When a dog growls at you, it is instinctual to bristle, freeze, or even lash out verbally and physically to punish the dog for threatening you. It depends on your level of comfort and/or trust with the dog as to what you do. If it is a dog you know well, you may feel safe enough to berate the dog. If it is a dog you donâ€™t know, you will more likely move away to de-escalate the issue. Why is it that we are more likely to hurt those that are closest to us? What if, instead of taking a growl personally, we backed off and thought about what our dog is saying to us? As Nicole Wilde points out, in this great article about growling, “…growling is a non-aggressive form of communication”. Basically, your dog is saying that he/she is uncomfortable with what is going on. Thatâ€™s it. Your dog isn’t vying for head of the household (99% of the time), or declaring all out war with you.
Believe it or not, growling is exactly what we want our dogs to do when they are upset: communicate their discomfort to us in a non-aggressive way. What else will they do? Write a letter of complaint? When my kids bicker and start escalating things to shoves and crying, I always remind them “Use your words!”. Without clear communication, we donâ€™t know what is wrong. Without the other party listening, there can be no resolution, just continued strife and possibly aggression.
Sadly, I know many people who have “punished the growl out of their dog”. When a dog is punished for a warning, after time, they decide not to give a warning, and instead escalate things to a point where they feel like they will be heard. This usually involves a snap or bite. You donâ€™t want to teach your dog that physical aggression is necessary to resolve his discomfort, but that is exactly what they learn when they finally bite and they get relief from what was stressing them in the first place.
Noone wants to be growled at, but if it happens, make sure you stop and listen. Why is your dog growling? Move away and resolve to make your dog comfortable with that situation. Was the toddler pulling his tail? Train him to love it and keep your toddler under watchful eye. Was a puppy rudely jumping in her face? Train her to turn away, and protect your dog from other obnoxious youngsters. Do his hips hurt because of arthritis? Make sure you use an anti-inflammatory, and warn people to touch him gently there. Our dogs only have us to listen to them and advocate for them. Letâ€™s make sure we listen before we leap.
The article that I quoted was written by Nicole Wilde, a respected canine behaviorist who has worked extensively with wolves and wolf hybrids. She also just happens to be a really great person and very down to earth when it comes to training and technique.