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Too often there are headlines about dogs that fatally attack their owners or children, leading to rumors about breeds and fear surrounding unpredictable dog attacks. In reality, dogs are very predictable and convey many warning signs of discomfort and desire to end interaction. Unfortunately, the signs more commonly recognized by humans are typically of an escalated nature, i.e. barking and biting. When people say a dog attacked without any warning that simply isn’t true. Humans don’t naturally understand a dog’s body language, thus, it is easy to miss the warning signs.  

The Ladder of Aggression illustrates gestures that dogs will perform in response to perceived stressors and threats. The purpose of the lower rung gestures is to deflect and avoid potentially harmful stimuli. To display discomfort dogs may initially lick their lips, blink rapidly and turn or walk away. These are referred to as appeasing or threat averting behaviours. Inappropriate response to these behaviours or ignoring of these behaviours from a dog’s perspective requires moving up the ladder. The dog shall then escalate, trying different tactics which eventually culminates in overt aggression. Aggressive behaviour is expressed in any situation where appeasement gestures have been continuously ignored and misunderstood. Also, in situations where the perceived threats occurs quickly, dogs will progress to overt aggression instantaneously.

It is important to note the Ladder of Aggression and early signs of stress and discomfort. Many owners often would scold or punish their dogs if they growled or snarled believing that they are correcting aggressive behaviour. In fact what the dog is learning is that it is not allowed to growl and will then skip this warning sign and go straight to biting. Ultimately we are giving ourselves fewer signs to observe and moving the dog closer overt aggression. This would result in faster escalation and what most may label as “unpredictable”.

When you see a dog performing any of the behaviours on this chart they are trying to communicate that you should stop and they would like to be left alone. The following is a list of some interactions that are often stressful for dogs, however, owners believe they enjoy it.

·         Children playing with them

·         Strangers approaching and touching

·         Someone approaching them when they are eating

·         Hugging and kissing

·         Patting on the head

·         Grooming

·         Touching feet, tails, and ears

·         Taking away toys

·         Meeting other dogs

Not all dogs are uncomfortable with the abovementioned and many may enjoy these interactions but unless you are looking for signs of stress, you are just assuming your dog is okay with them and possibly ignoring appeasement gestures.

It is important to note dogs may not display every warning sign before escalating but you will see at least one. If you see stress signs from your dog, make note of what seems to be causing the behaviours. Contact the Trinidad and Tobago Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TTSPCA) Tobago to consult with a Veterinary Behaviourist - 639-2567. The TTSPCA Tobago Clinic is open 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 1pm Saturdays. For emergencies and house visits please call 309-0219.

Author: Veterinary Behaviourist at TTSPCA Tobago Clinic, Malouah Nicole Straker DVM, MSc.
Last Updated: 2018-06-07T21:19:34.299Z