As humans we have many ways of communicating.  We can use our words to tell someone if we like something or if we don’t like something, and hopefully a fellow human will respond accordingly to that communication.

Our dogs come with their own ways of communicating.  We know when our dogs like something, they might wag their tail or jump for joy, but what about when they don’t like something?  Our dogs use a growl as a way of communicating that a situation is unpleasant or an interaction is unwanted. As humans, we take a growl very personally.  It can be hard when our typically loving, friendly companions communicate with us in this way. Putting our own feelings aside, let’s take a growl for what it is- information.

Let’s look at the following scenario.  Your dog is laying on their bed chewing a bone, when you walk over to him, he growls at you.  What now? Firstly, I respect the communication. I hear that growl and change the picture, in this case I walk away.  Second, if we need to take away what they are chewing on in that moment, how can I do that and still help my dog feel comfortable?  Maybe you toss some yummy treats in a food bowl; most dogs will come running allowing me to go and safely remove the valued bone. Now that everyone is safe, we can make a plan.  

First, let’s start by looking at why the dog growled. What was the outcome he was looking for?  Maybe it was for us not to take away a desired resource, maybe it was to let us know a nail trim was scary, maybe it was that he did not want to be picked up right now.  The next step is to make a plan, how can we help our dog feel more comfortable in that situation? Can we teach him an alternate behaviour that we would like better than a growl?

Using the example above, we can teach our dog that when we come near a desired resource it is an opportunity to earn even better things.  What we are aiming for is our dogs looking at us with joyful anticipation when we come towards them rather than with suspicion or fearful.  So in the above scenario, start with something your dog likes to chew on, but isn’t his VERY favourite (always start easy), next we are going to approach the dog (staying at a comfortable distance) and we are going to toss them a yummy treat and then retreat, we are going to repeat this process.  What we want to see is that now when we approach, our dog looks up hopefully expecting yummy treats. At this point I keep my sessions short. As your dog is successful you can begin to increase the value of the desired object. I recommend working with a certified professional to assist in modifying behaviours.  

So why don’t we punish a growl?  Many times when our dogs growl we feel the need to discipline the dog or communicate that a growl is inappropriate behaviour.  This is a very normal human reaction, in many cases a growl scares us and becoming angry is an emotional response. Responding to the growl with an aversive stimulus (yelling, scolding etc) may decrease the likelihood of the dog growling at us, however it does not change the way the dog feels about that situation.  In fact responding with punishment may actually cause them to feel more uncomfortable in a situation, and less likely to communicate their discomfort subtly in future situations.

I love this saying by dog professional Dr Ian Dunbar “punishing the growl is like taking the tick out of the time time bomb”.  We want our dogs to be able to tell us quietly that they dislike something rather than having them respond with an escalation of behaviour, a bite.  It is our job to respect the communication and from there we can make the choice to either A) not put the dog in that situation again (this won’t be possible in all situations), B) Use management (crate the dog when they have something of value until it is safe to take away), or C) Make a plan to help change the way the dog feels about the situation.

If you are at the receiving end of a growling dog and unsure how to proceed I strongly advise getting the support of a certified professional.  All behaviour is modifiable.