top of page
  • midwestbordercolli

Canine Communication and Body Language

The Ladder of Aggression by Kendall Shepherd

The Ladder of Aggression is a depiction of the body language canine communication signals that any dog will give in response to an escalation of perceived stress and threat.

  • It can begin with very mild social interaction and pressure, to which blinking and nose licking are appropriate responses.

  • If the perceived stress and threat persists and becomes severe, overt aggression may well selected.

  • The purpose of such behavior is to deflect threat and restore harmony.

  • The presence of appeasing and threat-averting behavior in the domestic dog’s repertoire is essential to avoid the need for potentially damaging aggression.

  • Dogs want to avoid fighting if at all possible. A physical fight puts every dog at risk of mortal wounding.

  • The dog is a social animal for whom successful appeasement behavior is highly adaptive and it is used continually and routinely in everyday life.

In all dogs, inappropriate social responses to another dog’s appeasement behavior (which is typically requesting space and to be left alone) will result in its devaluing and the necessity, from a dog’s perspective, to move up the ladder.

  • Aggression is therefore created in any situation where appeasement behavior is chronically misunderstood (by dogs or people) and not effective in obtaining the socially expected outcome.

  • Dogs may progress to overt aggression within seconds during a single episode if the perceived threat occurs quickly and at close quarters. Space matters!! Many fights between dogs (and people) erupt in cramped spaces with no escape outlet.

  • Dogs may also learn to dispense with lower rungs on the ladder over time, if repeated efforts to appease are ignored, misunderstood and responded to inappropriately.

  • As a consequence, a so-called ‘unpredictable’ aggressive response, without any obvious preamble, may occur in any context which predicts inescapable threat to the dog, when in reality it was entirely predictable.


Below are hyperlinks that will take you to wonderful resources, videos and on-demand webinars that can help you increase your fluency in dog body language. Being able to read your dog’s stress signals and requests for help can help you change the direction and outcome of your dog’s behavior.


Punishing A Dog For Growling Is Like Taking The Batteries Out Of Your Smoke Detector.

You Do Not Want To Hear The Noise But The Danger Is Still There!

If your dog growls or uses another one of the subtler signs of anxiety or aggression, we need to be thankful that he or she is letting us know they are worried about a situation. We do not want to punish or suppress a growl. When we see a growl we also have to realize we may have missed even earlier signs like a yawn, a head turn or a lip lick BEFORE the worry or fear escalated. If we can catch the early signs that gives us a chance to change the outcome by; creating space, backing away or changing the environment in some other way which might remove the need for the dog to climb up to the growl. If we find we are hearing lots of growls and missing these early cues, we need to go back and study the body language resources again.

We need to calmly, quickly, and without punishment or “correction” help our dog get out of the fearful situation. We also need to remember the Who/What/Wen/Where of the situation to identify common threads and triggers so we can avoid these contexts. We want to set the dog up for success. We do not want to put the dog repeatedly in situations where he continues to rehearse and perfect the growl as a coping strategy.

Eventually, we will try to change the way he feels about the trigger by using counter conditioning to create a new emotional response to the trigger. And finally, only after his fear has been changed to a more joyful emotion, we can work to slowly desensitize the approach to the trigger.

To learn more about why growls or early signs of fear are important to recognize please read:

39 views0 comments


bottom of page