The canine
ladder of
aggression
AnimalBehaviorist.us
Reading the canine ladder of aggression copyright 2012-2018 Frania Shelley-
Grielen all rights reserved

Can you tell the difference between a happy dog or a stressed dog? When it comes to
“reading” canine body language how versed are you in understanding just what your
dog is saying?  You walk in the door and your dog greets you with what you think is a
“worried” look, you stiffen, is something wrong?  You raise your voice just a bit.  Did that
dog do something wrong again? He sure is looking mighty guilty.  Is that actually a
“guilty” look or is it highly effective appeasement behavior to avoid punishment and get
you to stop scolding?

Dogs and humans have highly developed social communication systems.  For both
species, communicating feelings, intent and trying to influence each other (including
reconciliation attempts) are highly effective ways to avoid conflict and maintain social
order.  Fighting is costly and avoiding potential physical and emotional injuries is the
best survival strategy.  Humans appease each other  to keep the peace and dogs are no
different.  Dogs communicate with each other and with us all the time but while the
messages may be clear dog to dog, are we able to understand what our canine friends are
“saying”?  The human words and gestures we use to avoid conflict differ from the canine
signals used for the same purpose.  To fully appreciate the conversation, you need to look
at the whole dog and the situation or context at the time.   Look at what has just
happened and is happening at the moment; pay very close attention to body tension,
movement and postures and to eyes, ears, mouth and tail.

Kendal Shepherd, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, devised a “ladder of
aggression” showing what this looks like for both species.  A look at the ladder shows an
escalation of aggression from the first rung to the last.  What is of particular note is just
how very different reconciliation strategies look for a dog when compared with a human,
for instance, that looking away or walking away on a dog’s part is an attempt at
peacemaking and should never be construed as an attempt to ignore the other party.  
When we give human motivations to a dog we lose the canine motivations in the
translation.  This also means that stress or discomfort being communicated with the
looking away is being ignored and offense may be taken when none is intended.  Another
example is the yawn, because we may yawn when bored or relaxed we can think decide
the dog yawning is too.  For a dog a yawn out of the context of actually being sleepy or
tired is a sign of stress.

It is important to be able to tell the difference between warnings, threats and aggression.  
We tend to overuse “aggression,” especially when talking about dog behavior, to the
point where the word has become a catchall for every action we may think is negative or
are not comfortable with.  This sort of thinking can lead owners to overreact as a result.  
Remember, the signals that the dog is offering on this ladder are communications that
they are uncomfortable with what is happening in the environment, something is
happening or someone is doing something that they would like to stop.  And they would
like more space.  Animal Behaviorists classify behaviors into either "distance reducing"
("come closer") or "distance increasing" ("go away") behaviors
.  The next time you see a
distance increasing behavior, try and figure out your dog is telling you and what you
can do to help to both increase distance and change what is causing the need for it.  For
instance, the dog that growls at a stranger on the street wearing a hat and sunglasses is
probably uncomfortable with something or something he has not seen before.  
Acknowledge that (try saying “I know”) first and then put yourself in between your dog
and the stranger to create a safe buffer and social support as you walk past.  Are children
playing with your dog in such a way that your dog is saying is not welcome with the
behaviors they display, such as lip licking, looking away, ears back, etc.?  Then this is
the time to stop the playing and remove the parties, taking the pressure off the dog and
explain to the children how to play nicely with dogs, etc.  

Let’s take a closer look at Dr. Shepherd’s ladders compared to each other:
























:





















Oftentimes the rungs of the ladder are climbed directly whether we notice it or not.  
Other times, rungs may be skipped because in the past they have been proven to have
little effect or perceived threat happens too quickly or is too close for comfort.  If you
consistently ignore all appeasement signals they may cease and a dog may feel little
choice but to defend aggressively.  This is one of the reasons a good trainer or behaviorist
will tell you never to "train out" a growl.

Understanding how these reactions are being used to communicate and handle stress can
allow you to respond to them.  So when you see that yawn out of context or look away,
etc., you can take the time to look at what else is going on in the environment.  
Remember to consider this in a hopefully canine relevant perspective.  What is the
behavior a reaction to?  A good grasp of what preceded the behavior and the context it
occurs in are vital clues in determining how to mitigate the perceived threat.  In our
case of scolding the dog, we can stop the scolding so the dog no longer needs to appease us.  
If a raised voice brings on a yawn, we can lower the voice and hopefully alleviate the
pressure from the dog and see the behavior change.

Paying closer attention to what you are seeing with your dog and how you can offset
potential concerns and will lessen the stress on both of you. (Read more about
working
with aggression in dogs .)
Canine Ladder of Aggression
(Kendal Shepherd)
Human Ladder of Aggression
Kendal Shepherd)
11  Biting (most frightened and
threatened
)
11 Slap, punch, kick (most
frightened and threatened
)
10 Snapping
10 Push, throw something
9 Growling
9 Clench fist, threaten
8 Stiffening up, staring
8 Shout, scream, swear
7 Lying down, leg up
7 I've said I'm sorry, stop it!
6 Standing crouched, tail
tucked under
6 "I'm sorry"
5 Creeping, ears back
5 "Please calm down"
4 Walking away
4 Walk away
3 Turning body away,
sitting, pawing
3 Argue
2 Turning head away
2 Fold arms, frown, turn
away
1 Yawning, blinking, nose
licking
(least frightened and
threatened
)
1 Smile, hand shake (least
frightened and threatened
)
Dogs use both distance increasing and distance reducing behaviors
"Dogs and humans have highly
developed social communication
systems.  For both species
communicating feelings, intent and
trying to influence each other
(including reconciliation attempts)
are highly effective ways to avoid
conflict and maintain social order.  
We appease each other all the time to
keep the peace and dogs are no
different.  Dogs communicate with
each other and with us all the time
but while the messages may be clear
dog to dog, are we able to
understand what our canine friends
are “saying”?"
Frania Shelley-Grielen is AnimalBehaviorist.us
info@animalbehaviorist.us
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813


Entire website copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Request a consultation
Dogs and humans use different signals to communicate
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
AnimalBehaviorist.us is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC
Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to
provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and
linking to Amazon.com.