Having spent the last decade working in emergency veterinary medicine and spay/neuter clinics, dog behavior has never been a specialty for me. But now that my practice is devoted to preventative care, my veterinary training has been evolving to meet the needs of my clients and patients.
Behavior concerns are the No. 1 reason dogs are surrendered to shelters and, in too many cases, euthanized. Today, I want to put aside for a moment discussions about vaccines, flea and tick preventatives and heartworm testing to delve into the basics of dog behavior. Learning to read and respond to the body language of dogs can prevent dog bites. Dogs have a lot to tell us if we are willing to listen. One way to begin to better understand dog behavior is a concept called the Ladder of Aggression. Too often, we think of aggression as a dog bite. But what about the dog that protects its spot on the couch with a growl, or the dog on a leash or tie-out that stiffens up and stares when you approach it? Is that aggression?
I like the concept of the Ladder of Aggression because it implies a progression up or down. Behavior doesn’t always have to move in one direction. That’s the main theme of my advice to people for interacting with dogs. Let’s take the ladder and divide it into three color-coded sections. The bottom one-third is green, the middle third is yellow and the top third is red. Suddenly, it becomes easier to classify the growling or the staring dog. That animal is in the red zone but hasn’t yet progressed to snapping or biting.
Common initial responses from a dog that is stressed or senses a threat include yawning, blinking, licking lips and turning or gazing away. These are the green zone behaviors. At this point, most dogs will attempt to walk away. But if, for some reason, the dog cannot leave the situation—perhaps it is being chased by kids, is in a vet’s exam room or is on a leash—the dog has the potential to escalate to the yellow zone.
Too often I hear dog owners say that aggression seemed to come out of nowhere. This is rarely, if ever, the case. If a dog displays the subtle signs listed above and can’t get out of the situation, its body language may continue to climb the ladder. Animal behaviorists describe one of those signs as the “yield sign.” This is when dog lies down or sits crouched with one of its front legs lifted. The yield sign signals a decision-making point for the dog. He or she will often try again to get away from the stressful situation. But if the stress or threat persists, the dog may progress to a stiffened body posture, a lifted lip or a growl. The ultimate response to stress—and the one we want to avoid—is a bite.
Very few dogs are truly aggressive. Dog bites most often are a result of dogs being pushed too far in stressful situations. Recognizing the early signs of fear and stress in a dog is essential to preventing dog bites.
Children are the most frequent victims of dog bites and most often are bitten by dogs familiar to them. It is up to adults to read and respond to the behaviors of dogs in their households. If you see a dog displaying early signs of stress, you should carefully intervene. Put the dog outside or in another room. Teach children not to disturb dogs that are eating or sleeping. And use food treats or favorite toys as distractions for dogs in situations that induce anxiety. Keep an eye on the Ladder of Aggression, and work carefully to step your pet—and the people around it—down the ladder when stress seems to be rising.