Thursday, June 2, 2011

Don't Punish the Growl

The beginning of gardening season tends to draw people out of their homes and we realized, once again, that the houses around ours are indeed occupied. Thus, I had a pleasant chat with our neighbor’s daughter recently who is parent to an 18-month-old daughter of her own, and a senior rescue mutt named Hannah. Always interested in other people’s dogs I casually inquired how Hannah was doing, and my neighbor stated that she is great, but occasionally growls at the now more mobile baby. She right away followed that statement by saying that she isn’t too concerned and feels that Hannah doesn’t want to injure the toddler, only communicates to the adults that she has had enough of small, uncoordinated hands reaching for her. How is it, I wondered, that some people understand that a dog’s growl means that she needs help, while others envision a looming blood bath?
Many people, possibly the majority, are certain that a growl is a sure-tell sign that the dog is dominant and dangerous, and without a doubt will harm someone. And out of that fear we humans, at the core prey not predator, quell the growl and expect our dog, for an entire lifetime, no matter what circumstance, only speak pleasantly. How realistic is that, eh? It’s not – not possible for any animal.
Steve White and Suzanne Clothier, two of my favorite dog gurus, argue that a growl is communication like any other one, and always coveys that distance is sought. And they are not the only ones. Many high profile, world-renowned behaviorists agree that with a growl the still self-controlled dog is sending information that the present situation isn’t working for her, and that she needs help. The dog’s intent with a growl is to prevent a bite. It’s a good thing, cause it gives you an opening to get the queasy feeling pooch out of the situation before she becomes undone.
I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t do anything about your dog’s growling, snarling, tensing or snapping, just that subduing her is barking up the wrong tree. Labeling a dog bad and dominant, without further investigation what drives the behavior, what the root cause for the tension is, creates more problems in the long run because your dog’s mind about the worrisome stimulus isn’t changed, just the expressions suppressed.
When your dog acts out, you need to deal with the pressing moment and get her out of the situation that elicited the warning, but after that you gotta focus on what really needs your attention: the underlying issues that prompted the growls. Likely, that requires the help of an experienced, positive behavior expert, because the reasons could be many and the solutions as well. So, don’t leave the matter alone, but address in a way that is productive, and responding with an assertive correction, despite its popularity, isn’t it.
That is also true for dogs that are indeed confident and aggressive. In fact, I opine that a growl is never a submissive signal. The dog could, instead of growling, surrender and walk away. In all fairness, humans often prevent that; restrain and corner the dog, not giving her the option to depart. Even then, even if growling is the dog’s plan B, it reflects a certain willingness to be confrontational. When we adopted our feral born Will she panicked about everything that had to do with humans, yet never growled. She involuntary voided, drooled excessively, stress-panted and expressed her anal sacs, but didn’t growl, never warned us to back off.
It is understandable that you’re upset when your canine sidekick, who ought to follow and obey, challenges the hand that feeds her, but forcefully crushing that part of natural, albeit undesired by us, communication backfires in a big way.
I always wonder why intelligent people believe that adding their own aggression to an already tense situation somehow diffuses it and makes it all better for the future? Believe me, it doesn’t. It creates more resistance that, provided the handler is able to physically impress the dog, might not be overtly expressed anymore, but will boil under the surface instead. Steve White calls it “removing the ticker from the time bomb”. Now you have a dog who still feels the same about you, your kids, your guests, strangers or other dogs, but doesn’t warn you anymore that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Whenever I hear: “Suddenly she lost it” and “Bit out of the blue”, I have an idea what happened in that dog’s past. And make no mistake. A dog confident enough will explode eventually and bite you or someone else, someone weaker.
I know: dogs that warn are scary. It all sounds the same for untrained human ears, but the fact is that dogs growl for different reasons in various degrees. The one constant is that it is always a sign that she is confronted with a situation she can’t handle and that forces her to act according to what worked in the past and her abilities as a species. A dog can’t use human words, can’t say: “You (it, that) makes me nervous”, “Food is scarce and I’m hungry”, or “Boy, did you startle me”, so she growls.
Remember that you want that warning, but recognize that there is an underlying problem that needs your attention. Investigate what it is and then deal with it constructively. And don’t worry that, if you miss to respond with a punitive action of your own, you will be rewarding the dog for a behavior you don’t desire. Don’t think in terms of operant conditioning, of what you’d be reinforcing, but what your dog needs from you that eliminates tension and anxiety, and with it the need to growl.


  1. You don't rush in and start shouting and agitating a hostage taker in a tense situation and expect a positive outcome or pour gas on coals and expect to put out a fire. Common sense tells you not to do these things. So like you said why do people thing adding their own aggression to an already tense situation would work… So use your common sense here also and listen to your dog she is giving you all the signs for help. An excellent Blog.

  2. Wonderful article. Your other one on how to choose a behavior consultant was also very well written and I was in violent agreement. We need some kind of regulation in this industry. All too often I deal with dogs who have already been "trained" by punishment trainers. Dogs who have been punished for growling and skip right to biting (goes against common sense to punish a warning, the most recent client has a 1 year old child so lives are in danger here!), dogs who have been "dominated", dogs who are leash reactive from choke, prong and shock collars, and all the other victims of backwards training from self proclaimed behavioral experts with no learning to back their inflated egos up. And I ONLY work with rescue dogs. Dogs who have been kicked out of their homes due to the poor advice their previous owners have followed.