A dog growling can evoke strong negative feelings in many people. Very often it is seen as something bad that the dog should not do, and commonly the dog gets told off for growling.
Growling does not mean that a dog is aggressive or naughty. In fact, growling is one of the ways in which dogs try to avoid escalation and aggression. Nor does it mean that the dog is trying to dominate. Growling is a perfectly normal form of canine communication that simply conveys a message about how the dog is feeling with regards to a situation. It is simply an emotional reaction.
Growling tells us that the dog is feeling under threat, either by the approach of a dog or person, or that something they have may be taken away from them, such as a bone or a favourite position on the sofa. This is in fact very useful, dare I say it, essential information that is being conveyed. The growl is a very effective way of preventing an escalation that may result in a dog biting. If a dog growls at an approaching dog for example, it is telling this dog to stay away and not approach any further. As long as the other dog takes heed of this, then further confrontation and potential injury has been effectively avoided. This warning system is even more important when people or children are involved.
It is imperative to realise that telling a dog off for growling does not change how the dog is feeling about the situation that provoked this response. Two things are likely to happen if a dog is repeatedly told off for growling.
- The dog will feel even worse and more under threat when the same situation presents, as the dog now has two things to worry about; the original treat and the threatening behaviour of its owner. This combination can easily create real aggression.
- The dog may stop growling. On the surface of it, this may seem like good progress. However, this is a potentially very dangerous situation. We now have a dog that feels threatened, who has a lot of teeth and potential to bite and injury someone, but with the warning signal turned off. This is when we get the silent biter. The dog that seemingly bites without warning! Would you wish to live with this dog or have children around this dog?
So what should we do when a dog growls?
What we need to do is to change how the dog is feeling about the situation that provoked the dog to growl in the first place. Only if the dog ceases to feel threatened will we change the situation for the better and keep everyone safe.
First of all, the exact triggers for the growling need to be identified, including the distances involved to the threat. Secondly, we must manage the dog and the environment so as to avoid all the triggers. Thirdly, we need to work on changing the dog’s perception of, and reaction to the situation, which is usually achieved by a process of:
- Counterconditioning, where we train a new emotional response to a situation by pairing something very positive, like a high value treat, with the trigger.
- Operant conditioning, which means training a new voluntary response to a situation, for example focusing on the owner when a trigger presents.
- Desensitisation, is where we present the trigger at a level the dog can cope well with and only very gradually intensifying it at a pace the dog can deal with.
A good trainer and behaviourist will be able to help with this process to get it right. Failing to address the issue may result in a gradual escalation of the problem and make it a bigger issue that it was at the outset. However, doing nothing is still better, and safer, than chastising the dog for growling!