Updated: Mar 16
Taken in part from "The Gift of Growling" by Pat Miller
Many people are shocked when dogs begin to growl. There is something about the sound that causes a natural behaviour in human beings to either back off or freeze. It is very interesting to notice such a learned
reaction. We know that a growling dog often leads to a biting one and this, in turn, is usually confronted with a decision to be made concerning euthanasia. No one wants their dog to be in danger of such dreadful resolutions, and therefore we seem to think that punishing them for their absurd growling will save them later. This, unfortunately, is the worst way to handle the situation. Most dogs would rather run away than try to fight or even use his jaws to inflict a bite on any human being or animal. If a dog is growling, chances are we have missed the previous warnings of tension.
Growling is the dog’s way to say, “I’m not comfortable with this situation, and I am telling you this because I don’t want to hurt you.” Many people see growling as a negative behaviour, when to be quite honest, it is actually something to cherish and be grateful for. Now that we have advanced in the understanding of such behaviours, we can now decipher the best methods to resolve these types of issues.
Dogs read body language and they expect you to interpret theirs as another dog should. This means that the subtle warnings are very important and should be noticed as early signs to back off. There are a number of reasons dogs feel the need to caution members of their society and strangers of all kinds. They may decide that they must protect members of their family, precious toys, food, territory, or their self.
🐾 Be aware of the subtle signs most dogs will give if their warnings are not taken seriously.
🐾 Warnings include: stiffness, piloerection, long stares, arched necks.
🐾 Do Not Confront rather redirect and reward the obliging state of mind.
🐾 NEVER punish a dog for growling.
🐾 Growling is a positive indicator of the level of fear or discomfort and a signal for you to change something.
Knowing the progression of aggression is crucial to understanding our dogs. They usually begin with early warning signs such as; stiffness in their stance. Everything about them becomes rigid. It’s almost as if they are playing ‘freeze tag’ and have frozen in whatever position they were tagged in. Their tail may wag, but it will be stiff.
“Ohh..this doesn’t look so good,” he says, “Please don’t come any closer.”
If you continue to approach and his comfort zone is threatened, the signs will increase. He may arch his neck, give a fixed stare, or growl. Piloerection may also be visible (hair up on the back of their neck).
Now he is saying, “I am serious. You need to leave right now.” Those who proceed to invade this dog’s
space may find that the dog persists to warn them with an air snap. On the other hand, he may decide to suddenly take hold of a limb, or muzzle, appearing as if he has every intention of ripping it apart, but instead he quickly releases it without breaking the skin. “Look, this is the last warning. Don’t MAKE me hurt you. Just leave me be and everything will be fine.”
If these warnings are not heeded, a bite injury will most likely be inflicted upon the opposing individual. It will depend on the dog as to how hard the puncture will be and where he will attack next.
Remember that growling is not a bad thing; it is a positive indicator that we can use to understand the level of fear. Never punish the dog for giving this behaviour, only take him out of the situation if you can, to keep everyone safe. Make a mental note as to what you perceive as the stressor and talk to a behaviourist about the situation. If it was something another person did, remove him calmly out of the situation so that your
anxiety doesn’t increase his. If it is something you are doing, stop your behaviour immediately and take note of his reaction.
When a dog growls, he is saying “I’m not at all comfortable with this. Please don’t make me hurt you to help you understand how I am feeling.”
IT’S ALL STRESS RELATED
Dogs growl because they are stressed out about someone or something. It is crucial to figure out what exactly the stressor is before you can try to change the behaviour. Stressors that cause growling include
anything that causes pain, intimidation, invasion of the comfort zone, or anything that the dog associates as a threat. If a dog were to be smacked on the head as a pup, he will be threatened by the simple hand movements of those in the human race even as an adult. This is so, because it will remind him of past reprimands and automatically assume the position of fear. If it was decided that he should be corrected every time he growled, it could definitely decrease the amount of aggression we see when he is stressed. We would think that we had made great progress because the dog stopped growling at hands when they got near him.
A week goes by and then someone decides that he is doing so well that they think he is okay to be petted. The dog is fearful of hands, and holds back until he can do so no longer. As the hand comes over his head, he lunges forward to bite in desperation to defend itself. Now we have a BIG problem. This is a dangerous position to be in because not only have we taught the dog not to growl, we have made it quite clear that we don’t want ANY warning whatsoever when he is feeling this way. When the dog felt he had to protect himself, he gave no caution signals and attacked out of the blue. By correcting the growling behaviour, we have not actually gotten to the root of the issue. We have only made for ourselves a dangerous dog that gives no warning before he attacks.
To help this dog, we must NOT try to correct the growling, but instead, figure out what the stressor IS and desensitize the dog to it. This is called Counter-conditioning. Remember to check stressors that may be
environmental and pain-related before beginning the process. It is best to get a veterinary check to make sure nothing is at all discomforting to the dog to rule out that option. Next, check in the area you are
working in and evaluate anything that could make your dog uncomfortable. This includes other dogs barking in the area, small children running around, loud noises, etc.
When your dog is relaxed and happy with no tension in his body language, you can start desensitizing him to the stressors that you and your behaviourist have decided to work on. The key is to move slow enough so that the dog doesn’t get to the point where he feels the need to growl to get the stressors to ‘go away’.
Let’s say your dog isn’t so fond of brooms. You would simply start off with getting a broom out of the closet and placing it on the floor in main room of the house. Because he has associated bad things with brooms, it is
now our job to show the dog that brooms are amazing things that make very good rewards come their way.
Sit down a fair distance away from the broom and invite the dog to join you. If the dog is okay with the distance provided, no growls or stiffness, then you may proceed. If, however, he notices the broom right away and begins to growl you will want to calmly get him further away from the area until you find a place he is relaxed in.
When the chosen position is not stressful for the dog you can then reward him with chicken or special treats and calm praise when he’s looking in the direction of the broom. When he looks at it inquisitively, he gets rewarded. As the days and weeks go by you will move closer and closer to the broom. You can put treats beside the broom or on top of it to get him to like being close to the object. When this is going well, you can put the broom in a standing position against a wall and again start at a distance, moving closer and closer. When this is going well, you can pick up the object and give the dog treats while you are holding it. Then, start moving the broom just a little and reward the dog. Gradually increase the movement of the broom sweeping the floor, or walking around with it in your hand.
If at ANY time during the progression of going to the next step, the dog begins showing signs of discomfort, you must go back to the step where he was comfortable because you have moved to the next step too quickly. This can take weeks or months to change the dogs thinking pattern from “brooms are scary.” to “brooms make good things come.” Remember it is at the DOG’S pace we must be working with, not our own. Always end the sessions on a positive note.