Reading the canine ladder of aggression

By 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: (Continue Reading Below)