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Can You Tell How Your Dog is Feeling?

A word we often see, especially when talking about more sensitive and complex dogs, with a tendency towards fearfulness and telling the world to go away loudly, is ‘threshold’ – but what does it mean and why is it relevant to all dogs?

Just as we do, dogs feel emotions. Not all the same as us, as dogs don’t feel more complex emotions like guilt or shame (the body language when supposedly guilty is in fact appeasement and fear) but they feel joy, fear, contentment, excitement etc. Emotions like joy, excitement, and fear all trigger hormones in the dog’s body, and these hormones increase the dog’s arousal level – priming the body for action.

The more things a dog encounters that raise arousal levels without an opportunity to calm down the closer they come to a point they can take no more. This is their ‘threshold’ point. They can’t tolerate anything else happening. Once over threshold we see the stereotypical reactive behaviour displays – growling, lunging, barking.

There are things we can watch to ensure our dogs stay under this threshold, keeping them comfortable and not feeling a need to react, to protect themselves. Here are five signs to look out for:


Close up of a brown dog's eye
A window into the emotional state of the dog

These can tell us a lot about their emotional state, although it’s important to avoid staring a dog direct in the eye for too long, as it’s rude and confrontational in canine terms.

Pupil size: pupils dilate when a dog’s stress levels rise, to allow more light into the eye and improve visual processing so the dog can observe their surroundings better.

Gaze direction and intensity: when something is worrying a dog, they do their best to watch it. The more worried they are, the more intensely they watch. If the dog’s stare becomes fixed on a