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Stress Escalation Ladder (S.E.L.)

The stress escalation model, is a model showing how the behaviour of a dog evolves when he's exposed to an increasing level of stress.


From low level displacement behaviours up to extreme levels of stress, where the dog feels forced to take action. Moving up the ladder can go steadily or in the blink of an eye, depending of the dog and the situation.

Never punish a dog for showing any of these behaviours (eg: growling), this may cause the animal to skip these rungs and go straight to the final step "bite". The dog will then most likely be labelled as "unpredictable", while he was made this way. 

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S.E.L. & Reactivity

Often owners feel that a dog shows reactive behavior “out of the blue”, without any warning. In reality dogs will start communicating and sending signs to deescalate the situation well in time.

Phase 1:

During the first stage the dog identifies the trigger and will start showing calming and distance increasing signs. He wants to make it clear to the trigger in a polite way that he starts to feel uncomfortable with the situation and doesn’t want to get closer. These calming sings are normal canine communication and understood and respected by all well socialized adult dogs. Unfortunately they are often missed by humans and the requested distance is not respected by them. During this stage low levels of stress occur and expected behaviors can be:

  • Yawning

  • Lip licking

  • Looking / Turning away

  • Moving slowly

  • Sniffing ground (displacement behavior)

  • Scratching

  • Panting

  • Shaking off adrenaline


Phase 2:

If this was unsuccessful and the distance between the dog and the trigger becomes smaller, the dog’s stress level will rise and he will prepare to take action. He will start showing more explicit distance increasing signs and will be pushed towards his threshold. Some of the observable behaviors during this stage are:

  • Sweating paws

  • Trembling / shaking

  • Whale eye

  • Hackling

If the dog is reaching his threshold he will stop sending out “calming sings” and assume a tall dog posture. He will focus intensely on the trigger and will close his mouth.

Phase 3:

If all this is in vain and the distance with the trigger becomes less and less, the dog will be pushed over his threshold. His stress level will peak and he feels that he is forced to take action by showing “reactive behaviors”:

  • Showing teeth

  • Growling

  • Barking

  • Flight / withdrawal

  • Lunging

  • Bitin


The intensity, the amount and the proximity of the trigger(s) will determine the moment the dog moves up the escalation ladder. Every time a dog is pushed over his threshold his cortisol level will peak. Under these tense conditions the needed distance to a similar trigger in the same environment will increase, until the dog’s hormone level is back to normal.

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