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.
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!