Wednesday April 28th
My dog growls at me, what should I do?
Clients will oftentimes share concerns about their dogs that are growling at family members or other dogs in the home. The people are shocked and of course concerned. A dog growling can feel so very personal. Even more so because it appears the dogs is suddenly out of the blue growling with no warning. For several people, a dog growling at them is just more than they are willing to accept. Clients will say “I will put up with a lot in my house, but the one thing I just cannot accept is a dog that growls at me. I do understand their concern. It can be very unnerving to have a dog growl. It raises huge red flags, sirens screaming, alert, alert, danger, danger. It really can push our buttons. It can cause us to fear for our safety. Many people suddenly believe there is something is wrong with their dog or their dog is now an aggressive dog. A growling dog can cause people to feel uncomfortable in their own home. No one wants to experience fear or discomfort, while in their homes, including your dog.
When people are sharing stories about their dogs, I have a question I use frequently, “What happens when”? In this case, what happens when your dog growls at you? The answers are most always indicative of some sort of punishment delivered to the dog. The dog is yelled at, made to leave the room or kicked off the couch. The dogs are punished for growling. I do understand people’s reaction. People want to teach their dogs that growling is not an acceptable behavior. The challenge with this is that we have possibly punished the behavior of growling, instead of listening to the message the dog was intending to convey. It is possible that not only have we punished the behavior of growling, but the dog may learn to associate whatever made them growl as the cause of their punishment. If a child approached a dog who was enjoying a chew toy, the dog growled to protect their coveted chew toy and was then punished, the dog could believe the child approaching was the cause of their punishment. While a well-meaning family member was trying to teach the dog growling was unacceptable the dog received a double whammy, punished for communicating their discomfort and a sudden dislike for the person that approached.
What would be a better option for managing a dog that is growling? What should we do when a dog does growl at us? When a dog growls at me, I immediately stop what I am doing and honestly, I say “thank you’ to the dog. This is often the point in many consults where I see my clients look at me in complete disbelief. But hang in here with me, lets dissect the growling a bit further. A growl while it may be alarming is also a non-violent form of communication from the dog. I fully believe dogs start by telling us they uncomfortable using body language. These cues are subtle and are very easy to miss to an untrained eye. So, the dog who has been uncomfortable, and trying to communicate their discomfort using body langue feels as if he is not being heard so they ramp up their communication style, they growl. I can almost imagine the dog saying, “Can you hear me now?” Frankly, I interpret a growl as an excellent sign. Why? Because the dog could bite instead of growl. But they didn’t. The dog chose a non-violent form of communication. Hence, why I believe we should thank a dog that growls at us.
The dog that is not thanked for the growl, or is instead punished may very well interpret the growl as the cause of the punishment. Behavior that is rewarded goes up, behavior that is punished goes down or stops. A dog punished for growling is left with only one other form of communication. They bite. They tried all the non-violent forms of communication, the signs were left unheeded or worse were punished, so the dog has nothing left to do but bite. What a terrible position we have put the dog in. How can we avoid this?
When dealing with a dog that has growled, it is time to freeze, and back up and let the investigation begin. All behavior services a purpose. All behavior is a form of communication. We need to understand why a dog is growling, not punish the dog for growling. If the dog is growling because they are in pain a vet visit may be in order. If they are growling because they are uncomfortable in the situation, we need to manage the situation to keep the dog comfortable. If they are comfortable because they are guarding something that is valuable to then it is up to us to get training for the dog to help them learn it is okay for their valuable items to be taken away, and in fact can even be a great situation for the dog. It is up to us to help our dogs feel comfortable in all situations.
Not only do we need to be thankful for and respect a dogs’ growl we need to work hard to notice the subtle communications dogs are conveying through their body language. If we can improve our understanding of a dogs’ body language, we can act accordingly, adjusting the environment so the dog does not feel the need to growl. Chirag Patel, an amazing trainer, highly respected both internationally and domestically said “We tend to listen to dogs only when they are shouting (growl, etc), and not when they are whispering (head turning away)”. I loved this quote so much. Dogs’ do their very best to fit in with us. They are a different species, speak a different language yet we require them to live up to our standards of moral code and communication styles. I do believe people very much want to learn more about their dogs. I always ask people to go back to “WHY” they decided to bring a dog into their home in the first place. No one, and I mean no one has yet to reply with, I got a dog so we could have a series of misunderstandings and live a miserable life together. I do strongly believe people want to build a bond and have a fulfilling life with their dogs. As with all great relationships, communication is the key.
Would you like to better understand the subtle communications your dog shares with you? We have put together a free resource to help you better understand your dogs subtle signals and cues. Click here to receive your free copy♥
-Kathleen McClure with The Happier Dog is graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers also known as the Harvard for dog Trainers, where she earned a certificate in dog training and counselling. She is also a Fear Free Certified® dog trainer with a BA in Psychology. She has lived with more dogs in her home at any one time than most people will in their entire lifetime. Kathleen has worked with hundreds of families over the years to help them build the relationships they want with their dogs – and that always starts by realizing challenging or “problem” behaviors’ serve a purpose, pinpointing the purpose and devising a plan that works for both the dog and their human companions. Her life purpose is to create empathy for the positions we put dogs in and work with her clients to create your best-ever human-dog bond and relationship.