Stubborn Dog or Just Too Stressed to Learn?

Recognize Early Signs of Stress in Your Dogdog showing signs of stress

Is your dog too stressed to learn?  Remember what it felt like when you had to take an important exam? Or when you struggled with learning some new skill that seemed complicated? We’ve all been there.  Let’s face it – learning is stressful.

A little bit of stress can actually help – keeping you alert and challenged in a good way. But if stress overwhelms you, your brain just shuts down on you and it becomes all but impossible to learn.

The same thing can happen to your dog when you are teaching him something new. When is your dog too stressed to learn? Just like you, your dog can’t focus his thinking on learning a new thing if he’s upset or scared.  If he feels afraid, your dog’s choices are fight, flight, or freeze.  In most situations, your dog will simply freeze, leading you to incorrectly assume he’s being stubborn!  That’s why it’s so important to train with learning games that are fun and also challenging in a good way.

But what should you do if your dog becomes so stressed during a training lesson that he shuts down and freezes?
If you can recognize the early signs that your dog is feeling anxious, confused, or fearful, you can change activities, play a game, give him a short break to get calm, and mirror the relaxed attitude that will help him to also relax.

This Will Help You Remember What Stress Looks Like in Your Dog

The early signs of stress in your dog can be misread as stubbornness or disobedience. Don’t make that mistake!   Here’s a handy acronym to help you identify your dog’s stress signals: TEMP

T is for Tail.  E is for Eyes and Ears.  M is for Mouth.  P is for Posture.

Can you see the signs of stress in this dog? Can you see signs of stress in this dog?




Tail – lower than normal or tucked between legs, wagging at just the very tip.

Eyes – wide, showing whites (whale eye), not making eye contact, squinting, blinking. Ears – pulled back or flattened against the head or lowered to the side.

Mouth – excess panting, corners of the mouth pulled back in a “smile”, licking lips, flicking tongue, yawning, puffing cheeks.

Posture – crouching, trembling, looking away, avoiding eye contact, stiff, tense muscles, refusing food or toys, head lowered, lifting one paw, rolling on his back, refusing to walk forward.

Eyes and mouth show stress

Can you see the stress signs in the eyes, ears, and mouth of these dogs?




Here’s a graphic that shows you the Facial Expressions of Stress in Dogs:


Remember to train smarter not harder.  Work with your dog and not against him.  Be mindful of his feelings and choose to make learning fun.

Learn more about correctly interpreting your dog’s body language here.

If you haven’t already done so, download my free eBook: Teach your Dog Good Manners By Working Less and Having More Fun Teach your dog good manners

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