, I would have stopped the wind and waves. But we can plan our travel.

That day, we had talked about leaving a day earlier because the wind would have been lower. Perhaps we’ll have to revisit the question of how high a wind is too high a wind.

Help her calm herself

We’re big fans of Nylabones. They’re like puppy pacifiers. And it helps Honey get some stress out.

Reward her resilience

When we finally get back to shore, no matter how tired we are, Honey gets play time. And she certainly takes advantage of it—after she rolls on the ground gratefully.

Stress is a normal part of life. We all experience it.

While we don’t want our dogs to feel stress, sometimes the best we can do is give them the best tools possible to cope until things calm down. We also must make sure they aren’t under constant stress because of circumstances we’re able to change.

I’ll definitely keep Honey’s comfort in mind as we plan our trips. And make sure I always leave room on my lap for a stressed puppy.

Your Turn: How can you tell when your dog is stressed? What do you do for him or her?


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  1. My own dog, when stressed, often stands up and puts her paws on me. This happens at places like dog shows, or an expo where we are representing the breed or breed rescue. She just seems to want to be above the other dogs, like a human, with her paws on me. She isn’t even leaning on me, just touching me with those front feet. I’ve had people tell me I shouldn’t let her do that, but she’s already stressed if she is doing it, so I let her stand there as long as she feels she needs to.
    My newest foster dog, when being assessed by other people in her home, panted and paced. She was being given up because they don’t have time for her, and they thought she was pacing because she needed more exercise. Five children under the age of 9 live in that house, and this dog was stressed. I don’t blame the owners for not recognizing stress–they probably never had time to actually sit down and look at her. Her first day here, she slept a lot. But yesterday, I took her on a home visit to people who want to adopt from our organization, and really saw her inner puppy come out! After getting over her initial terror, she pounced on toys and shook them, squeaked them, and generally ruled the world.

    • What an interesting response to stress you dog has. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. How smart of you to give her the freedom to destress despite what other people say.

      Hope your foster pup ends up in an un-stressful home as well. She sounds like a lovely girl looking for a chance to be a fun and relaxed dog.

  2. Pacing is one sign, yawning and panting are others.

  3. Great post! It’s nice to read about someone else’s experience, because it’s similar to my own with regard to recognizing signs of stress in our dogs.

    All of my dogs show stress first with concerned looks, then with yawning, and then with affection. They’ve always been this way. I’ve learned what triggers stress in our home and try to circumvent these things. I’ve learned to never encourage their stress (which I have a bad habit of doing); instead, I act totally normal, talking to them in my normal voice while allowing them to get close to me. This helps them settle down more and relax.

    • I also believe that we need to signal calm to our dogs.

      During our worst day on the water, I remember steering in high winds with the boat’s rails in the water while vomiting over the side and calling out to Honey, “Good girl, puppy. You’re doing great. ”

      I never knew what a good liar I was. 🙂

  4. Duster I don’t think has ever experienced stress. Zach is more tightly wound. He shows stress by restlessness, panting, and the expression on his face. He will seek to get close to us, and we facilitate that.

    • I wonder if Duster’s nonchalance helps keep Zach calmer than he would be on his own?

      And yes, I’m sure you don’t mind cuddling your stressed pup one little bit, do you? 🙂

  5. The Poodles are never stressed. Chamois, the generic dog, is stressed by fireworks and thunder even though we have explained the reason for celebrations and the principle of thunder. We’ve done everything to calm her, but she does a circuit from each of us to under the bed back to us…

  6. Once again, nose work has been a big help with this. Mom now knows pretty well what we each do when we are stressed. It is quite interesting and helpful to know.

    • Yep, when dogs use their noses, a whole different part of their brain turns on. I definitely see how it could help with stress.

      Honey also responds well when we do trick training when she’s anxious. Of course, I can’t do that and sail the boat at the same time. 🙂

  7. With Ziva I hold her, stroke her, talk to her, and try to get her to focus on something else by using her magical tennis ball to get her attention. 🙂

    Not much bothers Dante, but when he’s stressed he just wants to snuggle.

    • I just saw your awesome trick videos.

      Honey doesn’t usually mind thunder but once night we had a really severe one that made her anxious. I did some training with her which calmed her right down. Perhaps it would work for Ziva? Especially now that you have so many cool things to work on.

      Yep, I’d have guessed Danta would be a good snuggler. Hopefully he also enjoys it when he’s not stressed out. 🙂

  8. BJ Pup (Lynda) says:

    BJ is a lot calmer now that he’s 16 and doesn’t hear loud noises because he’s slightly hard of hearing. When he was younger and became stressed he would jump on my lap or squeeze between the arm of the club chair and me. It was a tight fit but the snugness of it made him feel better. I let him stay as long as he wanted. Frankly, the warmth of his body was calming for me too.

    • Many people wrap babies up in tight bundles to calm them. So it’s not surprising to hear that BJ finds that closeness comforting as well.

      And yes, it definitely works both ways. 🙂

  9. Silver never used to get stressed at loud noises, like thunder, but as she has aged some she gets nervous about it now and comes to me. I play find it with treats to keep her distracted and it works. Or she lays close to me.

    • Yep, allowing Silver to use her nose looking for treats is a very smart way to deal with stress. Hopefully she doesn’t have too many stressful moments.

      And of course snuggling is good for both of you.

  10. Oh poor Honey! I probably would of been a little nervous with the high winds, too! Zoe and Phoenix are also not morning dogs. 🙂

    Zoe shows her stress by whining. She will also “blush” the skin around her eyes and ears will turn red. Phoenix tends to look “pukey” when she’s anxious, her eyes also tend to get buggy.

    • If Phoenix looks “pukey” when anxious, how do you know if she’s sick or worried?

      • Usually because her eyes get buggy and also you can see the “whale eye” (white part showing).

        I do tend to have a hard time telling when my dogs are sick. Usually Phoenix will just throw up if she’s not feeling well. If I suspect someone is wrong, I will also take their temperature and check their gums. One huge thing for at least Phoenix is if she goes off her food at all. That dog lives to eat.

  11. Ruby is clingy when she is stressed, too.

    Boca is more subtle, but she always tucks her tail. Her big nemesis – fireworks – causes her to pant and pace.

    • Maybe Boca is showing her Italian side. Did you read the articles about a town in Italy that will be using silent fireworks? Sounds awesome to me.

  12. Great post! Harley uses his eyes. They have a way of haunting me because they become big – huge and he will not take his eyes off of me. I know it instantly. Jaxson is still pretty young and hasn’t really been stressed out much 🙂 He will start to cry though when he’s not happy (not sure if it’s stress yet) but it hasn’t happened that often yet.

    • Isn’t it amazing how much a dog will communicate with his eyes? And many dogs don’t make long eye contact. So this is probably a pretty Harley-specific thing.

      Jax has gotten a great start in life. Let’s hope he’s such a happy boy he doesn’t ever feel any real stress.

  13. You are wise to let ‘sleeping dogs lie.’ 🙂 That said, Sam displays stress with the typical excessive panting and adds shaking to it whenever he rides in the car. He truly LOVES the idea of riding but as soon as the key turns, he becomes 60 lbs. of stressed poodle. Luckily he lies in the back seat until the car is turned off and bounds out completely oblivious to the torture he had to endure. This scenario plays out every. single. time. Thankfully he still wants to travel with me in the car. I guess for him the destination is much better than the journey. 🙂 With you smooth sailing this weekend. ღ

    • Wow, it’s amazing that Sam gets into the car with you at all. He must have some highly evolved sense that whatever is waiting at the end of the trip is worth the anxiety. Or he just trusts you that much. 🙂

      Thanks for the sailing wishes. Unfortunately, we were waiting for a swing bridge to open and let us through when our gear shift cable failed. We motored back to the marina with my husband’s head in the engine compartment and feet up in the air shifting by hand while I steered us back onto the dock.

      So no smooth sailing. But at least our marriage survived what could have been a very bad moment. 🙂

  14. Aw, that sounds like a rough morning for you and Honey. Haley comes to me when she’s stressed or not feeling well. She’s got the whole ears back, sorry look on her face and if she’s really stressed her tail is tucked.

    Isn’t it the best feeling in the world to make a stressed dog feel better? Even if you can’t change the wind, waves or whatever is stressing them out, they’re happier knowing you’re close by and that you care.

  15. Mostly we see panting or pacing when the dogs are stressed. Sheba will also paw at me when in a new situation, so I try to get down on her level and reassure her. Keeping her moving sometimes helps, but I know that’s not an option for you on the boat! With Cricket I can sometimes distract her by giving her a ball, her favorite toy.

  16. When I get stressed I like to sit real close to mummy and daddy. They were worried about me over christmas as we had lots of visitors and we were out of our routine and I wasn’t quite myself, so they got me an adaptil plug-in thing. It seems to work really well. Maybe it w0uld help Honey too?

  17. Fozzie is very similar to Honey! When he gets worried he climbs on top of us or as close to a human body as he can get. It makes for some very hot and uncomfortable (and damp, from the drool) summer thunderstorms.

    I’ve been thinking of you lately as the weather gets into the frigid range for the first time this East Coast winter. You are brave humans and dog for living on your boat!

  18. Callie used to climb into my lap – if I was sitting – or wedge herself between my legs during thunderstorms. Bless her heart, she hated storms! But I let her stay wherever she was and reassured her that I’d protect her until she felt better. If the storm came at night, she would climb up on the bed with me and try to crawl into the headboard. I usually just got her to lay down next to me, and I wrapped myself around her in a fetal-like position. And then gave her a relaxation massage and whispered reassurances in her ear. She usually calmed down enough to move away from me and go to sleep.

  19. My dog’s body language tells the story – ears back, posture low, generally looking like she’s trying to disappear. Because she was like that *all the time* when we first adopted her, we know the signs very very well. She had a long (3 yr) rehabilitation period. Our rule is that “it’s always her choice”. If she looks nervous, I don’t let people approach her – I tell them that she will approach them when she’s ready. If she’s too scared to get out of the car, that’s fine. We can wait until she’s ready (unless we’re at vet appt!). That’s a lot harder in your situation… except for taking every opportunity to let Honey make a choice of how she wants to ride out a rough patch (if her choice is safe and you can spare a person to watch out for her). Could you do something like prepare frozen stuffed kongs ahead of time to occupy her during the rough patches?

    I knew nothing about fear in dogs until I met my Shyla. “It’s your choice…” truly saved her. We never force her to do anything. My trainer taught me this approach, and I love it! Maybe you can think of ways to incorporate it.

    • Lots of wisdom here that we’re trying hard to incorporate on the boat.

      We have had her up in the cockpit a few times when it was rough because that’s what she wanted. It meant that if one of us left the cockpit (to trim a sail or make lunch), the other had to keep one hand on Honey’s life jacket handle. But it can be tough.

      I do keep bully sticks as treats. But I worry they could be dangerous in the wrong conditions (as could be a heavy Kong; everything in a seaway becomes a projectile). I’ll have to figure out something long lasting and safe.

      No freezer so we can’t prepare frozen treats.

      Of course, my first goal is to only go out when it’s comfortable and safe. But more than once we’ve gotten out on the bay when the marine forecast told us to expect 1-2 foot waves and they actually got over 8 feet! Unfortunately, 6-8 foot waves in the shallow bay feels more like 12-15 feet in the ocean. Ugh.

  20. Domino is a stress machine (he was in a shelter for 3 years and is getting better, but…). He will pant, lick his lips, yawn, make little mewling noises, and he especially likes scratching the floor (like he’s burying his poop, but he hasn’t gone to the bathroom).

  21. How to tell when laid back dogs show stress? That’s a hard one. Leroy sounds a lot like Honey because he’s normally a very go with the flow kind of dog. Over the years I’ve learned that when he’s stressed he becomes like velcro to me. He’ll even look at me more, almost like he’s looking for reassurance. Sherman’s a ball of stress. He’s like a human that way and has several different signs.