Growling is a normal behavior that dogs exhibit. It’s essential for us as dog caretakers to understand that growling is an important communication tool, and we need to learn to respond appropriately. Growling often serves as a warning sign that dogs use to communicate that they are uncomfortable, over-aroused, and in need of a break or total removal from the situation before it escalates into something beyond growling. While a growl is often a precursor to a bite, dogs can also growl during play or when they are over-excited. Here is some advice on what to do when your dog growls at you out of discomfort or a need for space.
Aggressive behavior displays are normal across all species. I would guess that if you have a sibling or partner, you have likely exhibited “aggressive behavior” toward one another in the form of yelling or shouting at some point in your life. Fewer of us have been in a physical altercation with another and even fewer of us have caused physical harm to someone. There is the normal spectrum of aggressive behavior displays, and then there are outliers that can be more problematic. Just because your dog is growling does not mean he or she is “aggressive.” He’s actually just being a good communicator, and you should be thankful he warns you with a growl.Of course, we do not want our dog to growl at us, but it’s equally important that our dog does not fail to growl at us if something is making him or her uncomfortable. Punishing your dog for growling can often cause a bigger problem long-term, as your dog learns not to communicate his discomfort, instead holding it in. This can result in a dog that bites with little to no warning as she has learned that showing her discomfort is neither desirable nor safe. This can look like a dog that suddenly explodes or shows more extreme aggressive displays, skipping right over growling and giving the target little time to react or respond.
If your dog growls at you, the first step is to stop what you’re doing that is eliciting your dog to growl. This might mean you need to move away or stop approaching, touching, or talking. By responding to your dog’s growl, you are teaching your dog that growling is an effective method for getting people to stop unpleasant things. You want your dog to understand this. Take this a step farther and focus on reading your dog’s body language more proactively, as this will allow you to respond to the cues that she is uncomfortable before it escalates to growling.
Try to figure out what triggered your dog to growl at you so that you can avoid triggering growling in the future. Did your dog growl at you as your approached him while he was eating? Did he growl at you when your hand pressed his tail? Did he growl at you when you asked him to get off the bed? Understanding the trigger and avoiding triggering your dog is the first step in the training process.
Try an antecedent arrangement to prevent your dog from growling in the future. This means changing the thing you did right before you elicited the growl. Basically, you’re setting the stage for behavior you want. For example, if your dog is growling at you when you try to carry her from the bed, try calling your dog to come to you with your voice and reward her with a treat instead of physically removing her and prompting growling.
Remove unnecessary stressors from your dog’s life. Stress can stack up, causing a dog’s threshold for growling to decrease. For example, you have a bad day at work and come home to find your spouse has left his socks on the bedroom floor. You yell at your spouse to pick up his socks even though normally that does not produce that sort of response from you. You aren’t that mad about the socks; you were responding to the stress of your day, and the socks on the floor were just enough to put you over your threshold. By removing unnecessary stress from your dog’s life, you are a setting your dog up for success in handling future unavoidable stressful situations.
Finally, you can work on teaching your dog to feel differently about the trigger so that he no longer feels the need to growl. Classical conditioning is one technique that can be used to achieve this. With classical conditioning, you teach the dog to associate the trigger with something the dog enjoys until the trigger elicits an entirely new emotional response in the dog. Emotions drive behavior, so changing the underlying emotions that trigger the growl is one of the best ways to address a growling dog. Find an experienced positive-reinforcement based dog trainer to show you how to change your dog’s emotional response to triggers that are causing him to growl at you. Understanding your dog’s needs, how they are communicating, and what to do about it will improve your relationship with your dog and help to prevent avoidable harm.
Sara Scott is a certified professional dog trainer who has been training dogs professionally since 2000. She offers private training sessions in Oakland and Alameda along with long-distance learning options for those needing her assistance in other areas. Follow her online at Instagram.com/dogtraining_with_sara for dog training tips, inspiration, and all-around-good-doggie vibes! Her website is DogTrainingWithSara.com.
Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.
Main article photo by: TzuReyes/iStock