Has your dog ever growled at you? How did it make you feel? Did it make you feel upset or even angry? Naturally, hearing your dog growl can be disconcerting and many would deem it as a naughty or aggressive behaviour warranting serious concern. So how should we respond to such a behaviour?
Well to understand the appropriate response, we need to understand what a growl really is. Many recognise the growl as a warning, one that often occurs before a potential bite. Nevertheless, many view the growl as a rebellious behaviour, deserving of punishment. It can trigger feelings of anger or anxiety, especially if you have children or grandchildren. However, that growl is actually a polite communication, which demonstrates your dog would rather to give you a polite warning than to escalate their behaviour and cause physical harm. Growling is not your dog trying to dominate you or a sign they want to be pack leader, this theory has long been debunked. Your dog is communicating that he is finding you and your behaviour threatening and would like to have more space. Therefore, the best way to respond is to acknowledge your dog's feelings and increase distance and then consider how your actions made your dog feel and what you can do to make your dog feel safer and more comfortable in future situations.
What happens if you do the exact opposite and punish the growl? The well know vet and trainer Ian Dunbar explains that punishing the growl is the equivalent of removing a timer from a bomb. The bomb is still going to go off, but now you don't know when. When you punish the growl, you are disregarding your dog’s feelings and communication, making them more unpredictable. If you do this on a consistent basis, your dog will learn that his warning system isn't working and that's when they feel the need to escalate their behaviour. We also experience a similar escalation in behaviour when we feel threatened.
Imagine going to a family party and bumping into that horrible family member that you thankfully only see once a year. You dread seeing them because you find them disrespectful and handsy. Every time they approach you, they display inappropriate behaviour and you keep trying to politely ask them to stop, without causing a scene. Despite your polite requests, this family member continually ignores your requests and puts you in an incredibly uncomfortable situation. Out of fear and frustration, you snap and start shouting at this person to back off and never come near you again. Everyone is looking at you both awkwardly, with some giving you judgemental looks because they feel that you totally overacted. To them, this situation went from zero to a hundred within seconds and it may seem that there was no justification for this reaction.
Why did this happen? You were uncomfortable with a particular behaviour and you clearly and politely communicated your feelings. When this was ignored you repeated yourself with a sterner tone, nonetheless, when this person invaded your space and continued to ignore your communication, you felt you had no other choice but to escalate your behaviour because shouting and physically pushing this person away seemed to be the only way you were going to be heard. Sadly, this situation is not a rare one, particularly for women but it perfectly demonstrates what your dog is going through.
It is survival instinct to avoid conflict at all costs. Thus, your dog growling isn't the beginning of a bad situation, it is your dog desperately trying to prevent one. There are always warning signs and polite communication that come before aggressive behaviour and this is known as the ladder of aggression.
How a dog can react to stress or threat, Shepherd (2002, 2009)
On the first rungs of the ladder, the dog may show distance increasing signals such as nose and tongue flicks, lip licking and looking away. The next rungs may be yawning, turning their body away and/or trying to physically move away. Sadly, these initial polite requests are subtle to the untrained eye and are often inadvertently ignored. Each dog is different and so they may display all or just a few of these subtle signs and the order may slightly differ in each dog. However, when any or all of these requests are ignored, the dog ascends that ladder and uses more overt communication, such as growling. An actual bite would be the last rung on that ladder, as it is always a final resort. Some dogs will ascend the ladder of aggression faster than others depending on their ability to manage stress, their past experiences, training and background. Smaller dogs tend to ascend the ladder quicker than larger dogs because their communication is consistently ignored as they aren't taken seriously due to their size. Sound familiar?
Even though you may understand that the growl is a polite warning you may feel that the situation didn't warrant such a behaviour. You had good intentions towards your dog, so their response is an overreaction. Think back to the family party scenario. That family member would likely claim they are just being friendly or they are just having some fun. Many may even defend this person and claim we are oversensitive. But in this situation whose feelings matter most? Yours. The same is true of our dog. No matter our intentions, if our dog feels threatened, it is their perception that matters most.
So how do you address your dog's feelings? Well, you need to consider why your dog feels threatened. Some dogs don't like being physically moved off a sofa or they don't like being approached when they are in their bed. Some feel insecure around particular resources, such as food or toys. Others don't enjoy being touched in certain areas of their body.
We have to ensure that any requests we make are respectful and that the dog has the option to move away from you and others. If your dog feels threatened, the best thing you can do is acknowledge their feelings, give them space and find other ways to communicate. For example, to get your dog off the sofa, rather than physically moving them, you could teach an "off" cue that is paired with a treat. If your dog doesn't want to interact, allow their bed to be a safe space. If they guard resources, then teach them they don't need to feel insecure by refraining from removing resources and desensitising them to your presence near resources. If they feel uncomfortable being touched in certain places like their paws or tail, respect their wishes and avoid touching them in these places. In situations such as necessary examinations or grooming, teach them co-operative care so they feel safe and in control in these situations. By recognising the growl for what it truly is, you can determine how to best respond and prevent the situation in future.
Consent is the right of every living thing but it is often overlooked or disrespected with our dogs. Much of canine communication is ignored or considered bad behaviour when it is inconvenient for us. Unfortunately, when growling is disregarded or punished, it's the dog that pays the ultimate price for our lack of respect. We have to remember dogs are here with us, not for us. They shouldn't have to tolerate any treatment they aren't comfortable with just like we should never have put up with poor treatment or abuse to appease others.
So please remember, growling is not intended to initiate aggression, it is an effort to avoid it. So don't punish the growl. Instead, avoid putting your dog in situations where they feel the need to.
Learn more about your dog's body language with Holly and the ISCP click here:
Holly Leake is a dog writer, ISCP tutor and canine behaviourist who runs her own business in Staffordshire UK. Learn more about your dog's body language with Holly and the ISCP click here: