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 danger zone.
The ladder can help you recognise when your dog is getting stressed. The sooner you recognise early communication, the quicker you can step in and help your dog. All dogs are individuals and they won’t all follow the ladder precisely or predictably. They will all reach the ‘danger zone’ differently, with dogs of certain temperaments or previous learning experiences getting there more quickly. But recognising when your dog is in the green zone will help you to reduce their chance of moving further up the ladder.
Green Zone: Blink, Yawn, Nose Lick, Head Turn, Body Turn, Sit, Paws
In this zone, the dog is slightly anxious and begins with displacement behaviours like blinking, yawning or nose licking. The whites of the eyes may also be seen at this point. When a dog begins to display these signals, he will likely still be in a state of mind capable of learning and responding to you.
He should be able to process information from you and practice behaviours which have previously been learnt in less stressful situations. You could use counter conditioning at this point to pair the stressful stimulus with a reward, protocols such as, DMT, LAT or BAT are based on this concept. For example, in DMT (also referred to as ‘engage-disengage’), you mark the moment when the dog sees the ‘trigger’ and then reward him. This must be done at a suitable distance though and the dog shouldn’t be displaying high levels of stress … if he’s lunging and barking, it’s too late!
Remember you CANNOT reinforce fear. Sometimes people are hesitant to ‘reward’ a dog when it’s displaying fearful body language because they don’t want to reinforce this behaviour. However, fear is an emotion and emotions can’t be reinforced!
By using rewards, you will be creating a more positive association with something your dog finds scary, and in turn, gradually changing his emotional and behavioural response.
If your dog yawns or nose licks at the sight of another dog 10metres away, take a few steps back and begin rewarding your dog for looking at the other dog. If his body language relaxes, you could move slightly closer, but always watch for those green zone signals appearing again.
If you dog yawns, blinks or turns his head during an interaction with a person, use this early warning sign to pause the interaction and give your dog some space. You could continue to reward him but maintain some distance between him and the person. He may choose to continue to interact but make sure this is completely his choice and watch for any more warning signs.
If the earliest signs are ignored, your dog may start to turn his head or body away from the stressful stimulus, he may also lift a paw or sit down. Take note of these behaviours and allow your dog to move away, because if you don’t, his next step will be to try and move away himself. When this happens, the dog is often unable to do so because he may be stopped by the lead or trapped in a more enclosed space, or his attempt to move away may be interrupted by the person or dog following to continue the interaction or the owner bringing him back into the situation.
Moving away from a stressful situation creates a sense of relief and reinforces this choice, so when a dog starts showing more green or orange signals, encourage him to move away and then work through counter conditioning exercises.
Don’t underestimate the importance of reassurance when your dog is beginning to feel worried or stressed. Some dogs will seek support from their owners by jumping up or coming close to them, so if your dog begins to jump or scrabble at your legs, offer some reassurance by interacting with them.
You could use scatter feeding to encourage a calmer response (sniffing lowers arousal and stress levels), or crouch to their level and calmly stroke them. If they come close to you in order to avoid an approaching person or dog, don’t push them away, reward this choice to seek reassurance from you.
Remember you should be your dog’s safe space!
Orange Zone: Walks Away, Creeps, Ears Back, Cowers, Tail Tuck, Rolls Over, Stiffens, Stares
When the dog isn’t able to get away and the green zone signals have been ignored, he will move into the orange zone.
Many of these signals can be misinterpreted, and dogs who walk away are often stopped or encouraged to come back into the situation. People may crouch down and make funny noises to encourage the dog to interact or they are put on a lead and forced back to where they were. When walking away doesn’t work, the dog may pull its ears back or roll over. This can be easily read as submission or ‘asking for a belly rub’. Indeed, this may be the case in some dogs but it can also be an attempt to communicate increasing anxiety.
A dog who rolls over or crouches with its tail tucked is not asking to be comforted or reassured by the very thing it’s trying to escape; it’s simply looking for some space and a relief from the anxiety inducing situation. Your dog needs to know he can rely on you to respect his signals and take action. If your dog tries to walk away, let him. If he rolls on his back, cowers or tucks his tail under, move him away from the situation. He may be able to relax as soon as he gains some space, and you can then work on pairing some good associations from a distance, but he may also be past coping at this point and in need of a total break.
If your dog is refusing to take food treats, or is unable to respond to reliable cues, it’s a clear sign he’s struggling to cope and needs more space or a break from the situation. When a dog goes into fight/flight mode, their digestive system will shut down as all energy is focused on survival, this is when food rewards are no longer important to them and they may lose the ability to process anything you’re trying to communicate.
Creating space from the stressful stimulus may take them back into the green zone, where you can work on pairing good associations or encouraging calm by scatter feeding on the floor or asking for well-practiced behaviours (e.g. middle, hand touch or anything your dog enjoys performing!). This will help lower arousal levels and encourage calm more quickly. If green signals persist or orange ones reappear, make sure you leave the situation immediately.
The next signal which is right on the borderline of the red zone, yet scarily easy to miss, is the freeze and stare. This might happen for the briefest moment before the growl, snap or bite happens, so a freeze or stare should be taken very seriously. Don’t hesitate at this moment to get your dog straight out of the situation, you are probably a split second away from a red zone reaction. Dog’s who have a past history of snapping or biting, or who have been punished for growling, may freeze ever so briefly before they go straight for a bite, so this is not one to ignore in any situation.
Once out of the situation, use a calm activity, like scatter feeding, to lower arousal and help your dog relax again. Remember they were on the verge of the danger zone so their stress levels will be high and they will need time to calm down.
Red Zone: Growls, Snaps, Bites
These are the signals which rarely go unnoticed. A growl is telling you in no uncertain terms to ‘stop what you are doing’, so never ever punish a growl. By punishing a growl, you are simply adding stress and fear to a dog who is already struggling to cope, and making him less likely to display this signal in the future. By punishing a growl, you effectively remove this communication and make the dog more likely to go straight for a bite next time he reaches this point on the ladder.
A snap is usually strong enough for us to take note, but push it further and the dog will bite. A bite comes when the dog is left with no other choice, it does not happen suddenly or ‘out of the blue’, and someone will be at fault for ignoring all prior warning signals so DON’T BLAME THE DOG!
Skipping the Steps
Some dogs will climb the ladder faster, some dogs will skip many signals, some will bite with very little or no warning. In some cases, this could be genetically influenced, but most of the time it will be due to past learning experiences. A dog is very unlikely to bite for the first time without showing any warning signals in the build-up, but a dog may bite again with very few or very fast warnings because he has previously learnt that biting is highly effective.
Some dogs will learn that using all the green and orange signals is ineffective … none of these successfully communicated their feelings, but biting instantly made the scary thing go away. Why bother wasting time on lower signals if biting instantly works?
There is also a huge sense of relief when signals are respected and successfully achieve the desired outcome, so a few successful bites will quickly reinforce this as a highly effective behaviour. Equally, if green signals are respected quickly and successfully, these will be well reinforced and more likely to be repeated. Dogs do what works.
If yawning and nose licking creates space from a stressful situation, there is no need to move higher up the ladder or communicate stronger signals. But if nothing works except growling or biting, then these will be the most reinforced communication signals. Remember you are your dog’s advocate; he should be able to trust you and rely on you. If you ever see him communicating feelings of uncertainty or discomfort, take action and help him out, before he has to make his feelings even clearer!
If you have a reactive dog, or a dog who communicates stress or fear in certain situations, understanding the ladder of aggression is a crucial part of the training process. In order to effectively change their behaviour, you have to work with the underlying causes and this must be done at a level where your dog is remaining on the lower rungs of the ladder.
Once your dog is barking, lunging, snapping or biting, you are way past the point of clear thinking. At this point, your dog is in survival mode and no longer able to process information or learn effectively. To be able to build confidence or teach new responses, your dog needs to be in a focused mindset where he’s able to take in information and feel safe.
Reading your dog’s body language is an important skill and it can help to work with an experienced professional who can assist with reading the signals of communication.
If you’re concerned about your dog’s behaviour or you’re unsure where to start, get in touch with us at Adolescent Dogs. We feel strongly about all dog owners, and non-dog owners, learning to understand how dogs communicate! We routinely work with dogs and their owners who are struggling to communicate effectively with each other.
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Written by Naomi White