When a dog exhibits panting out of context, such as on occasions when he is not cooling himself on a hot day or recovering from exercise, this is clear body language that shows the dog is stressed* or showing some anxiety. Dogs may also start panting out of context due to pain or a variety of other medical issues. These observations only cover the topic of panting from a dog behaviour and body language point of view.
Here are a few examples of situations where a dog may show signs of stress by panting:
This observation concerns an elderly dog staying with his guardian at a bed and breakfast for the first time. The elderly dog is generally quite slow with his movement. He walks a short distance from the car to the living room of the bed and breakfast, so he does not have any strenuous exercise. Once in the bed and breakfast, his guardian settles in the living room to have a cup a tea. There is no real overt dog body language. The dog seems his usual still self, but he has started panting. The only other notable behaviour is that he occasionally walks up to his guardian and a nearby stool, and then he walks back to his bed. This subtle body language of panting shows the dog is struggling with this new environment and feeling a bit anxious.
A shelter dog returns to her room after a walk. It is a mild winter’s day and she is not panting during the calm, steady walk. However, as soon as she returns to the room with the volunteer, she starts panting. The room has sufficient airflow, and the temperature is at a comfortable level, so this would not cause the panting. The dog sits down in the room and is not active. Her commissures (corners of her mouth) are drawn back quite far as she pants, and her tongue starts protruding and looking spatulate at the end. The sides of her chest are moving in and out quite rapidly. Her pupils dilate, and the tension in her facial muscles is noticeable as the ridges on her face become very pronounced. Her ears are alert and up, moving to the side at times as she listens to the shelter noises. Her eyes are wide and she keeps scanning the environment. At times when she hears a noise, she freezes, her eyes wide and ears pinned to the side, as she tries to hone in on the sounds. Slowly she starts to drool. The volunteer has noticed the dog’s paws are wet most of the time and thinks that she may have been licking them constantly as a self-soothing act. By observing the dog in her room, the volunteer realizes that the wet paws are due to her excessive drooling (hyper salivation). Although this shelter has wonderful facilities, including individual comfy rooms with separate airflow, this environment is still too stressful for this particular dog. The smells and sounds of the shelter environment make her anxious. Going back to the room most probably signifies to the dog that the volunteer is going to leave, which adds to the anxiety. This dog is subsequently moved to a foster home to help her acclimatize and minimize her stress levels.
In a training class, the dog handler is becoming quite frustrated, as her dog seems unable to focus. The dog is moving fast; he can’t seem to stay still. He is panting, his commissures (corners of the mouth) are pulled back, and he is looking around and scanning. His pupils are dilated, and the furrows on his face seem exaggerated. He seems to do a lot of scratching of his neck with his hind leg. Excessive scratching, if there is no reason for the dog to be itchy, is classified as displacement behaviour. It is worth noting the frequency and observing when excessive scratching starts occurring. All the body language above show the dog is quite stressed. This class environment may be too stimulating for him, and he is finding it difficult to cope in this environment.
This is an observation of a dog experiencing fear due to fireworks. The dog’s eyes are wide. The pronounced furrows and ridges on her face create a puffy look under her eyes. The ears go forward and up, then are pinned to the side when a bang goes off. She is panting, her lips are pulled back, and the commissures (corners of the mouth) are pulled back, creating furrows on the cheeks. She is unable to keep still, scanning the environment and pacing around. Her tail is down and her back seems somewhat hunched and rounded. At times her body lowers. In-between bangs, there are times when her mouth closes, as she watches with wide eyes and ears forward and she freezes for a few seconds. She occasionally does a few lip licks and yawns then returns to pacing around the room.
A person walks into the room, holding a leash. The dog approaches and can’t sit still. He jumps up at the person multiple times, his pupils dilate, and he starts panting. In-between jumping up, he paces around a bit and does a shake off. The panting with a combination of body language in this instance is not due to anxiety or fear but due to the dog becoming hyped and overexcited.
These are just a few examples; there may be many more. Start observing to see if you can notice any panting in different contexts. As discussed below, interpretations such as the above examples should not be attempted without careful observation and consideration of all aspects of the situation.
What is meant by stress*?
When I mention stress, this does not necessarily imply negative emotion. I mean stress in the physiological sense. So certain body language signals can mean the dog is feeling some sort of emotional discourse. This discourse could range from positive to negative emotion. Both excitement and fear could have similar effects on the body, with various hormones being released and activating the sympathetic nervous system. The dog may be feeling uncomfortable/fearful or it could also be excited about something. When analyzing stress in body language, it is worth noting the frequency and intensity of the various body language signals.
A few notes to consider when observing dog body language:
Observation before interpretation
Interpretations should be offered only once you have observed the complete interaction and taken note of the wider picture. To offer an unbiased interpretation of the body language, observe and take note of the situation, taking into account the dog’s whole body, the body language signals, and environment first before offering an interpretation. List all the body language you see in the order that it occurs; try to be as descriptive as possible without adding any emotional language. For instance, saying a dog looks happy is not descriptive and would be seen as an interpretation rather than an observation.
You could, however, list what you observe: ears to the side, eyes almond shaped, slight shortening of the eye, mouth open, long lips, tongue out, body moving loosely, body facing side-on, tail wagging at a slow even pace at body level.
From the observation, I could interpret that the dog seems relaxed or comfortable. I still prefer to say relaxed rather than happy, as I feel you will truly never know exactly what the dog may be feeling on the inside emotionally. It is quite likely the dog may be feeling happy, but I prefer to comment on how the dog is behaving in response to the situation rather than presuming internal emotional states.
The importance of viewing body language within context
Interpretations can vary depending on the context. It is possible for certain body language to be used in different contexts and have subtle differences in meaning within those contexts. Individual body language signals should not be observed in isolation; the wider picture should be considered. Take note of what the dog’s body as a whole is saying. Keep in mind each dog is an individual with varying skills and experiences. What may be typical for one individual may not be for another. In order to observe body language in context, consider the following: the situation, body language signals, the body language expressed by all parts of the dog’s body, environment, and individuals involved. It is worth noting how the body language changes with feedback from the environment or the other individuals interacting.