Growling is Good!   6 comments

Let’s look at a typical scene:

A dog owner is walking her dog through the park. Another person walks by and suddenly, her well-behaved angel starts growling and baring his teeth at the person, with his hackles up and his body tense. The embarrassed owner scolds her dog and corrects him with a jerk on the leash, and apologizes to the other person. They continue, giving each other a wide berth, and finish their walks.

This type of thing has happened to most dog owners at least once, and usually, they have no idea why their dog is doing it. It is embarrassing, it makes a person feels like a bad owner, she’s afraid for the reputation her dog will get, and she just wants her dog to stop growling! The sentiment is common, and the desire to “correct” the dog until they stop is strong.

However, let’s consider the alternative:

A dog owner is walking her dog through the park. Another person approaches and her dog walks silently by her side. All of a sudden, as the other person is passing by, her dog lunges and latches his jaws onto the person’s arm. Shocked at the vicious attack with no warning, the owner apologizes profusely, and now may be stuck not only with doctors’ bills, but with having to surrender her “dangerous dog” to be euthanized.

As embarrassing as it can be to have your dog growl, it has a purpose. Your dog is telling you that he is uncomfortable. He is communicating in a positive, safe way that he feels something is wrong, and giving you as his leader the chance to protect him from it by getting him away. It is far better that your dog give you this warning than that he keep his fear inside until it gets so big it comes out as a bite.

When uncomfortable or scared, dogs have two main responses: fight or flight. If for any reason he feels that flight is unavailable to him; he is on a leash, he is in an enclosed space, running has not worked before; he will feel he has no choice but to resort to fight. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a dog is not growling because he is mean, he is growling because he is scared and he’s desperately hoping that if he tells whatever is scaring him to back off he won’t have to fight it off. However, if pushed, and if he feels he has no other choice, a dog will fight to get rid of something that is scaring him.

Why is it we are embarrassed when our dog growls? Because we know that when a dog growls it is often a precursor to a bite. That precursor, though, is very important! Without the opportunity to give warning, to let you and anyone else know that something is scaring him, to growl, the dog has no steps left before biting. And then the attack is a complete shock.

When dealing with a dog who growls, you do not want to teach your dog not to growl. You want to teach your dog to not feel like he needs to growl. If a dog feels like he needs to growl, but doesn’t due to training, all of the stress and feelings that lead up to a bite are still there, and the dog will still bite if pushed. This not only doesn’t help prevent dog bites, it makes them worse by giving you no warning they are coming. If, instead, you work with your dog and teach him to not feel the need to growl, by showing him that whatever he is scared of is not a threat and actually can be a source of good things, then the bite will not come.

So what should you do if your dog does growl?

Immediately turn around and walk away from whatever your dog is growling at, staying calm. Give him the space he needs to settle down, and then continue on. Once he is settled, the danger of imminent bite is gone. While you are leaving, see if you can take note of what your dog was growling at. You will want to know this for later training.

Do NOT punish your dog for growling, verbally or physically. If you do this your dog will learn one of two things: that he shouldn’t growl and should go straight to biting, as discussed earlier, or that whatever he is growling at is even more scary than he thought. The way a dog’s brain works, he does not necessarily connect what he is feeling with what he is doing. Rather, he often connects what he is feeling with what he is seeing or sensing. So if a dog is staring at something that scares him and you correct him for growling, rather than thinking, “I growled, and so I felt pain. I should stop growling,” (a bad lesson anyway), he is likely to think, “I saw that thing, and I felt pain. That thing must be even scarier than I thought.” If your dog takes away the lesson that what he was growling at causes him pain, he is going to be even more nervous about it, and even more likely to bite next time he sees it.

Now that you know what caused the growl, you know what your dog is afraid of, and you can work on teaching him he doesn’t need to feel afraid and growl. At this point you may want to contact a professional trainer to help you work with your dog. Even when based in fear, growling is a serious problem which can lead to serious aggression, and if not properly treated could lead to your dog being taken away and even put down. The sooner you start effectively working on it, the easier it will be to correct. If however, you feel that you can work with your dog yourself, below is one general method which can be applied to most cases of fear-based aggression.

Invest in a clicker, a small hand-held device which, when depressed, makes a clicking sound. They are available for a dollar or two at most pet stores. You use it by teaching your dog that whenever he hears the sound of the click it means a treat is coming. To do this, click and then feed your dog a treat several times. Once he learns that the click means “treat coming,” the sound of the click signals that he did something right at the instant the click happened.

Take your dog to be near whatever it is that scared him, but stay far enough away that he is comfortable. Wait for him to look at what scared him. As soon as he looks, click. Hopefully your dog will look back at you for a treat, and if he does, praise him and give it to him! If not, hold the treat in front of his nose to get his attention, and then give it to him. If he is unable to take the treat that is a sign of a high level of stress, so move farther away from the scary object. This lesson is three-fold. First, it teaches your dog that when he looks at that thing he thinks is scary, something good happens. It can’t be that scary if every time he sees it he gets a treat! Second, it teaches him to check back in with you every time he sees that scary thing. If your dog’s natural instinct is to look at you, he is not getting stressed or upset, he is looking to you to tell him it’s OK and trusting you to make sure it is so. Third, it builds up the number of times your dog sees the scary thing without losing control. If your dog is in the habit of snarling or growling every time he sees something, then it becomes an automatic reaction, even if in that particular instance it wouldn’t be scary on its own. Building up repetitions where your dog has a reaction other than his automatic fearful one helps the fearful reaction to stop being automatic. Practice this clicking for looks, and if your dog picks up on it you may start clicking for looking back at you after glancing at the thing he finds scary, rather than looking at the thing itself.

Once your dog gets the idea of the game, start moving closer to the scary object slowly. You want your dog to stay far enough away that at any stage he does not feel so intimidated he loses control or starts growling. If this happens just move back farther and try again. Depending on how long your dog has been scared of the trigger it may take a long time to get very close at all to it without a reaction, but that is OK. Remember that every physical step closer is a big mental step for your dog, and celebrate it as such!

If at any point you feel that this training is not working, or that you cannot handle your dog’s growling alone, contact a professional trainer immediately. A professional trainer who uses positive methods can help you refine your skills on working with your dog using this or many other tactics, depending on the specific situation, and the cost of a trainer will be far less than the doctor, vet, or lawyer bills you could be stuck with if the problem isn’t gotten under control.

Remember: Growling is good! No dog is more dangerous than one who does not give warning before a bite. Work with your dog using positive methods to eliminate the cause of growling, rather than the growling itself, to ensure the safety of your dog, yourself, and everyone around you.

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6 responses to “Growling is Good!

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  1. Pingback: Clicker Carnival #5 | Stale Cheerios

  2. Great post- I wish all dog owners would read it. :) With horses as well, people tend to squash the warning signs…and then say the horse bucked (reared, spooked, bolted) with “no warning signs”. We just want to stop the warning signs because they scare US. But they are warning signs for a reason! Thanks!

  3. I have a question… When we approach the bed and lean toward or reach for Kodiak when he is already laying on it, he puts his head down, becomes stiff and will growl a low long growl.

    We can’t figure out why he started doing this or what’s triggering him to do so, as my husband allowed him to sleep with us since he was housebroken.

    I’ve become somewhat dependent on him sleeping with me, as he sleeps along the length of my body, pressed against me, usually with his chin resting over my leg or ankle, my hand resting on his hip. His body heat, against the hip that causes me the most pain is comforting and knowing he’s there reassures me.

    I’ve taken to asking him to get ‘off’ before I approach the bed, thinking he’s ‘guarding’ the bed, hoping if I get him to remove himself, he won’t feel threatened, if that’s what he’s feeling.

    Have any ideas?

    • It’s hard to say exactly why he might be doing that without seeing it, because there can be a lot of reasons for growling. My guess would be that he is guarding it for some reason, but without seeing the behavior it’s only a guess.

      I think asking him to get off is a really good idea; as I was reading the beginning of your post it was the first thing that came to mind! If you can get him to calmly get off the bed, he won’t feel the need to guard it (if that’s what is going on). It sounds like you have a good way to get him off, so I won’t go into that.

      The other thing you could do to help prevent the problem from occurring (every time he growls the behavior is set that much more firmly in his brain and gets that much harder to stop) is to establish the rule that he can only get on the bed when he is cued to do so. Have another dog bed in the room he can lounge in, but he can only get in your bed when you cue him to do so. If you aren’t in the room, leave the door closed. This is related to the Nothing In Life Is Free methodology; you are letting him know that you control the valuable resource of the bed, and he has to earn the right to use it by waiting for your cue. If the problem is dominance (I would be very surprised from your descriptions of him, but it’s possible) or resource guarding, this methodology should help by not giving the growling a chance to occur, and by teaching him that it is your resource to grant.

  4. Thanks! “Guarding” seems a possibility to me, as we have two cats who were members of our family prior to Kodiak. He has a habit of picking up his toys when they are too close, going to his dish when they are too close, etc.

    He doesn’t seem to be disturbed by either of them being on the bed though, which is the odd part. He will get up and lay down with them, even allowing them to curl up near him.

    I’ve been confused my this behavior because simply saying “Off” prompts him to get down off the bed, he relinquishes the space without resistance and when we’re all in bed together, he can be touched, petted, bumped, I can even hold his tail without so much as a grumble.

    I saw an episode of “Dog Whisperer” where Cesar told a man who was overcoming his fear of large dogs that dogs have two types of growl, one when they are angry or threatened and one that equates to a ‘purr’. I had NEVER heard such a thing before, but rather what you talked about here, that a growl is a warning.

    My husband tried hard to convince me that his behavior was the ‘purr’ type of growl, but the stiffening, pinning back of his ears, etc. tells me he’s uncomfortable about something.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  5. Pingback: help needed after biting - Page 2 - Pet Forums Community

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