The Ladder of Aggression: What every dog guardian needs to know
Do you know the subtle signals that dogs give when they are stressed? Did you know that if you don’t help your dog, they can escalate? Here’s a great way to see how your dog’s behavior can escalate into aggression. Think of a ladder with many steps. Each step represents a behavior that dogs will display when they are becoming more and more anxious, stressed and fearful. If the dog continues to reach a maximum level of stress, aggression can result. Aggression is the top rung of the ladder. Since all dogs are individuals, every dog has a different way that he/she responds to stress, so we need to be aware of their individual behavior clues.
How a dog reacts to stress or a threat can be represented as a series of ascending steps on a ladder. These gestures are responses to an escalation of perceived threat only and are NOT expressions of a ‘submissive’ or ‘dominant’ state. The choice of strategy (whether to escalate to a bite or not) will depend on the circumstances (time, target, interactions, previous experience) and on the severity of any underlying physical disease. Pain frequently converts a ‘flight’ response to ‘fight’. – Ladder of Aggression by Kendal Shepherd
The behaviors on the lower rungs of the ladder (yawning, blinking, nose licking, turning head away, etc.) communicate in dog language, “I am feeling worried”, or “please calm down”. The behaviors on the higher rungs of the ladder (growling, air snapping, biting) mean “Stop! Leave me alone right now! Go Away!”
Understanding what dogs are trying to communicate when they are stressed is how we become Conscious Companions, and prevent our dogs from moving up the Ladder of Aggression. This included our felines, too!
I would like to share something else with you: A dog bite NEVER happens out of the blue. Let me repeat that; a dog bite never happens out of the blue.
Why is this important to know? Well, it means that all dog bites can be prevented ifwe learn to recognize the stressors and behaviors that a dog exhibits as they are becoming stressed. Dogs will display specific behaviors (listed above in the image) well before they lunge or bite.
Make no mistake about it; it’s our job, our role, and our responsibility as their guardians to learn these behaviors and recognize these stages. Prevention and safety begins with you! Setting ourselves up for success is how we do this.
Set yourself and your dog up for success! You Are Your Dog’s Advocate!
Avoid situations that you feel might upset your dog.
Avoid people, dogs, and places that have created any of these behaviors in your dog in the past (until you can find a qualified dog behaviorist to help you and your pup)!
Truth: Animal bites are provoked in some form, and they can be prevented.
When I think of common animal bites, three companion animals first come to mind: dogs, parrots, and cats. All three of these are social animals. Why does this fact matter? Well, social animals use very clear cues to communicate with each other and they know how to read and respond to these very subtle cues within their groups.
Now let’s look at humans. We are very demonstrative when we are speaking with each other and even when thinking silently to ourselves. We flail our arms around, we grandly gesture, and the more animated characters in our species have very expressive features on our faces. Now think about a cat, a horse, a rabbit, a parrot, a fish, a tortoise, or even a snake. Their facial expressions are not designed the ways ours are. They appear to not be as expressive as humans, but they are quote communicative. And their species’ form of communication is exceptional amongst themselves.
Each animal’s body language is explicitly clear within the individual species. Each species has evolved to learn how to communicate with exquisite precision, each in their own unique way, without having to be loud and demonstrative. As humans, we often fail to understand their communication.
Communication is Key.
Many of the species that I studied, bred, and trained at The Audubon Nature Institute were the same way. They used very subtle communication with each other and with the people who cared for them. When I first started working at Audubon I quickly learned about a common saying that I still practice and believe: “If you get bitten, it’s always your fault”. That was a tough truth pill to swallow when I first started began my career there. I didn’t understand how that could be true. There were so many animals and so many different behaviors to learn! How could I learn them all and prevent getting bitten? Two words: Education and Observation. I had to learn how to speak their language by observing them.
Over the decade that I was there I was fortunate to have worked with some of the most amazing and incredibly intelligent species on the planet. Many of these animals could bite, scratch, stomp, kick, or gore you, if they were having a bad day.
It was our job as zoo keepers and public educators to keep ourselves safe, the animals safe, and the public that was interacting with the animal safe. We did this by educating ourselves about each species that was under our supervision and care. We took the time to learn about their natural behaviors in the wild. We learned how they tend to behave in captive environments. We learned how they reacted in certain situations, and with certain people. We knew their limits. We knew their individual triggers. We knew their boundaries. Knowing all of this was vital to keeping everyone safe. It was the responsible and ethical thing to do.
Safety in Your Home
I truly believe that this kind of education should not end at at a professional animal care facility. This should be happening in every home that has an animal and especially in homes with multiple pets or children. I find it incredible that so many people love all sorts of companion animals, but they invite them into their home without doing research first. Many people love their animals but don’t understand how to read the subtle signals and behaviors of their animal companions. When this happens, scratches, bites, and severe injuries occur.
At a recent dog safety workshop someone asked me, “But don’t some of these animal “attacks” happen out of the blue?” My answer was simply,”no.”
And here is why: It’s very dangerous to our community to say that bites are random occurrences. If there isn’t an actual stimulus triggering the aggressive behavior, then how can we prevent it? We can prevent bites, because animal bites happen in response to something that triggered the bite; knowing and understanding this is what helps us understand animal behavior.
Awareness Facilitates Understanding about Aggression.
It’s helpful to know that most forms of aggression, except for predation, are distance-increasing behaviors (the animal is attempting to actively increase the distance between itself and the stimulus/stressor). Think about when an animal lunges at you, this behavior will increase the distance between you and the animal nearly 100 percent of the time. Animals do this because they know it works.
Very often, bites are a last resort for animals. Bites often happen when all of the other cues the animal has given are unknowingly ignored. The Ladder of Aggression helps to explain how aggression can stem from various stressors.
Bites Do Not Occur “Out of the Blue”.
Animal bites are never a random occurrence. Often there are conditions in the animal’s environment that have continued to “stack up” and set the scene for a bite to occur. This is known as Trigger Stacking.
This happens when multiple “triggers” (stressors unique to the individual animal) happen close together, or at the same time. When these triggers stack up they can have a cumulative negative effect on the animal. Stress hormones can create a cluster effect of reactivity, causing the animal to behave in a way that he/she normally would not. This can quickly escalate into a dangerous situation.
Prevention and Awareness Are Necessary.
Make no mistake about it. Bites can be prevented. It’s up to each of us to learn the unique signals and respect the boundaries of our animal companions, or the animals that we are working with.
Assuming that animal bites are random can lead to more unfortunate and often fatal incidences, as we are sadly seeing in the news. The cat that “bit for no reason” probably gave the person at least 6 different signals that a bite would happen if they continued doing what they were doing. That parrot that “randomly bit” also gave a clear warning. The dog that bit a person or another dog “out of the blue” gave off a number of red flags well before the bite happened, or they were neck deep in their own personal nightmare of stress hormones and Trigger Stacking!
There ARE signals. There are ample warnings. They may be subtle, but they are there. I assure you.
Every species is unique and has a unique way of communicating. Every animal within that species has its personal boundaries and individual triggers (just like we do), so it’s up to us as animal guardians to know these individual boundaries and signals. It’s how we keep them safe, keep ourselves safe, and keep other people and animals safe.
Despite what we often may think, animals are pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t.
Respect Their Boundaries.
Being safe around animals is not something that comes naturally to most animal lovers. It’s natural to want to give love and affection to them, and to receive it from them, but doing this safely has to be taught and learned. I had to learn how to practice restraint, while recognizing the animals’ clear boundaries. Over the decade that I worked at the zoo, I worked with crocodiles that would love to add you to their menu, king cobras that could outwit you, feisty donkeys that patiently waited to chomp you, lions that would love to maim you, and hormonal parrots that enjoyed taunting you.
Out of the countless encounters that I had with hundreds of exotic animals, I was bitten five times. Each of them was a nasty bite, but I never blamed the animal; each one of those bites was my fault. Three of the bites were food related (I got in the way of their food, or they confused me for food). One bite was a defensive bite during breeding (they were getting their groove on and I accidentally intruded). The other bite was redirected aggression at another animal and my hand was in direct-line-of-bite. I can create all the excuses that I want, but I could have prevented ALL of them.
Learn and Grow.
Taking responsibility for these kind of common mistakes can only make us better animal guardians, animal trainers, and animal stewards. There’s no need to feel bad or guilty about it; we just have to learn from the bite so we can help to educate our friends, family, and colleagues on how to prevent it! Judgement and guilt have no part in learning from our mistakes. We live and learn. We then teach others.
Becoming a Conscious Companion
If you are reading this, I can assume that you love the animals that you share your life with enough to be inspired or learn more to improve their lives. I encourage you to take that love and funnel it into educating yourself, and your family and friends about the basic behavior of the species that you work with, live with, and adore. Every day I challenge myself to learn something new about the animals I love and live with. I hope you do the same.
“I am who I am today because of the mistakes I made yesterday.” ― The Prolific Penman