The Canine Ladder of Communication

Updated: Feb 18

(Credit to Kendal Shepherd for her published work)

Many of us will confidently say our dog would NEVER bite. Even people who own reactive dogs will still claim their dog would never bite. They might bark and lunge around but they would never bite. How can you be so sure?

Every dog can be classed as a ‘bite risk’, they all have teeth and they all have a capacity to use them if needed. It’s dangerous to claim your dog would never bite, when he is perfectly capable of doing so. Many dogs won’t ever bite in their lifetime, maybe because they are never pushed to that point or perhaps they choose to use other warnings without needing to escalate to a bite.

When you’re aware of the early warning signs, a growl, snap or bite will rarely come as a surprise. Spotting the early signs of communication will allow you to help your dog and recognise his discomfort before he feels the need to make his feelings clearer


Learning to read dog body language is like learning to understand a new language, dogs use subtle signals which we can easily miss, and because they talk with the bodies, we often wait for the vocal communication before we acknowledge how they’re feeling.

For many dogs, using vocalisations, like growling, will be right at the top of their ladder and something they only resort to as a final warning. Other dogs will have learnt to go straight to the signals which humans notice best, for example, growling, or even biting.

On the lower rungs of the ladder, behaviours such as, blinking, lip licking, yawning or head turning, are communicating the dog is feeling uncomfortable, and could be described anthropomorphically as “I’m worried”, “I feel uncomfortable”, or “calm down please”. Higher up the ladder, behaviours such as, growling, snapping or biting, are communicating in no uncertain terms to “BACK OFF”. Anthropomorphically the dog could be saying “Leave me alone right now” or “GO AWAY”.

The colour coding on the ladder can be read as a traffic light system, green areas are the start of anxiety, orange is moving closer to danger, and red is the