Want A Happy Boat Dog? Know These Surprising Signs of Stress

How do you know your boat dog is happy? Do they look relaxed and comfortable? Or are they showing signs of stress you may not recognize?

Looking for signs of stress in our boat dog as she poses with a frog sculpture.

I’m not stressed. But I am confused. Why do my people make me do these strange things?

Every Dog Shows Stress Differently

Some signs of stress are so obvious anyone, even if they aren’t a dog lover, recognizes them. No one could see a dog pacing in a kennel or whining and think they were happy.

But some signs of stress are subtle. That’s why you need to know the surprising ways dogs show stress so you can keep them happy.

My Honey is such a cheerful and sweet girl. She has whined fewer times than I have fingers on both hands.

And Honey loves going anywhere she can meet people. That’s why I was surprised to see wet marks on the floor of the vet’s office. Yes, Honey’s paws were sweating. And sweaty paws are a sign of stress.

Because Honey is a low-key girl, I’ve had to get much smarter at recognizing when she was feeling stress. And it’s also why we prepared her for years before moving onto our boat.

If you’re doing something new with your dog, whether it’s going boating or going to the vet, watch for all the ways dogs exhibit stress.

How Dogs Show Stress

Which of these behaviors does your dog show when they’re feeling stress?

Pacing – This is a pretty extreme sign of stress. If your dog is pacing, you’ve probably missed some more subtle signs building up to it. This is the behavior you see in zoo animals confined in a small space.

Shaking – For most dogs, this is also a severe stress signal. But some small dogs will shake relatively easily. You need to know your dog to know how severe their stress is if you see them shaking.

Whining – Some dogs whine for attention. Others, like Honey, only whine if they are feeling distress. If I hear Honey whine, I pay attention.

Yawning – This is one stress sign even experienced people miss. Stress yawning may be combined with other stress signs like licking or turning away.

Licking – Often seen in combination with other signs, a dog licking his lips might be under stress. Or she might have just eaten a tablespoon of peanut butter.

Scratching – When Honey feels too restricted by her leash, she’ll sit down and scratch. Sometimes she does it when our family separates on a walk. For her, it’s a mild sign of stress. But one we pay attention to and always address.

Turning Their Head or Body Away – This stress sign usually accompanies meeting a dog or person. It’s the first sign I see from Honey that she’d prefer not to spend time around someone we’ve just met. And it’s one that other dog people rarely recognize as a sign of stress.

Hiding – We’ve met plenty of small boat dogs who respond to Honey walking nearby by hiding behind the legs of their person. When we see it, we ask Honey to lie down or alter our course to make the small dog more comfortable. But very few people recognize their dog’s behavior as a sign of his stress.

Paws Sweating – You can’t usually tell your dog’s paws are sweating unless you look carefully. It is nearly impossible to see on a boat. But look for it the next time you’re waiting in the vet’s office.

Barking – Dogs bark for a lot of reasons—to raise an alarm, cope with boredom, to communicate, or to get attention. But they also bark when they’re feeling stressed. Honey is prone to FOMO (fear of missing out) barking. She’ll let out a woof or two if we talk to someone too long on a dock without bringing her up to join the conversation. We don’t necessarily bow to her wishes. But we do address her stress.

Honey the golden retriever needs a lift into the cockpit.

There is something going on and I’m missing out. I need a lift.

Whale Eye – If your dog rolls her eyes back so you see a lot of white, they’re probably showing stress. It’s something experienced dog trainers look for. But many owners don’t see it as a sign of stress.

Relieving Themselves – Some dogs will pee or poop under extreme stress. If your dog is doing this in a stressful situation, they have probably shown other stress signals earlier.

Focusing On Something Else – If your dog suddenly starts sniffing a spot or scratching his genitals in a tense situation, they may be trying to avoid stress. This is a very subtle stress signal. But the better you know your dog, the more easily you’ll recognize it.

Keeping Your Dog From Being Stressed On A Boat

If you want to keep your dog happy on board instead of stressed, you need to do two things:

  1. Prepare your dog in advance for new things so they don’t find them so stressful.
  2. Remove the stressor when you see your dog responding to it.

Prepping Your Dog For New Things

Honey has a timid nature. If we had moved her onto the boat without training her in advance, she would have found the experience terrifying.

We followed a careful plan to prepare Honey for our boating adventure.

No one should assume their dog won’t feel scared the first time they step onto a boat. After all, a boat makes strange noises and moves far differently than a car.

The more fearful a dog, the slower you need to expose them to new things. And don’t forget the best training advice: if you think you’re going slow enough, go slower.

Take Away The Stressor

There are some old-fashioned trainers who think that if you remove your dog from something they hate, you’re letting them “get away with something.”

No, you’re giving them a chance to recover their comfort until you can train them to increase their confidence.

So if you see your dog exhibiting a sign of stress, take the stressor away. Then make your plan for helping your dog face it with more confidence in the future.

Honey the golden retriever naps without stress.

My only stress is trying to figure out how I can get my nap in with this camera in my face.

A Happy Boat Dog

Knowing how your dog expresses stress will help you have a happy boat dog. But even if you’d sooner walk on nails than board a boat with your dog, keep an eye out for signs of stress.

Because when you love your dog, you feel stress when they do.

Your Turn: How does your dog show stress? And when?


  1. Poor Shadow gets stressed going to the vet. Unfortunately, that’s one stressor I can’t move her away from or avoid altogether; so, when she must go, I do my best to relieve at least some of the stress. And so does the vet and his wonderful staff. She usually responds well to our efforts.

    • As we both know, managing our dogs’ stress is partly training and partly management. And in the end, they’re individuals like we are.

      Glad you have a good vet that helps Shadow feel as comfortable as possible.

  2. What a pawsome and comprehensive list and accompanying description of stress signs. There are the obvious ones but now I’m going to really probe more into some of the more subtle ones I’ve seen.

    • Yeah, I was really surprised by the wet paws. And it made me pay more attention to other signs. It would be interesting to see your list for Sam and Elsa. I imagine they each have their own, unique stress signals.

  3. I know Bailie didn’t do well on the Chicago boat tour last summer. She tried to crawl under the next row of seats! Madison was great until she got hit in the face with a wave. Luckily it was not a real long ride! Mom knows our stress signs pretty well.

    • Bailie and Madison’s experience shows that riding on a boat can be a bigger deal than many people think. That must have been quite a ride if Madison actually got water in her face. I’d expect a Chicago boat tour would be calmer than that.

  4. Great post! Sometimes dogs are so obvious with their stress, other times it’s very subtle. Luke can be pretty obvious with his, but I have to watch him closely to make sure I’m not missing the times it’s less so. I wonder if I’ve missed times of his scratching when he’s stressed, because I wasn’t really aware of that one. I’ll watch for it now.
    It took me years of living with beagles to realize that they would shake like a leaf, even just when feeling a little bit “off”. I had to get over panicking every time they’d shake…sometimes their bellies were just a little upset…but they can be very dramatic! Knowing your individual dog is SO important!

    • We fostered some beagles who shook. And I’ve seen it commonly in chihuahuas. We really do need to know our own pups. Surprisingly, many people don’t.

      BTW, I loved your food post over at your site. But the internet gremlins ate it. Just wanted to let you know.

  5. http://Meagan%20&%20Merlin says

    Merlin whines when we are in one spot too long. He also whines or stares when he wants to go outside. He whines for attention as well. He whines when he sees a dog or person he wants to flirt with. So it’s important for us to work out the context of why he’s whining because he does it for different reasons.