When the Dog Growls

A Growling Dog scares lots of people

Sometimes we over react. But we should always evaluate the growl. The question is: Should You Punish Growling?

You’ve heard it said – never punish growling.  It’s is a very interesting topic and sometimes quite heated debates. There are a number of things that have to be considered to answer this question.

For me, there may be a time that you should correct your dog — or at least set his expectations regardign appropriate behavior. And we should always sort out why he feels the need to communicate his feelings out loud.

Let’s explore.

The Warning Growl

Yes, of course, the growl is a warning.  It’s probably paired with other warnings that came prior to the vocalization, or at one point was.   For most dogs, it’s just a way of communicating.   Growling doesn’t even have to mean aggression.

Communications, body language, and effective socialization is most effective when learned through puppy development and early training.

When warnings are ignored, the dog’s often escalate the stress ladder and at some point there will be enough pressure on the dog to force him to bite.  I say force, because he’s going to feel he has no other options.

And yes, I agree that you can create punishment in such a way that you suppress the growl and the dog heads straight for the bite.  But that’s not effective training — it’s a consequence given to the dog with no explanation.  No alternative.

What’s the Warning For?

If the dog is trying to tell us that he’s uncomfortable with the situation — harassed, petted or otherwise annoyed by another dog, kid, or human — he has a right to tell us he doesn’t like it.

It’s up to us to do two things:

  1. Figure out why this is a concern for the dog and IF it can be modified

  2. Prevent him from begin in these situations at all.

If he’s being a jerk, brat or bully about something he thinks he needs to handle or protect  — well then we have some work to do.

Yes, I believe some dogs can just be jerks.  But jerks who are willing to bite are definitely something we have to address.

Training, House Rules, Leadership

Your first step is fix all of this.  Yea, that’s a lot of steps really and you can’t skip any of them.

Obedience builds confidence and communications.  Rules builds confidence and trust.   Leadership is created through consistency, clarity and expectations.   It all comes together with training.

What gets corrected?

If I tell the dog to sit for example, and I prevent strangers from interacting with him  He has no right to growl.  None.  I will absolutely tell him to knock it off — quiet down.  But this doesn’t mean he’s getting punished.  We’re communicating expectations.  Expectations must be crystal clear.

If I put him in a situation where he feels the need to growl– we have moved to fast, breached his trust and not achieved the foundation of leadership we need.   Get back to basics for a while longer, increase the threshold distances we put him in etc.

If the dog is in his crate, on place, down-stay, or across the park — and another dog, kid, or is across the way, minding his own business and not giving Fido any nonsense — you don’t get to growl.   Mind your own business.

I will put the dog to work, focus his attention on me (the handler), and teach him to relax completely.   We can’t leave him in a state of mind that growls at something for no reason.   Sure he might thing he has a reason — but what is going to come from this?  He’s creating an association in his mind that he can be a jerk and things will leave him alone.  They would have left him alone anyway!.   But if we leave him growling – I’ll guarantee that he will escalate this behavior moving forward.   And for the times that, God forbid, the dog, human or kid move closer and not away — he will up the ante… for no reason.

You have to stop these behaviors.

What’s your alternative if you don’t correct the growl?

The dog wins!   He learns he has some power.

This is often the case in fear aggression.   Dogs would much rather you just leave them alone.   So the bark, growl, etc hoping you’ll go away.  And it usually works.    When someone stands their ground and responds differently — the dog will often escalate their behavior..   This is one of the most likely times of a bite risk.  The dog has a decision to make, work through the fear, or call your bluff.

It’s also often the case in a dog that is testing boundaries of power, dominance, or his bratty attitude.   When he learns it works for him to get to keep his bone from you, or other dogs away from something he wants — he will use that power to his advantage.    The solution here is retraining this response, not just giving letting the growl work for him.  Yes, it will take time and effort — but at some point, there must be a consequence for not

If your dog is nervous at the vet and growls or snaps for getting his shots or nails trimmed — what does he learn if we stop?  He learns he has power.  The solution here takes work and trust building, but it can be done with counter conditioning, desensitization or perception modification exercises.

Seek professional help for these and other situations.    Seek a trainer that will help you with balanced training solutions and not just punishment.  But also know that just giving the dog a treat for a good behavior — doesn’t take away the bad behavior.   At some point the perfect storm of circumstances that will overcome the treat –unless he’s learned the rules and the consequences.

Be the advocate

It’s all in who you advocate for and what rules you’re putting in place.   Yes, you can tell me you don’t like something, and I’ll be your advocate.    If I know you’re willing to put teeth on another living being — I need to manage that situation.  If you’re being a jerk — You are going to get the consequence.

So for me it’s about not just punishing the growl.  It’s about teaching the dog expectations, managing situations, and giving the dog different choices.

Choices?   Yes, he can have a choice.  And when they start thinking about choices, they start making better decisions.

If you can’t explain the growl or if you’ve not done anything to address it in other ways — true, you cannot correct the growl. 

In the moments of body language, lip curls or growls that you have no other way of handling — let him win that round.   But do not wait another day for another growl to present itself.   Start training those situations immediately.   The next growl might be last….

Dana Brigman