Bouba, Kiki and the ladder of aggression

It sounds like I’m writing a children’s story or perhaps it’s a progressive rock band. But no, this is more thoughts from the body language talk and I’d like to expand on the idea of the “ladder of aggression”. I want to try to get across the idea that the body language and interactions are deeply ingrained patterns within us all, although we generally have to stop our thinking and thoughts obscuring the view in order to appreciate it. Labelling these actions and then having to know about prior learning and context is missing the point. Children have a more intimate understanding of this than adults. They move around and feel these forces and rhythms more intuitively than most. Generally we compound problems by training a dog to think about what it should do, we would be better served getting out of the way and letting them feel right. But I’m not advocating a laissez-faire approach, blindly hoping for the best, although sometimes that can help. It’s to gradually build confidence in a step-by-step manner, showing the dog a way of getting stronger and more resilient.

Meet Kiki and Bouba. These are two characters that are easily identifiable. There is a direct correspondence between the sound of their name and their shape. I could go even further and describe how they act and move. You’d know which was warm and liked to curl up on the sofa, and it wouldn’t be difficult to think that one likes ice-skating and gets frustrated putting on a jumper. Stereotypes for sure, but one is more appealing to touch. This was a well-known psychological experiment looking at how we can attach abstract thoughts to shapes in a consistent way. I want to try to describe body language in a similar way, shifting through sensations with descriptions to help bring a feeling to mind. Kiki is sharp and electric whereas Bouba is soft and magnetic.

Now before you think I’m making a gross error by “typing” a dog, and say that it’s impossible to cast such a net over all the types of dog. I’m not. So bear with me while we take a look at the ladder of aggression.

I don’t think this is how things work and I believe there is a reason that the experts are confused on interpretation. The misunderstandings then create as much of a problem and this is why, despite our best efforts with puppy classes, positive training, and educated owners, we still have problems with dogs.

First of all I want you to imagine that this ladder is not an escalation to aggression. In your mind turn it into circular train track…

An image that is rich in symbolism, the circle of life, everything goes around and comes around. Just like in the yin yang of the Taijiquan, there is no black or white, it’s both. When we look at the linear narrative of the ladder we don’t appreciate how the top joins to the bottom, in a missing link that needs to be connected. And that there are pairs of each, two sides of a ladder supporting each single rung. There are two rails around this circle and the ladder of aggression also has the opposite side. A companion to each of the behaviours, ones that aren’t simply seen as problematic, a complementary equivalent to each action on the list. For example stiffening occurs before a waiting dog is released, not very aggressive, just positive explosive energy. I don’t want to get stuck on the list that the ladder presents because I don’t think the rungs chosen are necessarily relevant, but as another example I would say that biting is central to a dog’s being and is pleasurable, delightful, joyous for a dog. The more a dog loves to bite the more stable and well adjusted the overall composure. We should celebrate our dogs biting.

Now coming back to Bouba and Kiki, I hope I don’t have to remind you which one is which. They are not dogs, they are not simple characters, but they can give shape to the now circular ladder. Imagine one side of the ladder being Kiki, and the other Bouba. Sharp spikey Kiki combines with soft smooth Bouba. I don’t want to suggest that Kiki is bad, no its vigorous action is necessary for getting things done. Bouba would be still sat on the sofa without Kika. Kika can bring gusto and enthusiasm, but without Bouba to help soften things get broken in the whirl.

So instead of a ladder I’m suggesting we could think of a wheel, or train tracks running in a circle. The character of each “rung” can be either soft or sharp. We should be able to move around the circle and have the dog cope with all of the sequence, essentially soften all those fear tinged rungs on the ladder of aggression. When fear is strong then the inner intensity pushes out past the softened exterior.

The problem then becomes how to shift and move around the circle. The dog gets stuck on acting out of fear. Seeing this pattern as a ladder then exacerbates the stuckness. By backing down the ladder instead of being able to soften any part of the sequence the patterns don’t move through to “relax”. It becomes like a rusted mechanism that jams, and then releases in a sudden burst. Without tipping over the top into soften and relax the dog has to wait until the next opportunity. A soft dog is inclined to release this panic in a phobic reaction, a panic without a target. The work that a dog will do when in the grip of a phobia is immense, and everything is about shifting through to the calmer side of the circle. Blaming it all on the outer environment gives the dog a way of releasing all the pressure we inadvertently apply and, with increasingly sophisticated training, block up. A harder dog is going to find a focus for its energy, and by constantly stepping back from the ladder they will have to look elsewhere. Everything looks great for ages, but then the rage comes to the surface as an explosion, perhaps triggered by just the right dog shape or even a uniform, just to release the building tension that never got to be expressed.

All of the sharp spikes should be softened and relaxed. Movement, barking and biting all help. We see the zoomies as a funny thing to watch, but it’s releasing fear out into the world. Much better to let the zooming dog run to us and jump up, then becoming a safe place to go. We should encourage a dog to lick its lips then praise and feed to help soften. Growling can be pushed into barking, getting the dog to breathe instead of stiffen. Shift biting into a softened mawing and grabbing of our hands. We can help the dog soften all these spikes, and show it how to apply the vigorous action in the right place too. The intensity when used productively is a useful force. Aggression when applied correctly is determination and power.

Image credits

“Kiki and Bouba” comes from

“Ladder of aggression” comes from


One Reply to “Bouba, Kiki and the ladder of aggression”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *