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The Ladder of Aggression (and Stressors)

I recently attended an aggression seminar with Chirag Patel and I look forward to sharing the modified BAT protocol he demonstrated.

First, I wanted to share one of the tools Chirag spoke about – the ladder of aggression diagram developed by Kendal Shepherd. 

While the stages of aggression do not follow a linear path, a dog is more likely to growl or lip snarl before he snaps or bites. The ladder allows us to view behaviours as warning signs, if you will, on the way up to biting someone.

The ladder highlights the importance of identifying early signs of stress or discomfort in order to avoid dangerous escalations of behaviour. It also helps us understand why it is important to not eliminate a warning signal.

I believe it safe to say that most people would scold their dog if he ever growled or snarled at someone. It's a very human reaction. We believe we are "correcting" the aggression, but it is far more likely that we are teaching our dog to not offer this warning behaviour.

If we scold our dogs every time they stiffen up or growl, our dog is going to learn to skip this step on the ladder and go straight to snapping and biting. We are giving ourselves fewer signs to work with and moving our dog closer to the act of biting someone when they are stressed or fearful.

A lot of the work I do with clients is helping them to understand the early signs of stress or discomfort. We can then work to eliminate these stressors on our dog or even teach our dog new ways to cope.

Dr. Sophia Yin has a wonderful chart titled "body language of fear" that every owner should review. In it, she highlights some of the common signs of stress in our companions. Signs such as:

  • Cowering
  • Yawning
  • Shake-offs
  • Tongue flicks (tongue licks straight out and up to the nose)
  • Moving slowly
  • Pacing
  • Refusing treats
  • Sweaty paws (leaving a trail - extreme stress)
  • Panting
  • Avoidance
  • Stiffening up
  • Eyes hardening
  • Ears going back

If you start to see a combination of stress signs from your dog, make note of what seems to be causing this behaviour and contact a behaviour consultant to help you come up with a plan of treatment.

I have created a top ten list of things that stress many dogs but that owners believe their dogs actually enjoy.

  1. Having a young child "play" with their dog
  2. Men approaching their dog to say "hi"
  3. Someone approaching them when they are eating or chewing on something
  4. Hugging their dog
  5. Patting their dog on the head
  6. Tying their dog up outside a store
  7. Taking their dog to the groomer
  8. Touching their dog's feet, tail or ears
  9. Leaving their dog home alone
  10. Taking a toy away from their dog so they can throw it for him/her

Some dogs have no issue with the above items, or are willing to put up with them. But unless you are looking for signs of stress, you are just assuming your dog is okay with them.

An assumption that is quite often false.