Getting Rid of the Growl

The little dog had been in our training center for 15 minutes before he noticed the giant painting of a dog hanging on the wall. His eyes widened as he took a step towards it, growling. “Pssht!” his owner hissed, snapping her fingers at him. He jerked in surprise, then sat down and licked his lips. He didn’t growl again, but continued to stare at the painting, trembling slightly, paw raised.

Photo by Sini Merikallio

Dogs growl for a variety of reasons. Fear, insecurity, guarding behavior, offensive aggression, and play can all elicit growls, although to an expert these growls are each unique in their tone and pitch. Outside of play, growling serves as a warning that all is not well in the dog’s world. Something is off, and our dog is doing us the courtesy of sharing that information.

“Why did you just snap at your dog?” I asked the little dog’s owner.

“I want him to know that I won’t tolerate that behavior,” she replied.

It’s human nature to respond negatively to a dog’s growl. Growling is an undesirable behavior, and can oftentimes be a precursor to a bite. However, as I explained to the little dog’s owner, it’s important to suppress your urge to correct your dog for growling. Thank your dog for growling, and remove or redirect him from the situation that’s provoking a growl. It’s better than the alternative.

Growling serves as a warning signal. It tells you that your dog is unhappy or uncomfortable. Something is wrong. Think of it as an early warning system.

Punishing a dog for growling takes away your early warning system. Dogs who are punished for growling oftentimes learn not to growl. However, getting rid of the growl doesn’t fix the underlying cause for growling, which leaves us with a dog who is just as upset as before, but now has no way to express that discomfort except for escalating his display. The growl may be gone, but now you’ve created a dog who will bite “without warning.”

All dogs warn. If your dog doesn’t warn before he bites, it’s either because you’re missing his precursor signals or because he no longer feels safe displaying them. Either way, the fault here lies at the other end of the leash.

Dogs who go straight to biting without displaying lots and lots of precursors are much more difficult to treat. I would much rather work with a dog who stiffens up, displays whale eyes, hard stares me, curls his lip, growls, freezes, then… finally.. bites, than a dog who goes straight from a freeze to a bite. It will be much easier to keep the situation safe with the first dog. The latter case is much riskier.

If your dog growls, he believes he has a valid reason to do so. The little dog was understandably worried by what he perceived as a giant dog, frozen and staring at him (both confrontational and potentially aggressive behaviors) across the room. His owner would have done better to acknowledge his fear, using treats to reward him for looking at, and later on investigating, the frightening painting (and she will in the future, as she now has the tools to better deal with situations that make him uncomfortable). His growl was merely a symptom of his insecurity in this situation. Treating the underlying cause will make the symptom disappear far more effectively than suppressing it.

What situations cause your dog to growl? How have you addressed those situations? Please share your stories in the comments!

77 responses to “Getting Rid of the Growl

  1. My puppy growled at me after he had run away from me with a piece of trash in his mouth, which I didn’t want him to eat. He’s only 9 weeks old, and his mom abandoned him at 5-6 weeks old, which I’ve read sometimes makes for a more nippy and aggressive playing puppy, which he is. How can I correct this behavior? So far we’ve taken to time outs, encouraging chew toys, and saying ouch loudly at him then ignoring for 5 seconds when he’s playing too aggressive.

    • Hey, I’m by no means a trainer, but my pup was a complete nightmare at a young age for this. I tried all of the methods above, but also being really over the top happy with him when he licked me instead of biting. I encouraged licking over biting by putting marmite or peanut butter on my hands so he’d spend time licking it off, all the time telling him what a good boy he was being.
      The only tips I can offer on how to stop them running off with something they aren’t supposed to have, and not coming back, is to push really hard on the “leave it” and “drop it” training. I used a mix of Cesar Milan training, and also Victoria Stilwell who does positive reinforcement training. I found a mixture of the two gave me the most positive outcome, and now, a year on, I have a lovely obedient dog who never ever bites or plays rough with me.

  2. my miniature schnauzer pepper growls at me every time I pet her she doesn’t show teeth or bite but if I stop she holds out her paw and sits next to me wanting to pet her

  3. my toy perhaps minature poodle growls and attacks out of the blue whether she is in a sleep mode or just being pet I don’t know what to do with her because she very loving in a split second after the growl/attack help

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