Features October 2009 Issue

Understanding Dog Growling and Dog Language

Five things to do when your dog . . . growls at you.

Growling is a valuable means of communication for a dog – something that dog owners should appreciate and respect rather than punish. Of course, we don’t want our dog to growl at us, but neither do we want him to fail to growl if something makes him uncomfortable; that’s very important information in a successful canine-human relationship.

Don’t punish your dog for growling; you need to know when he’s uncomfortable so he’s not pushed past his ability to cope. Note: Play-growling is perfectly acceptable. As long as you’re sure he’s playing, there’s no need to modify this behavior.

It’s very common for dog owners to punish their dogs for growling. Unfortunately, this often suppresses the growl – eliminating his ability to warn us that he’s about to snap, literally and figuratively. On other occasions, punishing a growling, uncomfortable dog can induce him to escalate into full-on aggression.

So, if you’re not supposed to punish your dog for growling, what are you supposed to do? The next time your dog growls at you, try this:

1.) Stop. Whatever you’re doing, stop. If your dog’s growl threshold is near his bite threshold – that is, if there’s not much time between his growl and his bite, get safe. If his growl doesn’t mean a bite is imminent, stop what you’re doing but stay where you are. Wait until he relaxes, then move away, so you’re rewarding the relaxed behavior rather than the growl.

2.) Analyze the situation. What elicited the growl? Were you touching or grooming him? Restraining him? Making direct eye contact? Taking something away from him? Making him do something?

3.) Figure out a different way to accomplish your goal without eliciting a growl. Lure him rather than physically pushing or pulling him. Have someone else feed him treats while you touch, groom, or restrain him. If you don’t have to do whatever it was that elicited the growl, don’t – until you can convince him that it’s a good thing rather than a bad thing.

4.) Evaluate the stressors in your dog’s world and reduce or eliminate as many of them as possible. For example, if your dog is unaccustomed to strangers, then having your sister and her husband and three kids as houseguests for the past week would undoubtedly stress your dog. Noise-phobic dogs might be under a strain if city crews have been digging up a nearby street with heavy equipment or there was a thunderstorm last night. The vacuum cleaner is a common stressor for dogs. A loud argument between you and your spouse could stress your dog as well as you, and your stress is stressful to your dog. Harsh verbal or physical punishment, an outburst of aroused barking at the mail carrier, fence fighting with another dog. The list could go on and on.

Keep in mind that stress causes aggression, and stressors are cumulative; it’s not just the immediate stimulus that caused the growl, but a combination of all the stressors he’s experienced in the past few days. This explains why he may growl at you today when you do something, but he didn’t growl last week when you did the exact same thing. The more stressors you can remove overall, the less likely he is to growl the next time you do whatever it was that elicited the growl this time.

5.) Institute a behavior modification program to change his opinion about the thing that made him growl. One way to do this is to use counter-conditioning and desensitization to convince him the bad thing is a good thing (see “Fear Itself,” WDJ April 2007).

Another way is through the careful use of negative reinforcement as in a Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT) program to teach him a new behavioral strategy when presented with the discomfort-causing stimulus. (For much more detail about CAT programs, see “Building Better Behavior,” May 2008).

If you need help to create and implement a behavior modification protocol, contact a qualified behavior professional who is experienced and successful in modifying aggressive behavior with positive, dog-friendly techniques. Good places to start your search are ccpdt.org and trulydogfriendly.com, or my own trainer referral lists at peaceablepaws.com.

Comments (7)

Thank you for this article; I see that my new dog is completely stressed. She was my son's dog and he broke up with the girlfriend and took his dog. Their household consisted of kids and another dog who was actually beating her up. I'm sure there were considerable fights going on and when he asked me if I would take her I said of course. She was perfectly docile the first couple of days and he has visited both days. I thought we were out of the woods. This morning I took her to the pet store to get a harness and she wanted to leave as soon as we could. Then I drove a short distance to a park to walk her. She was curled up on a blanket with her face in the corner on the floorboard, wearing the harness and when opened the door, she appeared asleep. So I spoke to her and reached for the leash and she came completely unglued, snarling and barking. I waited and talked soothingly and then just stood there and finally closed the door and brought her home. Same thing happened at home, she did not want to get out of the car and snarled and barked. I left the door open while I filled up her water bucket and then had to reach for the leash quickly as she was growling and barking. She is an English Bulldog. I ended up pulling her out and putting her old collar back on but did not take the harness off. I had planned to take her riding around with me to do errands and reward her with the trip to the park, but now I'm a little disheartened. She had shots yesterday at the vet and I can imagine that she is overwhelmed with everything. Any advice?

Posted by: Shell_n_NM | March 25, 2015 12:36 PM    Report this comment

To quisha616 maybe your dog wasn't hungry and didn't want the food .would you like to be told that you had to eat even though you weren't hungry? Maybe she doesn't feel safe in the carrier have you made it a comfortable place where she feels safe? To tonebea how would you feel if you were never allowed to say how you feel? That is a silly remark even dogs low down in the pack bark, whine and yes even growl. It's how they say what they are feeling. This article is all about teaching us how to better communicate with our dogs so we can make their lives happy as well as ours.

Posted by: Jenny81 | February 5, 2015 9:29 PM    Report this comment

This article is great advice.

Kate, you can try giving her a different job to do when she behaves like that towards your husband. Like, say for example, ask her to sit or ask for a "back up" and then reward the correct with something really good. (This worked for my intact male and is what I show students in obedience class.) Your husband should also analyze his behavior... is he appearing threatening towards you in the dog's mind? Is he leaning in towards your dog or making direct eye contact or yelling? That's all hostile and aggressive behavior in a dog's mind. Turid Rugaas has a great little book "On Talking Terms with Dogs" (~28 pages) that is a good primer for understanding some triggers for behaviors and also dog body language

Personally, I never correct my dogs for growling and that includes growling at me. I never want them to "keep it to themselves" then surprise bite because I took their warning system away.

Posted by: ghost | January 2, 2015 11:26 AM    Report this comment

I agree with the comment below. I love my dog but she should never at anytime growl at me her owner! She growled at me and my husband twice because we told her to eat and then we put her in her carrier at night. We are the ones who take care of her and we don't appreciate those growls. So I do not agree with this article at all. I will not change my routine to accommodate her. I just hope she doesn't continue it.

Posted by: quisha616 | December 23, 2014 12:32 PM    Report this comment

Figure out what I'm doing to make him growl and change my behavior? I don't think so. My dog should not growl at me for any reason. I'm top dog and my dog should know that. And MY dog does. This article is way off base.

Posted by: tonebea | December 15, 2014 7:12 PM    Report this comment

Hi, my dog has slowly began to growl and sometimes bite my husband and I. Even if we pat her or walk past her. She is only 3 yrs old and sometimes has bitten our visitors before. I have tried different techniques but nothing seems to work. Can someone shed some light on what I should do next?

Posted by: kate-043 | August 25, 2014 11:50 PM    Report this comment

We have a weird Papillon who growls a lot and it took us years to realize that these aren't always "growls" but sometimes other vocalizations more akin to moaning or even you might say purring! He does growl as well, when playing or real defensive growling when feeling crowded or threatened. The trick is knowing which is which. He growl-moan-purrs when being scratched and rubbed, but it can turn into a warning if you hold him too tight.
Since we've started to better understand his communications, he's started to use them more effectively and his other favorite vocalization that he uses to great effect to get us to do what he wants is the quiet whine. He looks us straight in the eye and whines when he wants us to turn a bit so he can jump in a lap, when he wants us to go with him (me to come outside where Daddy is or Daddy to come upstairs where I am, for instance), etc. So I'll ask him "where's Daddy?" and follow him outside or wherever. We think it's a good thing for him to know how to do, lead us to the other, so we've used his own desire for us to be together to train him.
The point is, keep an open mind to your dog's vocalizations. When I was a kid my friend had a Dalmation that would snarl fiercely when she was petted, but she wouldn't have bitten anyone. It's just what she did. Remembering her helped me understand my boy.

Posted by: Rebecca Forry | July 20, 2013 6:45 PM    Report this comment

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