DogSpeak: What Your Dog Is Saying With Their Stressed Out Scratching

standard schnauzer puppy sitting beside the master on a dog training field scratching behind the ear

(Picture Credit: chris-mueller/Getty Images)

DogSpeak is a series that translates canine behaviors so that we can better understand and communicate with our dogs. When a dog scratches, we pet parents often scratch, too! We scratch our head wondering what’s causing our dogs to itch.

Is it fleas? Do they have skin irritation? Maybe allergies?

Any of the above can cause your dog to become itchy, resulting in some scratching. But stress, frustration, or excitement can also cause a dog to scratch. It’s highly unlike there’s actually an itch related to the scratching in those moments; rather, it’s a displaced behavior.

Here’s what you need to know about your dog’s stressed out, nervous scratching behavior, and what you should do about it.

When Do Dogs Nervously Scratch?

I see a lot of scratching particularly from young puppies as they explore, try make sense of, and acclimate to their new world.

Have you ever tried to coax your dog into something they don’t feel confident doing? For some dogs it’s walking up and down stairs. Maybe you’ve noticed your dog stopping to scratch in those situations.

Often people will use a syrupy sweet voice to try again and again to motivate their dog to do whatever it is that they’re nervous about. The pup does a lot of head titling as they listen to their human babble words of encouragement, and then they sniff the ground and/or scratch.

That scratching is your dog’s way of telling you, “I’m not sure what I should be doing.” If you know what your dog is telling you, you can make adjustments to help them understand and regain their confidence.

This is not something wrong with your dog. It means you need to make some changes so you can better communicate with your pet.

Andy The Puppy Scratched To Tell Me Something

Portrait view of a Weimaraner puppy outdoors.

(Picture Credit: MichellePatrickPhotographyLLC/Getty Images)

I’ll share with you a story about a puppy that I trained with named Andy. Andy was a high energy, bounce-off-the-walls, Weimaraner puppy, approximately 16 weeks old.

We were working with Andy on the behaviors sit and down. Andy didn’t blink an eye while I lured him into a sit. He earned quick reinforcement from me — “Yes,” followed by a tasty crumb — and was feeling confident offering the behavior.

Luring Andy into a down didn’t come as easily. I couldn’t verbally explain, “All right, Andy, just relax; our next training goal here to is get you to drop to the ground onto your belly. Ready?”

Well, without an understanding the end game, and never having been lured before, Andy was a bit tentative. He grew a bit stressed or frustrated.

As my lure hand slowly moved towards the ground, Andy popped up, sat down, scratched at his collar, and then sneezed.

I thought, “Okay, I’ll try one more time. I’ll just tweak it a bit by going slower.” The same thing occurred. As I attempted to lure Andy into a down, he popped up, offered a head turn, sat down, and started scratching.

I Listened To What Andy’s Scratching Meant

“I hear you loud and clear Andy!” Being an astute dog listener, I knew Andy was letting me know, “This is stressing me. I don’t get it!”

As a result of his dog talk, young Andy and I simply broke down our overall training goal down into a few smaller steps. I revamped my lesson and made it a bit more clear for Andy.

Some pups don’t think twice and just follow a lure anywhere it goes. Andy, however, needed me to help him feel more comfortable during this particular behavior.

Well, within three minutes, Andy was happily following my lure from a sit to a down and was confidently engaged in our training session. Go, Andy!

Andy was one more reminder that we have to listen to truly understand our dogs. With a dog like Andy, pet parents in a puppy session will often say, “He’s too distracted. He’s not into this. He’s being stubborn.”

When in reality, Andy was simply calling out for some more tutoring and instruction. This is why it’s so important for dog trainers and pet parents to really understand the vocabulary of dogs.

Translating Dogs’ Language Makes For Better Training

adorable bracco italiano puppy scratching outdoors

(Picture Credit: Ksenia Raykova/Getty Images)

With understanding and knowledge of what dogs are saying, pet parents will be better able to not only understand their dog, but research and use appropriate training techniques.

If your professional trainer doesn’t understand the less overt signs of dog stress and general vocabulary, then it’s time for a new trainer!

What if the trainer’s response to Andy’s behavior was, “He’s trying to be dominant and to control this situation?” How do you think the rest of the lesson would’ve gone for Andy and the trainer? How do you think a trainer who misread Andy would’ve left Andy’s humans feeling about his overall temperament and behavior?

Giving pet parents a deeper understanding of dog vocabulary and body language will clear up a lot of confusion, frustration, and anxiety and create even stronger bonds between people and their pooches. So bark up and teach people DogSpeak!

Does your dog ever scratch when they feel stressed or unsure? How do you make them comfortable and boost their confidence? Let us know in the comments below!