The canine     
ladder of
Reading the canine ladder of aggression
copyright (c) 2021 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 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:

Canine Ladder of Aggression         Human Ladder of Aggression
(Kendal Shepherd)                                             (Supposed Equivalent)

Biting (most frightened                   11  Slap, punch, kick (most
      and threatened
)                                          frightened and threatened)

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,                     6  "I'm sorry"
          tail tucked under

5  Creeping, ears back                     5  "Please calm down"

4  Walking away                                4  Walk away

3   Turning body away,                    3  Argue
        sitting, pawing

2  Turning head away                       2   Fold arms, frown, turn away

1  Yawning, blinking, nose               1  Smile, hand shaking
(least fright-                                 (least frightened and
                         ended and threat-                                 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.  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
working with aggression in dogs .)

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Dogs use both distance increasing and distance reducing behaviors
"Dogs and humans have
highly developed social
communication systems.  
For both species commu-
nicating 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
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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