A dog growling, that low rumble, no one wants to hear it! It is not uncommon for a student or client to ask me how they should correct their dog for growling at someone or something. Let me tell you now: Please, please, don’t punish your dog for growling!! Here are 3 reasons why not.
- Your dog’s growl is, first and foremost, communication. It tells you that your dog is uncomfortable in a way that people understand. (Believe it or not, by the time dogs growl, they have already “told” us they are uncomfortable in many different ways—with head turns, tongue flicks, paw lifts, and more. But because but we don’t usually recognize a dog’s complex body language and signals, we’ve missed the more subtle forms of communication.)
- Punishing a growl can be dangerous. So what happens when you punish your dog for growling? You teach your dog not to tell you when they are uncomfortable. They are still uncomfortable, or scared, or mad, but now they just don’t say anything. They don’t let you know. When people say, “The dog bit without warning,” it is often because the dog was punished for growling.
- It gives you information about your dog. Another way to think about your dog’s growl is as a warning system like a smoke alarm. It tells us that something is wrong! So punishing the growl is kind of like taking the batteries out of that smoke alarm. It doesn’t stop the fire, it just stops the warning.
Of course none of us want a dog who is growling about things, so what can we do? If your dog is growing, it is important to address the issue that is causing the growl. Take these steps:
- If your dog growls at another person or animal, quickly remove him or her from the situation. If your dog growls at you, move away from your dog. (This is a temporary solution to prevent an escalation.)
- Take note of what was going on at the time—what triggered your dog to growl? Was your dog:
- Scared or afraid?
- Protecting something like a bone?
- Annoyed (as in an older dog growling at a puppy who won’t quit chewing on his ear)?
- Ask yourself the following questions: Is there something we can do next time to prevent the dog from feeling uncomfortable enough that he needs to growl? Is this a growing concern and something that needs to be addressed with training or behavior modification?
Here are some examples of things that can be done about growling that both keep the warning system in place and deal with the problem:
Scenario One: If your dog growls at a pesky puppy for chewing on the adult dog’s ear, and the puppy moves away, you don’t have to do anything. If your dog growls at your puppy for chewing on his ear and the puppy doesn’t listen or move away, you can remove either your dog or your puppy from the situation. In this case, it may be the pup who needs some training help rather than the older dog.
Scenario Two: If your dog growls at a child that is being disrespectful by putting his face in the dog’s face or hurting the dog by pulling his tail, for example, you want to take two steps. The first is to teach your children how to be respectful of the dog (or if the child is too young, use baby gates to keep them both safe). Then you will want to work with a behavior specialist to help your dog become less concerned about what the child was doing through counter conditioning and teach the dog something they can do when they are uncomfortable such as walk away.
Scenario Three: If your dog growls at a stranger walking past you on the street, you want to move him away from that person first. Then you can take note of the specifics (is it all strangers, or just tall people with hats, for example), so that you can work with a qualified behavior specialist to counter condition people so your dog isn’t as afraid. When the fear goes away, so will the growl.
Growls are functional communication. They give us information. Communication between dogs and people is sometimes less than clear. Growls are one very clear signal and something that we can act on to prevent problems. Please don’t punish your dog for growling. Instead, say a prayer of thanks that you learned he was uncomfortable before something worse happened.