The Kendal Shepherd ‘Ladder of Aggression’ can help you understand how your dog is feeling and predict any stressful or potentially dangerous situations before they happen
Image: Getty Images)
While dogs cannot communicate with us via speech, they do express their emotions with their body language.
It’s important for owners to be able to detect how their pet is feeling, especially if they are stressed or uncomfortable – to help keep them and the people around them safe.
The PDSA has issued a simple guide, known as the Kendal Shepherd ‘Ladder of Aggression’, to explain the subtle signs of escalating emotions, reports Belfast Live.
So, the next time your pup has their ears pinned back or their tail tucked under, you’ll be able to recognize unhappiness and potentially reduce the chance of an aggressive reaction.
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A spokesperson for the PDSA explained: “How a dog reacts to something they find stressful can be thought of as a series of steps on a ladder.
“The sooner we can pick up on the steps earlier, we can stop whatever the dog is finding stressful which means they won’t move ‘up’ the ladder.”
They continued: “Sometimes, if a dog has learned over time that their more mild signals which are lower on the ladder, aren’t listened to, they might skip some steps on the ladder and jump straight to higher levels.
“And this is why it’s always better to pay attention to what dogs are trying to tell you and help them get out of stressful situations, so that they don’t feel like they have to jump higher on the ladder to get people to listen.
“Not every dog will show every behavior on the ladder and might not follow the specific order.”
The Kendal Shepherd Ladder of Aggression goes as follows:
Step 1: Yawning, blinking, nose licking
- Yawns can indicate tiredness, but are more often a way to relieve tension from the dog’s jaw. This can be the first sign that a dog feels uncomfortable.
- Licking their own nose can act as a self-comforting behaviour, like when children suck their thumbs, so if you see this in a dog then they might be stressed and trying to calm themselves. Sometimes they will also lick the nose or face of person or animal they want to leave them alone, to show that they are not returning a threat.
- Dogs might also lift a paw to try and calm the situation.
- Blinking and closing both eyes are also signs that they are trying to show they’re not a threat.
Step 2: Looking away
- People face each other when we speak and turn our heads away when the conversation has finished. Dogs have a similar way of telling us that they are ready to finish with a social situation.
- Sometimes they won’t turn their heads but they’ll look away with their eyes and you’ll see the white of their eyes. This is a clear sign the dog is feeling uncomfortable.
Step 3: Turning body away, sitting, pawing
- If your dog is looking away from something, especially if they turn their whole body away or sit down but keep pawing someone away, then they are asking for space. Help them get out of the situation to reduce their stress.
Step 4: Walking away
- Dogs may try and be clear that they don’t like a situation by walking away.
- This is their way of taking themselves out of a situation that’s making them uncomfortable. Allow them to do this as blocking their escape can send them up the ladder.
Step 5: Creeping, ears back
- Creeping is a more expressive way of showing they are worried or want space.
- When creeping, a dog will usually look more nervous and you may be able to see the whites of their eyes when walking away. They may also raise a paw up or lick their lips.
- Often, they will slink low to the ground as they try to move away slowly.
Step 6: Standing crouched, tail tucked under
- This shows the dog is feeling very unsure, but trying to calm the situation and make themselves seem smaller and less threatening.
- It usually means that they are very nervous so giving them some space is the best thing to do.
Step 7: Lying down, exposed belly
- The dog is showing they are very worried and is trying to make peace with whoever is threatening them.
- This position is different to a playful roll and the dog may also seem frozen in place compared to the wiggliness that is seen with a playful roll.
- Not to be confused with a relaxed dog after playing or stroke who flops back for belly rubs.
Step 8: Stiffening up, staring
- At this point, the dog is stressed enough that their fight-flight-or-freeze response is kicking in, they may stay very still until the perceived threat has gone away.
- If the threat doesn’t go away or they can’t escape, they might progress up the communication ladder by fighting to try to finally sort out the stressful situation.
Step 9: Growl
- Growling is a clear sign that the dog is feeling distressed or afraid and is asking for space. With this they are giving an obvious and loud indication that they are not happy if other steps on the ladder have been ignored.
- You should never punish a dog for growling because you are more likely to just ‘train’ this step out of them and then dogs feel like they need to jump from lower down the ladder straight to a bite or a snap.
- Snapping is a clear warning to stay away and the dog is showing that they will act if they need to.
- If the other communication signals on the ladder have not stopped the threat (which might be a real threat or just something the dog thinks is scary), then the dog may have to resort to biting.
- This action is used to defend themselves and get rid of the threat.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.