Dogs become agitated out of fear, aggression or simple anxiety, and knowing how to identify that agitation is critical to avoiding incident. If your dog shows signs of agitation, he needs to be removed from the situation he is in, whether that means leaving the dog park, coming inside from the yard or going in a room separate from you and your guests. While he can't tell you in words when he is agitated, his body and behavior can speak volumes.
Watch your dog's facial expressions for signs of agitation. For example, an agitated dog may bare his teeth and tuck back his tongue, showing off his primary weapon as a warning. If your dog locks eyes with another creature and won't break eye contact, that can also be his way of demonstrating agitated aggression—dogs avert their gaze as a sign of submission. Similarly, a dog carefully watching someone or something out of the corner of his eye may be preparing to defend himself or his property against a perceived aggressor.
Your dog's physical stance can betray agitation of varying kinds. For example, if he feels threatened and/or submissive, he may hunch over, drop his head, tuck in his tail and generally try to appear as small as possible. But an aggressively agitated dog attempts to look as big as he can, standing square and strong with his weight centered or leaning slightly forward. As his agitation leads him to prepare to attack, he'll lean more and more weight over his front paws, preparing to speed into a fight.
Body Language Details
Even the little things your dog does can show you that he is agitated. For example, if his tail is wagging fast and low, or high and stiff, it most likely indicates that he is highly aroused, excited and/or agitated. His hair may stand on end and even his ears will react. If the agitation is arousing your dog, his ears may stand up straight and even point toward the object of his interest. It the agitation makes your dog feel submissive and frightened, he's likelier to flatten his ears against his head.
One of the least mistakable signs of agitation in your dog is vocalizing. Barking, growling and snarling are all telltale signs of upset arousal, and should be taken as one of your final warnings to remove your dog from the situation. Pay careful attention to his behavior, as the vocalizations aren't always as noticeable as a loud bark—he may simply curl up his lips to show his teeth and let out a barely audible growl. If your dog is frightened or merely anxious, he may whine instead.
By Tom Ryan
About the Author
Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.