Reading the canine ladder of aggression(c) 2012-2016 Frania Shelley-Grielen all rights reserved
Can you tell the difference between a happy 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, 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 a “guilty” look your dog is giving you or is it highly effective appeasement behavior to avoid a reprimand and get you to stop scolding them?
Dogs and humans have highly developed social communication systems. For both species communicating intent and reconciliation attempts are highly effective ways to avoid conflict and maintain social order. Dogs communicate with each other and with us all the time. To fully understand a dog you need to look at the whole dog and the situation or context at the time. Look at what has and is happening at the moment and 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” 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. Understanding how these reactions are being used to handle stress can allow you to respond to them or to stop that scolding so your dog no longer needs to appease you. As well as allowing us to hopefully alleviate the pressure from the dog. For instance, when you see a stress behavior such as pawing 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.
Take a closer look at Dr. Shepherd’s ladders compared:
Canine Ladder of Aggression (Kendal Shepherd)
Human Ladder of Aggression (Kendal Shepherd)
11 Slap, punch, kick (Most frightened and threatened).
10 Push, throw something
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
2 Turning head away
2 Fold arms, frown, turn away
1 Yawning, blinking, nose-licking
1 Smile, hand shake (least frightened and threatened)
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.
Paying closer attention to what your dog is telling you will lessen the stress for the both of you.
copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
"Dogs and humans have highly developed social communication systems. For both species communicating intent and reconciliation attempts are highly effective ways to avoid conflict and maintain social order. Dogs communicate with each other and with us all the time".
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copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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