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Dog Aggression Ladder – What Is It, Examples & FAQ

Breeding Business is passionate about all sorts of domesticated pets. They have written dozens of articles across the web.
Published on
Thursday 3 June 2021
Last updated on
Tuesday 9 May 2023
dog aggression ladder
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When a dog bites or growls, many people wonder where this behavior came from. There are actually a lot of behaviors dogs will show before to indicate upset, anxiety, and aggression. Many of us don’t recognize these small signs and then risk a dog bite or distressing your dog seriously. This is why referring to the dog aggression ladder can be a lifesaver. You can identify when your dog’s behavior and when they are saying no to a situation. Furthermore, you can see if your dog’s upset is mild or reaching severe levels.

In this article we will be looking at all the stages of the canine aggression ladder to help you identify the behaviors. By being able to do this you can understand your dog more, notice what areas need aid, and be aware when your dog needs space. This is a very useful tool to help you interact with your dog and avoid bites.

What is Dog Aggression

When a dog is aggressive it means they are more prone to displaying serious behaviors on the canine aggression ladder such as growling, snapping, or biting. It can develop from a high anxiety dog, those that have not had proper socialization or training, and selective breeding. The aggression can originate from certain dog breeds or those with trauma as well. Identifying dogs more prone to dog aggression allow us to begin identifying triggers of their aggression and behaving with more caution. This can help them to feel more comfortable and give us time to safely and patiently start the process of changing those negative behaviors. With the aid of a professional behaviorist of course.

The Dog Aggression Ladder

The dog aggression ladder labels behaviors in chronological order so you can identify the severity of your dog’s aggression. You can also see what severity of aggression your dog is reflecting and record it to relay to your dog’s behaviorist. Also, note what triggers there are and which bring out higher levels of aggression.

The Dog Aggression Ladder
The Dog Aggression Ladder


Mild levels of aggression, anxiety, or fear include yawning, turning their head away, and turning their body away. Below we will explain those with more depth.

  • Yawning: Although dogs can yawn on the odd occasion like us, it can also indicate aggression. Yawning repeatedly with often accompanied ‘lick smacking (licking lips repeatedly). This is an early sign of a dog being overwhelmed
  • Turning head: When your dog starts to turn their head away from you or from a certain stimuli. This is a coping mechanism for loud noises, or views that are distressing to them. They are physically trying to minimize the amount their senses are aware of or affected by this
  • Turning body: When your dog starts to turn their body away from you or from a certain stimuli. Moving their body is one step above their head because it’s positioning all parts of themself away from the stimuli


Below we have four summarized behaviors that are rated moderate on the dog aggression ladder.

  • Walking: If something is bothering you, you will walk away. This is exactly the same as with dogs. They will try to leave the environment, person, or stimuli that are bothering them completely
  • Creeping: When a dog starts to get overwhelmed, fearful, or nervous, their movements may become smaller. They try to appear more little so they are not noticed by whatever is upsetting them
  • Crouching: This is another movement to appear smaller but is often a little more severe as this symbol may mean they are too afraid to move or are beginning to feel too trapped to move
  • Lying down with their leg up: When dogs rest on their back with their legs up it can be a sign of submission due to fear or anxiety. This is not always the case so be sure to notice other behaviors to identify if this is through play or anxiety


These behaviors are in the most serious category of the dog aggression ladder. These behaviors are very close to inflicting injury so be aware of this.

  • Stiffening: A dog’s body will stiffen when they are on the verge of aggression. This can be because of an adrenaline response or fear leading to a frozen position
  • Growling: A clear sign that your dog wants to not be approached, to stop being touched, or something to change. Snapping and biting are usually quick to follow after this
  • Snapping: A dog will snap at you or whatever is bothering them as a sign to leave them alone. They may catch you with their teeth but often this is one bite in the air to warn you they are serious
  • Biting: A dog bite is when they intend to cause harm. This is at the top of the canine aggression ladder and can lead to a full attack

Examples of Dog Aggression

It is important to note that there are different forms of aggression. Dog aggression and dog fear aggression originate from two different causes and therefore presents itself differently. We will go through a few examples to help you become aware of a few of the forms of aggression.

Possessive Aggression

Some examples of possessive aggression can include target food or toy guarding. A dog will display forms of aggression to prevent their toy or food from being removed or interacted with this. This may mean that while your dog is eating if you come in the room they may bark, or if you try to touch their toy they may snap. These forms of aggression can come from trauma, a new house member, a lack of training, and even being a rescue dog. You can train this away by yourself or with a professional behaviorist, depending on the severity. It’ll just take positive reinforcement and some patience.

Offensive Aggression

Offensive aggression is often what people associate with an aggressive dog. An attack that has originated out of the blue. However, no aggression originates without cause. If you are walking your dog and another dog attacks them, this is a form of offensive aggression. It may be that the aggressive dog has had trauma leading to mistrust. Another option is that they are a trained guard dog or have been selectively bred to have higher aggression levels. This form of aggression is difficult to change and the method to do so depends on the cause. However, always contact a professional behaviorist as they can personalize the treatment for your dog.

offensive aggression in dogs
Offensive aggression is an attack that happens out of the blue.

Defensive Aggression

We can define defensive aggression as that which has come from provocation but is not driven by fear. In cases where a dog has bitten a child, often this is a cause. When a child is climbing on a dog and they work their way through behaviors on the aggression ladder, they eventually reach the top and bight. This comes from them feeling like they have no other choice in order to stop their behavior. It is why it is so crucial to notice your dog’s behavior and prevent the trigger before it increases in severity. Another example of this is when owners pull their dogs harshly on their leads whilst on a walk.

Fearful Aggression

Fearful aggression can be an innate reaction to something or a build-up of anxiety. For example, if your dog is scared of the hoover and you have been hoovering for quite some time, their anxiety will build. At the end of it you may try to interact with your dog only for them to snap at you. This is because their fear has been growing the whole time the noise has been on, therefore their fear level is quite high. When you interact with them they act immediately to protect themselves because of the state they are in emotionally.

Dog Aggression Ladder: FAQ

Let’s explore all the most searched questions on the internet concerning the canine aggression ladder so you can feel like an expert.

Can dog aggression be cured?

Dog aggression can often be countered with behavioral training from a professional, although there is no guarantee. It depends on your dog’s genetics, past, and causes for their behavior. Although the majority of dogs can be helped overtime. It takes patience, positive reinforcement, and the aid of a professional. There is no one cure for dog aggression so it all depends on your individual and their experiences.

Why is my dog being aggressive all of a sudden?

If aggression appears almost overnight then it is likely that your dog is suffering from an injury or they are feeling ill. Their mind is often centered on feeling unwell and they may not want to be touched because it makes them feel worse. This is especially common when a dog is in pain as interaction can lead to movement, which can increase the severity. Other reasons may include a new member of the house or a change in their life. These changes can induce stress and lead to a more anxious dog. Anxiety can lead to aggression out of defense and fear.

At what age do dogs become aggressive?

Age isn’t always correlated with aggression but it can occur. In older dogs they can become confused and this is where aggression may originate. This is only the case with elderly dogs though. Aggression originates for many different reasons but there is not an age where a dog becomes aggressive, it is much more common for the environment to influence this as well as their genetics. Puppies, adults, and elderly dogs may all develop aggressive behaviors and tendencies. Some dogs may never show any signs of aggression however, it all depends on the individual.

What should you do if your dog is aggressive?

If your dog is aggressive you should contact a behaviorist immediately once you have ruled out injury and illness. To do this, you may want to go for a vet visit to check your dog is well. After that, a behaviorist will be able to analyze your dog’s behavior, past, and breeding to identify the cause. Then they can find the suitable treatment moving forward to minimize and eradicate that aggression. Just be sure to never punish your dog for aggression. Not only does that not work, but it can actually lead to increased aggression. Your dog will become more defensive and untrusting which leads to aggression.

Why has my dog started being aggressive towards other dogs?

There is no one reason why your dog may be aggressive to other dogs suddenly, but here is a list of reasons why:
– Injury
– Illness
– A new family member
– Past trauma
– They have recently been attacked
Contact a behaviorist to find the proper reason for your dog’s change in attitude, but a vet visit to ensure your dog is well is always a good course of action. The pain from an injury or illness could mean they are not as receptive to interaction as a dog not suffering. Check their health before pursuing a behavior plan.

The dog aggression ladder is a very useful tool in identifying your dog’s aggressive behavior. If you notice your dog displaying an increased number of aggressive behaviors or those of a higher severity, this is when things need t change. Notice when they are occurring, what the triggers could be, and contact a professional for help. Just be sure to never punish your dog for aggression, they are doing so for protection, something innate, or other complicated reasons. Patience and positive reinforcement are the keys to helping your dog.

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