Growling at Me? What Do I Do?
In Part 3 of our “Growls and Barks” series, we look at the most disturbing noise of all – a dog growling directly at you. If you’ve ever had your own “best friend” growl at you, you know it can bring on a flood of emotions: anger, sadness, and confusion. Even behavior experts have a hard time not taking it personally when their dogs growl at them. Keep a cool head, though. A growl is just a warning, and it’s a natural part of canine communication that you need to understand.
When a pet dog growls it is often protecting a coveted resource, like a food item or a favorite resting spot. This is called resource guarding. Dogs will also growl if they don’t want their body to be touched or disturbed. This can happen with fearful dogs that aren’t used to handling, are wary of a child or stranger, or sometimes if a dog is ill or in pain.
In both examples above – resource guarding and body-sensitivity – growling is a warning signal that the dog may bite if pushed further. Believe it or not, you should be thankful if your dog gives you this warning signal! It means he prefers NOT to bite. He wants to avoid the situation going any further. So don’t push it. Why teach your dog to escalate?
Many pet owners react to growling with aggression of their own, yelling at the dog or reacting with a more intense version of scolding. This seems natural, but it usually makes the situation worse.
Here’s why you NEVER want to punish a growl or other defensive threat:
- Growling is an ALL IMPORTANT WARNING SIGNAL that a bite could come next. If you punish warning signals the dog will likely bite without warning in the future. That’s dangerous.
- Punishing growling can backfire. Some dogs will act more submissively after being punished, but others will become more defensive, ready to bite faster or harder the next time in order to protect themselves (understandably). Still others may be submissive to the one person who punished them, but learn not to trust people in general and end up taking it out on a less intimidating person in the future.
- Punishing the growling is ignoring what really matters – the trigger. You need to focus on what triggered the dog to issue a warning. Once you identify this trigger, you can safely avoid bites and now you know what you need to work on to change the dog’s behavior for the future.
When a threatening growl is directed at you or others, get help from a professional. Unless you are a dog behavior expert, get in touch with one and have the situation assessed. You and the trainer should first work to figure out what triggers the dog to growl. Then, make a plan to safely manage trigger situations going forward. Finally, your trainer will determine the best process for changing the dog’s outlook on these trigger situations going forward (create a behavior modification plan).
The Wrap on Our Growls and Barks Series:
Dogs are animals, and animals make noise. Even fun play can be loud and growly. Dogs that have a time and a place to be loud are less likely to be loud inappropriately by human standards. Part of dog talk is also letting others know when you’re uncomfortable. That’s what a threatening growl is – a warning that the situation is going bad, so let’s cool it down. Accepting that your dog is going to “talk”, and tuning into what she’s trying to say will go a long way towards a happy, healthy and safe relationship for everyone.