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. 

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