The canine     
ladder of
Reading the canine ladder of aggression copyright 2012-2019 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")
.  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 someone he has not seen before.  Acknowledge that (try saying “I know”) first and
then move your body so you are in between the dog and the stranger, creating 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 -the warning, request for
space, the growl is expressing is before snapping and biting - pay attention to it and
the next step on the ladder does not need to be climbed.

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 best
offset potential concerns will lessen the stress on both of you. (Read more about
working with aggression in dogs .)

This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link to this
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Canine Ladder of Aggression
(Kendal Shepherd)
Human Ladder of Aggression
Kendal Shepherd)
11  Biting (most frightened and
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
1 Yawning, blinking, nose
(least frightened and
1 Smile, hand shake (least
frightened and threatened
Dogs use both distance increasing and distance reducing behaviors
"Dogs and humans have highly
developed social comm-
unication systems.  For both
species communicating feelings,
intent and trying to influence
each other (including reconcil-
iation 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 commu-
nicate 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
Frania Shelley-Grielen is
212-722-2509 / 646-228-7813

Website copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
Copyright Frania Shelley-Grielen
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Dogs and humans use different signals to communicate
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