Calm Signals and Ladder of Aggression

Animals use body language to communicate and to be able to express their comfort or discomfort with a situation they feel comfortable or uncomfortable with. In order to help us understand what our dogs are trying to tell us, we turn to the studies of two researchers: Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian dog trainer who describes the “Calm Signals”, and Kendal Sheperd, a UK veterinarian specialising in animal behaviour, who talks about the “Aggression Ladder”.

Calm Signals.

If we stop and look carefully at the way our dog moves in every situation, we will be able to recognise many of these signals in our daily lives. The purpose of these signals is to convey “good feeling”, to communicate how he feels and to explain to us in a loving way that something pleases or displeases him. Below we describe some of the most common ones.

  • Licking: although we normally associate this with “kissing” or a sign of affection, and it is true that this is sometimes the case, when our dog licks our hands, for example, it is usually to try to relieve our tension.
  • Yawning: indicates discomfort. It is generally accompanied by tilting the eyes sideways and the ears back.
  • Squinting: this is usually related to a sense of security and calm.
  • Head turns: If you try to pet or kiss your dog, or if another dog approaches him to sniff him and he turns his head away, this indicates that he is uncomfortable.
  • Whimpering: indicates a request for space.
  • Stretching: when our dog stretches out his front legs while raising his hind legs, with his mouth open and his ears erect, it may indicate that he is looking for play. On the other hand, if it is accompanied by licking his lips, turning his head and looking sideways, he is asking for space.
  • Sniffing the ground around where he is: this signal is very common in encounters between dogs. A first meeting accompanied by this signal is guaranteed to be successful, because it means that your dog is calm.
  • Shaking: they do this when they need to release accumulated tension.
  • Exposure of the abdominal area: this is an indication that our dog is cordial, confident, calm and submissive.
  • Nuzzling: indicates a request for attention. He probably wants a cuddle, a walk?
  • Walking around in circles sniffing another dog’s anal area: this is a form of friendly greeting.
  • Remaining completely still: when in new situations our dog remains completely still, he is becoming small and allowing the other dogs or people to explore him without opposition. Be careful if he stays still because we have shouted at him or scolded him, the meaning changes completely and is now called learned helplessness. It is indicating that he is very afraid and believes that if he stays still the scolding will stop. It is not at all advisable to communicate in this way, as we are generating stress and fear.
  • Urinating: we could say that this is a marking technique, but in reality it is also a way of making oneself known through the sense of smell.

Ladder of aggression.

When calm signals are not correctly interpreted, and the animal continues to feel uncomfortable and even violent, a series of very obvious behaviours appear that occur sequentially before a conflict is triggered.

Genetically, animals are programmed to have certain responses to stimuli, but our own experiences also shape our behaviour through learning. Because of their long history of domestication, it is common for our dogs’ signals to be aimed at avoiding confrontation with another individual, regardless of the species to which they belong. Domestication has influenced the invasive response dogs have to the way we communicate with them. This is why we see obvious differences between a wolf and a dog, and the first defensive reaction is not usually aggression as it may be in wild species.

Aggression is usually the last alternative. Before this, the animals will show us a series of behaviours that we call “agonistic” with the intention of avoiding the conflict and that progressively increase in intensity, as if it were a staircase.

Animals are very clear in their communication, and the more domesticated the species is, and therefore the closer it is to our own, the longer these expressions of each behaviour last, in an attempt to give us time to understand them clearly. The problem is often that our lack of information makes us completely misinterpret their language, and therefore we respond in a way that is confusing or even threatening to the dog, when it is not really our intention.

Below we show you this infographic based on Kendal Shepherd’s studies, in which we can visually compare the ladder of aggression in humans and dogs.