We’ve all heard it before, that deep scary noise a dog makes when scared, uncomfortable or unhappy. The sound scares a lot of people and in all fairness, I don’t blame them! I still find it very impressive and feel quite uncomfortable when I hear a dog make this noise. You might have guessed already, but in case you haven’t caught on yet, I am talking about growling.
Hey dude, this is my last warning!
Many people seem to think growling is a bad thing or a sign of aggression, but this is actually not true. I consider it a good thing! Hey, your dog is communicating with you, they are letting you know they are uncomfortable or unhappy with the situation! Instead of a sign of aggression, growling is a sign that the dog wants to avert aggression. Now don’t get me wrong, growling obviously is not a desirable situation but at least your dog is letting you know something is wrong before it escalates. So yes – it is good your dog growls, but it is not something you should ignore. Growling should be taken very seriously.
But why is my dog growling?
So – your dog growled at you, another person or another dog. There are many reasons why a dog would growl, but we will just go through the main and most common reasons. One of these reasons is play, some dogs get growly during playtime. This is not something to worry about and is fully normal. I will not go in to that type of growling too much! Remember that the tips I give are only the tip of the iceberg – solving issues like these take a lot of time and effort. The information in this article is not nearly enough, it just gives you an idea of causes and a couple of things you can implement immediately to start working towards a solution. Below you will find the other reasons:
Resource guarding: Does your dog growl when you try to take their toy, something they have taken from you or touch their food? This is called resource guarding. Your dog is telling you hey! That’s my item! Don’t take that!
Territoriality: A great example for this is your dog is sleeping on the couch and doesn’t want to move or when your dog growls whenever another dog comes close to your garden. He or she is telling you hey! That’s my spot, leave me alone!
Provocation: This is one you see often when we as people or other dogs go too far. This happens often with children as they are not being able to spot the signs of an uncomfortable dog makes for this to be the riskiest situation of all. Your dog is telling you they are uncomfortable with the situation.
Pain: I think this kind of falls under the provocation tab, but I will give it a separate header. It speaks kind of for itself, a dog in pain will sometimes growl to show their discomfort.
Fear: A scared dog is likely to growl at you as a last resort to get you or whatever situation it is in to stop. The dog is telling you to please back off, and it is very important to do so.
The thing that links all of the above causes is the fact that we as owners have overstimulated our dogs and missed previous signs of distress. It is so important to learn about the body language of dogs and their way of communication, and apart from finding the cause of the growling and working on that, it is super important to learn to catch on to discomfort sooner and therefore deal with it quicker.
What did I miss?
I want to talk to you about signs of stress and discomfort. There are a lot of signs which are easily missed by adults and children alike. Remember that it is always better to prevent than it is to cure, so learning these signs will make life a lot easier for you and your dog. It’s also important to remember that you are your dogs advocate and you are the one that should protect your dog from stressful environments. So lets talk about the ladder of aggression – this is a list of signs where if one sign gets ignored the dog will move on to the next step. As you can see, the top step is an actual bite or escalation, this is what we want to prevent. Below, an image of the canine ladder of aggression:
But he never does that!
Another part that I think is really important to discuss is what is called trigger stacking. Have you ever had someone tell you “Oh but normally he never does this!”? It might be that normally there was just one less trigger around, and this last trigger was the one the tipped the bucket. For example, while the dog might be only a little bit stressed with a child trying to pet them, and only a little stressed with a lot of noise around, and only a little bit stressed when you grab their toy, if they all happen at once it might just be too much, which causes a sudden “snap” at a moment you didn’t expect. Simply because all these triggers on their own were not too bad.
This is why it’s so important to know the tiny signs – 3 tiny signs might be, stacked together, the cause of a big snap.
So how do I respond when my dog growls?
Whatever you are doing – stop doing it. Your first priority now is to get your dog out of the situation that is causing him or her discomfort. If your dog is growling at you this means you move away. If the growling is at someone else this means you take your dog away from that situation ASAP. Shouting or scolding your dog in this situation will only add more stress to the situation. Scolding will also teach your dog that it is not okay to warn you and it teaches them that warning will not stop the discomfort, therefore it is more likely to go to the next step of the ladder without a warning. Another thing that will not help the dog in this stage is trying to comfort it. The dog is over threshold already so there is absolutely no point in comforting the dog, he or she is not in a trainable mindset now and might even unexpectedly turn on you because it’s just too much. Therefore it is best not to show emotion and first get your dog back to a comfortable state of mind. Once that is done, it is time to figure out why your dog was growling. What did you or someone else do that was too much for your dog to handle?
And how do we go from there?
Now that you know why your dog is growling, you can look for a suitable way of dealing with it. Firstly it is important to start learning and respecting those stressors we talked about earlier. Whenever you see them you know your dog is hitting their threshold, and by backing off or giving them a sense of security they will grow in confidence, which will make the threshold larger and the likeliness to growl smaller.
Food & Toys: If your dog is growling to guard his food or toys, you could start doing trading games. It is important to make your dog feel like you would never steal their food, this sense of security will make your dog feel like there is no need to guard. Another thing you can do is drop food in the bowl every time you walk past it while the dog is eating, this way your dog starts to learn you are there to give, not to take. More on this topic will come in a later article!
Dogs & People: For issues with dogs and/or people I would advise to read my article on fearful dogs, as this sort of reactivity often stems in fear. You can play games like the engage disengage game, working from a large distance and slowly closing that gap. Have people that you know that have well balanced and nice dogs or people that are themselves well balanced and listen to your instructions help you and stay clear of any high traffic areas like dog parks.
Territory: For territorial issues and issues with for example moving your dog from a certain place to another or picking them up it is important to stop moving them. Give them their own safe place like a bed or crate and throw some treats every time the dog goes near that place or lays down in their spot. You can also work on the relaxation protocol there. Make sure never to disturb them when they are on this spot and leave them be. Whenever they are on a spot they are not allowed (for example the couch) don’t try to move them. Instead grab a toy or treat and lure them off the couch. This way they get rewarded for moving from the spot and having their attention on you and you prevented an escalation.
Remember that the tips above are only the tip of the iceberg – solving issues like these take a lot of time and effort. The information in this article is not nearly enough, it just gives you an idea of causes and a couple of things you can implement immediately to start working towards a solution.
In conclussion: Growling is not bad, but shouldn’t be ignored
In conclusion, growling can be caused by many things but it is not a bad thing itself. It is important to take growling seriously and work on the cause of the growling instead of punishing the growling itself. This is because when punishing growling the only thing you do is pushing them up the ladder of aggression to the next step. It is important to learn the signs of stress in dogs as displayed on this ladder and start noticing these before the growling occurs. By working on the actual issue that causes the growling and preventing the dog from having to escalate to growling you can make your dog more balanced, confident and therefore less likely to escalate.
And lastly, remember training can only happen when you stay under the threshold!
Some great articles and resources: