When you hear a dog growl, does it make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Do you stop what you’re doing and figure out why the dog is growling? Do you respond to the dog with aggression, or do you avoid and ignore the growling? There are many opinions about dog growling, and some important things you should know.
We are often told not to punish growling. We are told that “Growling is communication.”
We do need to know why our dogs growl. We do need to know when our dogs are unhappy. We need to avoid making the situation worse. But threatening behaviors like growling are dangerous, are unnecessary in dog communication with humans, and should not be acceptable.
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Dogs use many alternatives to growling
I’ve met a dog that refused to get off couches. She probably at first had a natural tendency to be appeasing and submissively urinate when people tried to pick her up or loom over her, but then the natural tendency became a learned strategy.
She learned that submissive urination caused humans to leap backwards and stop their efforts to remove her. While approaching her, a little squirt of pee would be released. Humans jumped back, fearful of her then releasing a whole bladderful on the couch. This caused humans to allow her to stay there. A very non-violent solution to the problem of people trying to make her leave the comfy sofa.
I’ve adopted shelter dogs that scream loudly if a person tries to handle them in ways they are afraid of. Some might be genetically inclined to scream when stressed, but some seem to have learned that screaming makes people back off and leave them alone. Many dogs scream at the sight of nail clippers. And when the clippers disappear, they stop instantly and resume trusting happy behavior. Dogs that are having pain issues and do not want to be bothered, sometimes learn that screaming loudly makes people stop handling or approaching. When screaming works, it is a non-threatening strategy.
I’ve read many stories of dogs that had been punished by another dog for trying to steal toys or bones, and do not dare try to steal guarded items. They have learned to run barking to the door, and when the other dog joins in, the thief doubles back to get the bone. A smart dog can make the connection that barking at the door (with nobody there) causes resources to suddenly be unguarded. A good non-violent strategy, instead of using a dangerous physical challenge.
Lots of dogs use play to deflect unwanted human behavior. Attempts to brush or clip nails often elicit attempts to wrestle and jump and distract the person into playing, and the person gives up the attempt to groom the dog.
Here are some other non-threatening dog strategies to stop unwanted human behavior
-Running away with a guarded object
-Covering the object with their body
-Swallowing the guarded object
-Gently grasping an intruding hand and moving it off their body
-Squirming until an escape run can be made
-Frantic struggling (most owners give up, fearing they might hurt the dog if they restrain it too tightly)
-Going into a passive unmoving state
-Bringing a toy to the owner to distract them
-Escaping the situation by running away
The many ritual behaviors of social group-living animals evolved to avoid physical confrontation
But temperaments in domestic dogs are incredibly variable, and many instincts are isolated or extreme. They range from being more fearful or less fearful than any wolf, to being more aggressive or less aggressive than any wolf.
Some dogs have more genetic tendency to threaten and growl as a strategy, but that does not mean they are limited to it. It is simply their first go-to option in many situations. Dogs can learn that growling does not work to solve their problems. They will then experiment with many other ways to possess resources, or avoid situations they feel threatened in.
If dogs choose growling, they are choosing a strategy of threat. By interrupting growling, and teaching other behaviors, we remove that strategy. The dog will then switch to another, more diplomatic, strategy that is not dangerously leading to biting.
We must try to understand why the dog was growling, but we must NOT tell dog owners that they should be grateful when their dog growls
By rewarding or ignoring growling, we reward the dogs strategy of using threatening behavior to achieve goals or solve problems.
The commonly given advice of “Don’t punish the communication of growling” is what I call a “New Wives Tale”. It was invented to inhibit dog owners from using aversives, by frightening them with threats of future sudden explosions of aggression. The false reasoning is that inhibiting growling, removes the dogs ability to communicate, and that the dog will suddenly explode into the final stages of aggression.
But that is not the way dog behavior works. A growl reflects an intention to progress further into a higher level of threat or aggression. Each time the dog growls, it is intensifying and imprinting a successful strategy of aggression to solve its problems. Since growling is an instinctive behavior, it very quickly becomes the “go to” strategy to solve ALL the problematic situations the dog encounters.
Inhibiting the growl does not temporarily suppress the threat of aggression, leaving a “canine time bomb”, as we are told.
Instead, inhibiting the growl stops the escalation of aggressive threat, and the dog switches to an emotional state that is more acceptable to us. For instance, it might try playful behavior such as frisking around out of reach with a bone it previously tried to guard. It may abandon the bone. It may show appeasement behavior. But it will not build up a pressure cooker of unexpressed aggression.
I do not believe that a dog can suppress emotions of aggression or threat, and have them erupt later in an unpredictable way. (as is described in many growl-repression-fallout explanations). I have never seen a dog repress an emotion. I do see them change their emotions in real time.
The question then becomes, how do we stop dogs from growling, and teach acceptable emotions and behaviors?
That is a subject that results in endless hours of arguing and internet wars. There are many pitfalls in real life as well as online. I admit that I am avoiding discussing training methods here, because growling is a complicated and controversial subject.
Attempts to stop growling behavior can be safe and effective, or they can be risky. It depends on the dog and the situation. Here are a few of the complications:
Young puppies are most easily guided to acceptable behavior before they can learn that aggressive confrontation is an effective life strategy. Luckily for us, if puppies learn that growling does not work, most normal puppies will abandon it.
Young pups showing growling and serious biting should be taken seriously. They will escalate. Their behavior should not be disregarded and classified as play or “puppy biting”. Play-biting is a very different behavior.
Older puppies and adult dogs are a very different issue.
Dogs may have previously learned that escalating their threat is effective.This is caused if humans or other dogs often attempted to make a correction, but then always fearfully backed off, thus rewarding the behavior. Biting ensues.
For thousands of years, humans have purposefully taught guard dogs to bite. It’s simple. Threaten a dog very mildly, and then fearfully back off. Repeat until the dog gains the confidence to bite the agitator. Many dog owners accidentally teach their dogs to bite this way.
Dogs may have a temperament that causes threatening behavior to be their automatic reaction to any confrontation. This can sometimes be seen in young puppies. Many herding and guard-function breeds have been intentionally selected to respond with extreme escalation if challenged or threatened.
Breeds that have been selected for the ability to kill humans, dogs, or other animals, need to be raised so that those instincts never are triggered in the wrong situation. Their extreme aggression, once aroused, can be almost impossible to stop.
Dogs that are fearful, but also have certain forms of aggression in their temperament, are very complicated. Ignorant or amateurish attempts to stop their threatening behavior may cause conflict (mental or physical cornering), resulting in a dog that panics in fearful and violent aggression.
And rarely, some dogs growl to communicate, without ever escalating to aggression.
Dogs are complicated, and when they show threatening behaviors, experienced professional trainers are needed.
Be sure to join Martha and others from the Service Dog community on the Martha Hoffman Hearing Dogs Open Forum Facebook group. It’s an open community where dog trainers, both professional and owner/trainers, exchange ideas and tips about training their dogs.
Martha Hoffman is the Training Director for the Hearing Dog Program. She has trained several hundred Hearing Dogs and tested over 20,000 shelter dogs over the course of 25 years. She is the founder and lead trainer at Martha Hoffman Hearing Dog Academy (MHHD) and the author of the highly respected text on Hearing Dog training, Lend Me an Ear.