Often misinterpreted, growling is seen as a behavior that needs to be reprimanded, that we can’t tolerate.
For a lot of people, a dog shouldn’t growl at a child, another dog or an adult, whatever the situation.
How many times have you told your dog off for growling or snarling?
Do you remember what the situation was? Did you try to understand why he did this and what he was trying to tell you?
A dog doesn’t growl just for fun.
Growling or snarling are part of a dog’s language. So it’s normal for him to use it to communicate with you or an other dog.
If he has to go there, it usually is to express an underlying problem. It can be discomfort, embarrassment, stress or fear, pain… If you only see aggression in it, you’re forgetting 3/4 of the story. You need to know what’s making him act like this to understand what’s happening, the feeling behind this behavior.
He’s warning you that something isn’t right for him, you have to listen and make sure that it stops.
Yet, too often, the contrary happens.
A dog who’s growling is met with a « shhhh », « heyyyy! » « no!! » and bam! a pull on the leash… Huge mistake!
You’ll have to understand that this growl is already close to the end of his expression scale. Unfortunately, you missed all the other signs he has in his language (we talk about it here: the calming signals).
Punishing him is like telling your dog « I don’t care about your feelings, be quiet ».
Sure, your « shhh » or your pull on his leash made Doggo stop. And he has understood, he looks guilty, right?
Well, except in his head, that’s not what’s happening at all.
What is your dog learning? That expressing clearly that he’s not feeling well and wants to be left alone, is useless. That you’re unable to keep him psychologically safe by making this difficult situation stop, although it forces him to growl and snarl…
Let’s imagine that your dog growls toward a group of kids running and yelling close to him. Punishing him will only reinforce his discomfort. In your dog’s mind, he has even more reasons to dislike it, « first, they yell, they run, and then I get kicked because of them ». Result: kids are a nightmare, I hate them. Now you have a dog who will see every child as a monster.
There’s a huge difference between what you think you’re teaching your dog and what actually happens in his mind.
If you scold your dog, what he probably thinks now is: « I’ve already shown my Human that I didn’t like this situation, by licking my nose, turning my head, looking away, I’ve ended up growling a little and all I’ve got was him pulling on my leash and scolding me… What else can I do to make him understand that I NEED him to make this stop?e
What do you think will happen, if warning you doesn’t work, since « I’m not listened to and, even worse, I’m being punished »? What happens if the situation doesn’t give him an escape?
Well, that’s easy. He has a last weapon to command respect, if he has to use it.
Not really the sweetest option, right? A biting dog is a dog who came to understand that all the other warning signs he sent were useless since nothing changed.
So now you have a dog who will bite without warning, since warning is useless.
But you, on the other hand, you thought that, as your dog stopped growling, everything was ok. Until the accident.
In your dog’s mind, things are simple -> I talk, nothing happens. I snap/bite, everything stops. Ok, then biting/snapping is the best tool for things to change. Noted, that’s what I’ll do now, thanks for letting me know what to do to be listened to.
It’s not really what we want, right?
A dog who doesn’t warn anymore is the worst scenario. It’s the famous « he wasn’t aggressive before ». Well, yes, but he tried to warn you with all the signs he could use. You didn’t listen/understand.
And because of this lack of understanding, he became unpredictable, like a time bomb, ready to explode.
First of all, you have to consider the context of the situation. What is happening exactly ? Is there another dog ? A stranger ? A weird noise ? A very scary blue bin outside on the street ? What triggered your dog ?
You have to understand that if your dog is growling, it means he’s already expressed his discomfort before. Every person who has a dog should learn about the calming signals.
Thanks to this knowledge and the consideration of your dog’s limits, you’ll be able to develop an unfailing bond with him. He’ll know you’ll listen to him and you’ll know he’ll tell you when something is wrong. TRUST.
Your dog might be the best, he absolutely looooooves kids, sometimes he’ll want to be left alone, without being treated as a cuddly toy by the neighbor’s kids or having to play with them.
Speaking of games, your dog might want to play alone with his ball, that’s allowed. You’ll have to learn how to make the difference between his playing growls and when he means « let me play on my own », by observing his body language and attitude. Is he coming back or not? He growls while tugging, but what happens if you let it go? Is he running to the other side of the garden with his toy or is he waiting for you to do it again? It’s the same when he’s playing with another dog. Growlings are harmlessl interactions, as long as its intensity stays normal and his body language doesn’t show that he’s under pressure or that the other dog is annoying him. That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on your dog and know when to stop the game, before it gets out of hands.
In other situations, you’ll have to deal with your surroundings and quickly but calmly do something, to reduce the tension and keep the situation under control.
Ask the person to step back, to get their dog, ask the kids not to yell and run around your dog. Respect your dog’s limits and make sure people respect them too.
Then, reassure your dog, calmly and with confidence « Everything is ok, I got you! ». Thank him for warning you!
Showing your dog that you’re understanding won’t make him more aggressive or reactive, on the contrary, he’ll feel safe.
Educating children to dogs’ language is vital to avoid incidents. That’s why I offer workshops to structures welcoming children or to individuals, to teach them dog body language and bite prevention.
This article is about « normal » grunts for a dog.
If you’re facing a behavior issue, it’s an entirely different situation.
A dog who doesn’t like when you touch his bowl, his toys, can be manageable as much as it can be a real problem. If you’re facing real resource guarding issues, it is necessary to take action correctly, so that this behavior isn’t reinforced and to avoid any incident.
If your dog seems reactive with other dogs, children… a professional help is vital to help your dog to be able to handle stressful situations and learn other ways to face it.
Don’t ignore behaviour issues thinking it will magically stops and everything will be fine. It won’t and it might even get worst…
Pay attention to every situation, every little details and call a dog trainer to get help and a real training program to modify your dog’s behaviour. You don’t have to be alone in this and we can always find a way !
Don’t hesitate to contact me !