How to manage an anxious dog at the vets
how to manage an anxious dog

How to manage an anxious dog at the vets

Introducing Rosie: Rosie Bescoby BSc (Hons), PG Dip CABC, CCAB is a fully qualified clinical animal behaviourist. She has a degree in Zoology and Psychology from the University of Bristol and a postgraduate diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour counselling from Southampton University. She's an ASAB certified clinical animal behaviourist, a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors and a member of the Professional Association of Canine Trainers and registered as both a clinical animal behaviourist and as an animal training instructor with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.


So let's just start off with thinking about what is difficult for dogs about the veterinary practice. Obviously dogs navigate their world through scent and I think one of the one of the biggest things when they enter the vet practice is the influx of olfactory information.

What is difficult for dogs about the veterinary practice?

  • olfactory information
  • flooring
  • unfamiliar people
  • other animals
  • unusual appearance of unfamiliar people
  • restrictions in behaviour
  • lack of consent in being touched/intense handling
  • pain is present or caused
  • separation from caregiver
  • isolation/confinement

Frustration (in)tolerance

What is frustration and why is it relevant?

Be mindful of how our behaviour can induce frustration.

Ladder of aggression

How a dog responds to a threat


  • barks/lunges
  • growls/lip curls


  • stiffen/stare

Faff about:

  • rolling over/urinating
  • pretending
  • jumping up
  • creeping/smiling
  • frantic tail wag


  • turn away/run away

Calming signals:

  • ears back
  • head turn
  • blinking
  • yawning
  • licking
  • paw raise
  • shake off


The flight response is turning their head away from something but alongside this type of behaviour, there's curving. It's this constant curvature behaviour that a dog will do to indicate that they're not a threat.

  • C in posture or direction of travel
  • frequent looking away
  • blinking/squinty eyes
  • yawning
  • lip licking
  • ground sniffing
  • lowering head/body
  • slow movements


Yawning is a measure of stress or conflict. Sometimes a yawn is just a yawn. But if the yawn is in response to social pressure, it's probably a calming signal.

It is often observed due to anxiousness, indecision, or conflict.

A yawn could be considered an exaggerated lip lick.

Sometimes it is a self-soothing mechanism.


Dogs will pant when the ambient temparture is warm or when they've done physical exercise. But if neither of those things are true and the dog is panting, I would always be questioning whether it's a stress response.

You can tell a stress pant from a non-stressed pant because the stress pant involves other body language signs associated with stress.

The corners of the lips are generally pulled much further back; there's a lot more tension around the mouth and the face. You might see the back molars because of how pulled back the corners of the lips and gums are.

Eye contact

Eye contact is threatening in dogs. It's near the top of the aggression ladder. It's the last stage effectively before they go into what we would label an aggressive response.

Hard eye

With 'hard eye', the pupils dilate, there's no blinking and there's quite fixed eye contact. The whites of the eyes are showing.

Soft eyes

The opposite of the 'hard eye' is soft eyes. In this situation, there's no facial tension and the whole body language of the dog is soft; there's no tension. There's no staring, no intent and there's nice floppy heads.

The Freeze

This is the biggest pre-bite warning a dog will issue.

If the dog's mouth is open and it closes.

If a dog is panting and stops.

If his tail is wagging and it stops.

If he was moving and he suddenly becomes a statue...

Pay attention!

Most people interpret this as "I'm going to bite you." Perhaps more accurately, it would be "Don't make me use these."

Confidence - everything is forward, icy calm. Pupils are not dilated.

Threat displays such as this are designed to AVOID physical conflict.

Balancing Act

Every single dog body language is a balancing act and every dog responds very individually when they are feeling stressed.

Mouth and drooling

Let's look at a mouth for example. The optimum is for the dog's mouth to be quite moist, but on either extreme of that you can have a dog whose mouth has become very dry as ours does when we get anxious. We get a dry mouth to generate saliva that often leads to the lip licking behaviour. Equally you also get very anxious dogs that excessively salivate and drool.


You have dogs that come into the consult room that will take a treat nice and gently, that's the optimum. That's often a good sign that the dog is not feeling stressed. If you've got a dog that's unable to take treats or is grabbing at treats, those are both signs that the dog might be getting aroused and stressed.


Similarly on walks or at home, you want the dogs to be able to play appropriate fun short games. If you've got a dog that would normally show an interest in a toy or a game, but is now showing reluctance to play or has become quite obsessive about it, those can be coping strategies.


Ideally, we want nice, mobile, relaxed, floppy ears. If they're pulling their ears back against their head or they're very very high set and tense, those again are both signs of a potentially stressed dog.


We're looking for fluid calm movement as opposed to freezing and shutting down or just manic behaviour which is part of that faffable behaviour.


And we're looking for a nice relaxed body posture as opposed to everything's upright and erect or cowering and rolling over and again.


It's all about the context so when like I said about the yawning I don't want people paranoid and reading into every little body language that we've just talked about because it all depends on context.

So lifting a paw in response to a social approach, that is very often a sign that a dog is feeling worried by something. They're getting ready to move away and they're also communicating: "please be nice to me I'm making myself look vulnerable on three legs".

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