[Updated March 13, 2018]
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.
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 dog growling, what are you supposed to do? The next time your dog growls at you, try this:
1. Don’t push your dog over his tolerance threshold. Whatever you’re doing, just 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 reason your dog is growling.
Why is your dog growling? Does she growl when you touch or groom her? Growling when restrained? Does your dog growl when making direct eye contact? How about when you take something away from him? Or making him do something? If your dog is growling at you all of the sudden, think about what in your shared environment has changed.
3. Explore ways to get your dog to do something that does not elicit aggressive communication.
Try to get your dog to behave 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 the activity in question is 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 for your dog 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 “Reducing Your Dog’s Anxieties,” April 2007 WDJ).
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 “Modifying Aggressive Behavior,” May 2008 WDJ.)
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.