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Canine Ladder of Aggression or Communication: Chart + Guide | Pupford

September 29th, 2023

Filed under Pet Parenting

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Are you familiar with the subtle signals that dogs exhibit when they experience stress? It's crucial to recognize and understand these signals, as failing to provide assistance to your doggo can lead to further escalation.

This article will help you understand the canine ladder of aggression, the different phases and signs of aggression in dogs and what they represent. And, of course, how you can help your dog avoid further escalation.

So let's explore how your dog's behavior can gradually escalate into aggression. Imagine a ladder consisting of multiple steps, where each step represents a behavior that dogs display as they become increasingly anxious, stressed, and fearful.


In our journey to become more empathetic companions to our beloved dogs, it is vital to familiarize ourselves with the Canine Ladder of Aggression. It can also be referenced as just the dog ladder of aggression.

This concept serves as a simplified escalation process that our canine friends employ to express their discomfort and convey important messages to us.

It's easy to forget that dogs have a limited means of communication with humans, while we expect them to comprehend our complex language effortlessly. However, we often overlook the significance of learning their unique way of communication. This oversight is particularly crucial because dogs possess an incredible ability to convey their emotions through subtle signals.

By delving into the depths of the Canine Ladder of Aggression, we gain profound insight into the intricate warning signs that our dogs exhibit. These signs act as their silent pleas for understanding and support. By attuning ourselves to these signals, we can bridge the communication gap and forge a deeper bond of understanding with our canine companions.


canine ladder of Aggression pyramid | Pupford

It is natural for dogs to go through various phases of behavior, including what may be perceived as peaks of "aggression." During puppy development, certain factors can contribute to these phases, such as teething, which leads to increased biting tendencies. Additionally, the second fear phase (between six to eighteen months) can trigger spikes in what we perceive as "aggression." This phase marks a crucial period when dogs develop new fears and may choose to escalate their responses, often leading to reactivity.

However, it is important to recognize that what we label "aggression" does not always indicate true aggression. There are several situations that can provoke more intense reactions from dogs, such as pain, discomfort, or being placed in high-stress environments. Furthermore, encounters with human or canine individuals who fail to listen or understand can also elicit stronger responses.

It is crucial to understand that the term "aggression" often misrepresents the true nature of these behaviors. In the case of puppies, their biting is typically a part of their natural learning and exploration process, while reactive dogs often try to communicate their discomfort or unease. Hence, the concept of the ladder of aggression is better understood as the ladder of communication. It serves as a reminder that, at its core, these behaviors are primarily means of expression.


When you observe these signs in your dog, it's crucial to recognize that they are not necessarily indicative of aggression alone; they often signify stress. In such moments, it becomes paramount to lend an empathetic ear and truly listen to what your dog is trying to communicate.

If you identify any behaviors that trigger your dog's discomfort, we strongly advise taking a step back and reassessing the situation. It is important to acknowledge these instances of unease and refrain from forcing your dog into them.

By respecting their boundaries, we create a safe space where their emotional well-being can flourish. Additionally, recognizing patterns in these moments can provide valuable insights into training opportunities or situations to avoid.

Determining the best course of action will depend on whether the triggering experiences are essential for your dog. For instance, if your dog displays stress signs during visits to the groomer or vet, it may be beneficial to consider desensitization exercises for specific processes or seek a more understanding and cooperative professional.

Above all, it is crucial to remember and reinforce the following principle: Never punish a growl. While it may instill fear in us as humans, it is essential to understand that growling is a form of communication.

Communication should never be viewed as negative or problematic. On the contrary, it serves as a valuable means for our dogs to express their feelings and needs.

Every breed possesses its unique temperament; within that, each dog holds their distinct limits of patience and tolerance. However, it is essential to recognize that the warning signs they exhibit are universal and deserve our attention. Familiarizing ourselves with these signs can help us better understand and empathize with our canine companions. The different signs/signals are as follows.


lip licking is step 1 on the canine ladder of aggression

In our quest to understand our furry companions on a deeper level, it is crucial to pay attention to the initial signals they give us. Sign 1 begins with the subtle yet significant behaviors of licking lips and yawning.

Licking lips can manifest as a gentle tongue flick over the lips or even a complete nose lick.

Meanwhile, a stress yawn is often exaggerated, accompanied by a unique squeaky noise.

These seemingly small actions serve as the first indicator that our dogs are experiencing a degree of stress and need some personal space. It is why these signals are also included in the list of displacement behaviors.

We demonstrate our empathetic understanding of their emotions by attuning ourselves to these early signs. We respect their boundaries and acknowledge their desire for a moment of reprieve.


Sign 2 is characterized by the act of looking away. This behavior signifies their search for disengagement and provides them with an opportunity to express their desire to distance themselves from the situation at hand. However, it is also recognized as a displacement signal indicating discomfort.

When our dogs avert their gaze from what is happening around them, it is clear that they do not wish to be involved in the current circumstances. It is at this moment that we must honor their need for personal space and tranquility.

By respecting their choice to look away, we create an environment that encourages emotional well-being and fosters a sense of safety. In addition, granting them the space they require allows for more harmonious and balanced coexistence.

when a dog looks away they can be uncomfortable in their environment


In our empathetic journey of understanding our canine companions, we arrive at Sign 3, characterized by the act of turning the body away. This physical movement signifies their desire to create distance from the source of their discomfort.

This response can manifest in subtle ways, such as leaning away from the problem, shifting their weight from close to far, and adjusting the position of their head. By actively increasing the physical distance, they aim to cultivate a sense of confidence and regain a feeling of security. It is crucial that we respect and honor this need for space.

We can potentially mitigate the escalation process by allowing our dogs to gain the necessary distance and refrain from invading their personal boundaries. In addition, our empathetic actions create an environment where their emotional well-being is prioritized.

Recognizing Steps 1 through 3 is crucial as it is during these early stages that we can identify signs of discomfort in our canine companions.

Learn more about your dog's body language with our Body Language Course in Pupford Academy+. 


The act of walking away takes center stage with sign 4. It is not uncommon for dogs to seek an escape route when faced with a stressful situation, especially in multi-dog households or interactions involving children.

Walking away is a proactive means of avoidance, allowing our dogs to distance themselves from the source of their stress. When they make this choice, it signifies a mature approach to conflict resolution, even for a dog. If we can act as their advocates and ensure that whatever is causing their distress does not follow them, it can have a tremendously positive impact on their well-being.

Recognizing this mature coping mechanism can create a supportive environment encouraging their emotional growth and resilience. However, it is essential to note that by detecting and responding to the earlier signs of stress, we can proactively remove opportunities for stress to arise in the first place. Our attentiveness and empathetic actions empower us to provide our dogs with a life free from unnecessary stressors.


whale eyes in dogs indicates fear

The crouching slightly and ears back behaviors come into play with Sign 5. When our dogs adopt a slinking posture or begin to lower their bodies, it is a profound sign of appeasement. It communicates their strong desire to disengage from the current situation.

This physical response is often accompanied by a display of ears pulled back, further emphasizing their state of unease. Additionally, you may notice the presence of the "whale eye," where the whites of their eyes become more visible, indicating a general sense of fear.

It is crucial to approach this behavior with sensitivity and understanding. By recognizing their submissive posture, we acknowledge their plea for respite from the stressors they are experiencing. Creating a safe space that respects their boundaries is essential in nurturing their emotional well-being.


The body's descent and the tucking of the tail are an indication of Sign 6. These unmistakable signs often indicate a profound sense of fear. Moreover, they serve as a solid and evident marker on the ladder of aggression, typically representing a higher level of emotional distress.

When our dogs crouch, lower their bodies, and tuck their tails, it is crucial that we recognize the gravity of their emotions. While it may be more apparent in certain breeds, such as spitz breeds with their distinctive tail carriage, it can be more challenging to discern in others, such as Labradors with naturally low tail positions.

This posture is a poignant plea for understanding and compassion. It reveals the depth of their vulnerability and the overwhelming fear they are experiencing. Our responsibility is to create an environment where they feel safe and secure, free from the triggers that evoke such responses.

dog with their tail tucked


Sign 7, where exposing the tummy becomes significant, is characterized by rolling onto their back, often leading us to mistake it for a request for a belly rub. Instead, it serves the same purpose - a display of vulnerability and trust.

Among many other gestures, the exposed tummy holds great importance for our dogs. It is the very core of their being, where vital organs reside, and it is a remarkably vulnerable area. When they reveal their belly, it symbolizes their willingness to let their guard down and relinquish any notions of being a threat.

This profound act showcases their implicit trust in us, their human companions. It is an invitation to connect on a deeper level, demonstrating that they feel safe and secure in our presence. It is essential that we respond to this vulnerability with the utmost care and respect.


dog with stiff posture

Sign 8 is where their body stiffens, and their gaze becomes intense. This is a critical moment of communication—a clear warning sign that they are no longer comfortable with the current situation. By this point, they have likely exhausted their attempts to address the issue with subtle cues.

When our dogs stiffen, they are making a powerful statement. It is a resolute message that conveys their profound discomfort and distress. You may observe the stiffening manifest as a rigid posture, a lowered stance, and a piercing gaze that locks onto their surroundings. Through these actions, they try to express that they have reached their limit and that their emotional well-being is at stake.

It is crucial we listen and respond to this warning. Our dogs rely on us to recognize their boundaries and advocate for their needs. This is a pivotal moment where our actions can significantly impact their overall emotional state.


Sign 9, the unmistakable sound of a growl, becomes their final plea for comfort. This is a critical moment where we should lend our undivided attention. It is a clear indication that they are profoundly uncomfortable and in need of immediate acknowledgment.

Within this step, we may witness variations in the intensity of the growl itself. It could range from a mere vocalization to the addition of subtle lip wrinkles and, in extreme cases, a visible display of teeth. These nuanced expressions reflect the escalating urgency of their communication.

It is paramount that our dogs feel heard and understood. If they have reached the point of growling, it signifies that their previous attempts to convey their discomfort went unnoticed. As caregivers, we are responsible for learning from these experiences and becoming more attuned to their subtle signals (but know that there are different kinds of dog growls, learn more about dog growling, here).

Note: under no circumstances should we ever punish a growl. We must recall that growling is purely a means of communication. When we punish a growl, we inadvertently create an environment where our dogs learn that expressing their distress leads to negative consequences. This harmful cycle can lead them to skip the growling stage altogether, escalating straight to biting as a last resort.

By actively listening and responding to their growls, we foster an environment where their communication is valued and respected.


dog snapping at another dog

Sign 10 is the ultimate stage of their emotional journey. So when our dogs resort to air snaps and vocalizing, it is a poignant signal that demands our immediate attention and a respectful retreat.

During this critical phase, they may exhibit "whale eye," a telltale sign of fear, and you may notice their body leaning away from the source of their distress. Sometimes, these actions can be dismissed or brushed off as insignificant, particularly with smaller dogs. However, it is of utmost importance, regardless of their size, that we heed their communication.

We must not underestimate the significance of this stage. Our dogs have exhausted all previous attempts to convey their discomfort and are now employing more assertive means of expression. It is a plea for us to recognize their emotional boundaries and honor their need for space and security.

By actively listening and respecting their signals, we create an environment where their emotional well-being is prioritized. Regardless of their size, every dog deserves to have their voice heard and their distress acknowledged.

11. BITE

We now arrive at Step 11, a stage we earnestly strive to prevent from occurring.

A bite signifies a crucial turning point, indicating that our dog's distress signals have been disregarded or overlooked. It is the result of a series of escalating steps, an outcome that could have been avoided had we been attuned to their emotional needs.

Within the realm of biting, varying degrees and intensities exist, but for our discussion today, let us focus on the overarching principle: we aspire to prevent bites altogether.

The importance of avoiding this stage cannot be overstated. No dog should ever be pushed to the point where biting becomes their only means of communication. As their parents and guardians, we must create an environment that safeguards their well-being and minimizes the risk of such incidents. If utilizing a muzzle to mitigate the potential for biting is deemed necessary, it is an essential step in prioritizing safety.

By actively listening, respecting their boundaries, and taking preventative measures, we can avert situations where biting becomes a regrettable reality. Together, we can foster an environment where our dogs feel seen, heard, and cherished, free from the anguish that leads to such extreme measures.

Remember, each dog is unique, and the canine ladder of aggression serves as a guiding tool.

If you were unable to prevent a fight from occurring, it's very important to learn how to break up a dog fight. Watch the video below for guidance.


By assuming the role of your dog's advocate and cultivating a compassionate and empathetic approach, you can forge a stronger bond while mitigating potential aggression.

  1. Create a Positive Environment: Take proactive steps to ensure your dog's well-being by avoiding situations that may trigger discomfort or upset. Steer clear of people, dogs, and places that have previously elicited undesirable behaviors in your furry companion until you can seek assistance from a qualified dog behaviorist.
  2. Avoid Punishment, Encourage Communication: Remember, the behaviors mentioned earlier serve as your dog's way of expressing their emotions. Therefore, it is crucial never to punish your dog for exhibiting these behaviors. Punishment can inhibit their ability to communicate effectively, potentially escalating directly to a bite. Instead, let's prioritize open communication and mutual understanding.
  3. Learn the Language of Gestures: Educate yourself on the meaning behind these gestures, allowing you to interpret your dog's body language more accurately. Encourage your family members and friends to become more attuned to these signals as well. By doing so, we can collectively create an environment that minimizes the need for your dog's last resort - aggression.
  4. Delve into the Underlying Causes: Seek to understand why your dog feels compelled to display aggressive tendencies. Identifying the root causes will enable you to address them effectively and promote a more harmonious relationship.
  5. Embrace the Subtle Signals: Pay close attention to the subtle cues conveyed through your dog's body language. Recognizing and responding to these signals can foster a deeper connection with your canine companion.

Take a moment to recall a situation when your beloved canine companion experienced stress. How did you react? Let us know in the comment section.

Learn more about your dog's body language with our Body Language Course in Pupford Academy+. 


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