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!

88 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.

    • There are four ways to get rid of an unwanted behavior without punisment: train an incompatible behavior, reward the absence of the unwanted behavior, put the behavior on cue or change the motivation. You could use a combination of rewarding the absence with changing your pup’s motivation for growling. Train him to “leave it” on cue so you don’t have to touch him to take away whatever you want him to leave. Study his thresholds and reward before he growls, and also, you may train a positive interrupter, which is a signal after which he knows a yummy treat is comming so he stop what he is doing and goes to you. Here, some useful links: https://www.youtube.com/user/kikopup/search?query=leave+it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBvPaqMZyo8 Good luck!

  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

  4. I’ve had my 12 week old chihuahua puppy 4 days.. She has started growling at me and my family, it only ever happens so far when she’s fallen asleep on the evening on one of our laps and we have to move her to get up! Sounds silly saying it cos she’s obviously tired and annoyed at been moved but I don’t know what to do, it’s scarey and she snaps aswell and I worried she may bite one of my daughters. Do I tell her no?? Do I just not let her fall Asleep on our laps on the evening? Is she going to be a nasty growling dog? I have enrolled us on a puppy training course but it doesn’t start for Afew weeks and it’s happened 3 times tonight, worse than before. I’m worried sick! Like I say I’ve only had her 4 days and she’s so lovely most the time but I don’t want me or my daughters to feel scared of her ever! Please help!

    • Our 2-year old puppy used to do this too–snapped if we tried to move her after she was sleeping. for a while we left a light leash attached to her collar in the evening, and rather than get up close to her to wake her up we’d tug on it to pull her awake. it worked really well. we also started to wake her up by petting and talking to her before trying to move her. now, a year later, we can just pick her up–she doesn’t do it anymore. I think she just must’ve been in such a deep sleep she was getting startled.

  5. Pingback: Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Four: Training | Paws Abilities

  6. My do is growling and snaping at me y i just got him and hes already grown im being friendly but wont let me get close to him at all stares at me like he want to eat me , was he abused please help me break this

  7. While I agree with the positive reinforcer ideas I am a huge fan of confidence. I have seen training such as agility or tricks build confidence and reduce reactivity. Used in addition with other methods I have seen great things happen with many dogs (and from personal experience with my foster failure.) He is not 100% but feel confident we are at 80%.

  8. My dog is terrified to go outside in the evening. He won’t let me leash him, so I’ve tried just opening the door and letting him out in to the yard, but he won’t budge. He goes and hides. He does growl to warn before he bites, but he’s gotten much more touchy lately. Nothing has changed, I just don’t understand.

  9. Trying to get my dog to take a pill this morning. He dropped the chopped meat with the pill and I attempted to put it in his mouth. He growled. I got a pill pocket, covered it with peanut butter and that was successful.

  10. just adopted a 6 month old chi mix. She is very tiny, sweet, plays with cats but growls at my 2 dogs (about same size as cats) when they get too close to her even when she is in her playpen. How do I break this or is this still due to be in a new unfamiliar environment and will get better with time?

  11. I have a full grown female rottie and an 8 month male presa canario…both will growl if they feel that I am threatened. Neither have ever bitten anyone or anything. When there is unwanted growling from them I tell them I hear them, assess the situation and redirect their energy to something i am ok with them doing. Having large breeds that people deem aggressive means that i don’t allow any ill behavior however both are extremely protective so i need to figure out the threat and just give them another job. It works well and both are satisfied that they did their job.

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