The Ladder of Aggression

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The history of the Ladder of Aggression

Around 2000, Professor Daniel Mills of Lincoln University Life Sciences Department asked if I would write a chapter on social behaviour and communication in dogs for a new publication – the first edition of a behavioural medicine manual for veterinary surgeons to be published by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA). I accepted this invitation with some trepidation, particularly as I was not his first choice (Dr. Ian Dunbar having declined), realising as I did that it would entail much unaccustomed reading and referencing. The chapter was eventually entitled ‘Development of behaviour, social behaviour and communication in the dog’ and the manual, covering both dogs and cats, was published in 2002.

By the time of writing the chapter, I had already formulated some of my own ideas about how and why dogs expressed themselves, particularly with regard to peace-keeping gestures, and had been considerably influenced by Turid Rugaas and what she termed ‘calming signals’ (1997). I had long questioned the relevance of the concepts of ‘dominance’ and ‘submission’ as they were then routinely applied to canine body language and had wondered whether the average dog would agree with this historical wisdom. At worst, these terms were being applied as if dominance and submission were fixed features of an individual, akin to being large or black, rather than ‘this dog is behaving in a dominant or submissive manner’. And yet it was self-evident that there was a fluidity between communicative gestures and that a dog who may have appeared to be the epitome of submission one minute could become mountainously dominant the next. Yet I could find nothing in the literature at that time to officially support what I wanted to say.

The closest I could get was to the concept of ‘resource holding potential’ as a means of resolving conflicts (Parker 1974) which basically accepted that if a resource was considered extremely valuable by one individual, and a second did not care enough to be potentially injured over it, the latter would appear to concede defeat. In most cases, possession appeared to be ‘9/10ths of the law’: ‘it’s mine and you’re not having it’. Rather than understanding that resource value was the determining factor in the interaction, an observer might have his entrenched opinion reinforced, that one individual was showing dominance over the other submissive animal. In turn, dogs that growled at their owners over a bone or food bowl were, and still are, labelled as dominant to be dealt with accordingly.

But was this really the whole story?

In researching the chapter, I came across a diagram illustrating ‘expressive social responses in the dog’ attributed to Fox and Bekoff 1975 and cited in K. Houpt’s Domestic Animal Behaviour for Veterinarians in 1982. The schema indicated a one-way transition between gestures and that both play-soliciting and a more aggressive stance could move towards a fearful and so-called submissive posture. Submission was moreover subdivided into active, when some movement was being performed by a dog to indicate its submissive state, and passive, when a dog was frozen into inactivity.

I could not accept these interpretations knowing as I did from practical experience how a very still ‘frozen’ dog might prove to be far more likely to bite if mismanaged than a dog raising a paw and licking its nose. Likewise a dog lying down with a rear leg raised could not be trusted to tolerate a tummy tickle from all comers. I therefore had the illustrations redrawn and took the liberty of having them relabelled omitting any mention of dominance or submission, active or passive. Instead, as can be seen, I subdivided the postures into signals which indicated a dog was content with distance decreasing between them and another individual and those which clearly showed that an increase in distance was being requested. When put in the context of a human-dog interaction, it is these requests for more space, particularly if subtle, that are so often ignored or misinterpreted with injurious consequences.


Expressive social responses in the dog. (Redrawn after Fox and Bekoff, 1975. Reproduced with permission from the BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine, 1st Edition © BSAVA.)

Meanwhile, all these thoughts seemed to coalesce and support a concept in diagrammatic form which I had begun to construct and had termed the ‘Ladder of Aggression’. It showed in a linear fashion how a dog might move up the metaphorical ladder if subtle ‘polite’ signals were not responded to appropriately (you could call the response ‘rudeness’) and on up towards threatened or overt aggression. Even worse was for gestures to be met, not simply by rudeness or lack of social nicety, but by threat, so that the exact opposite of what was intended, that of maintaining harmony, was the result. I also realised that dogs were continually moving up and down the ladder according to context, all the while trying to avoid biting. Very much thinking along the lines of ‘publish and be damned’, the diagram was submitted for inclusion in the BSAVA manual chapter and, somewhat to my surprise, was accepted by the editors.


Reproduced with permission from the BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine, 1st Edition © BSAVA.

The rest, as they say, is history. As well as being published in 2002, the Ladder of Aggression appeared in the second edition of the manual in 2009 and was lavishly illustrated by the late Magy Howard. It is available in poster form from BSAVA Publications.


The text accompanying the diagram in the 2009 BSAVA manual reads:

The Ladder of Aggression is a depiction of the gestures that any dog will give in response to an escalation of perceived stress and threat, from very mild social interaction and pressure, to which blinking and nose licking are appropriate responses, to severe, when overt aggression may well selected. The purpose of such behaviour is to deflect threat and restore harmony and the presence of appeasing and threat-averting behaviour in the domestic dog’s repertoire is essential to avoid the need for potentially damaging aggression. The dog is a social animal for whom successful appeasement behaviour is highly adaptive and it is used continually and routinely in every-day life. It is most important to realise that these gestures are simply a context and response-dependant sequence which will culminate in threatened or overt aggression, only if all else fails.

Contrary to persistent misinformation, the gestures identified are nothing to do with a purported dominant or submissive state relative to companions. In all dogs, inappropriate social responses to appeasement behaviour 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 behaviour is chronically misunderstood 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, or learn to dispense with lower rungs on the ladder over time, if repeated efforts to appease are 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.

(Shepherd, 2009, pp. 3–6)

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Jun 21, 2021 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on The Ladder of Aggression

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