Dog Bite Prevention Week Myth #4: "You must punish a growl to stop aggression in it's track
Today's post is about a long-held myth: that you need to punish a dog for growling. If a dog growls, it's our knee-jerk reaction to want to punish the growl. As humans we have learned that growling is "bad" and something to be avoided. And yeah, a dog that is growling and means business is scary. While we do want to avoid having a dog growl, the last thing we want to do is use verbal or physical punishment in response to said growl.
Growling is a warning signal. It's like a fire alarm beeping, or your check engine light going on. It's telling you that there is a problem, and that it needs to be handled, but punishing is never the way to handle this situation.
But why not punish? Won't that eliminate the growling, and therefore extinguish the aggression? The truth is that dogs have a series of behaviors that lead up to a bite. These preliminary signals are known as protracted warning signals, and are a sign that a dog is trying to avoid real, damaging conflict. Every dog escalates differently, and not every dog displays every behavior, but the following graphics give a nice idea of what behavioral escalation might look like:
So, what can happen when you punish a growl is that your dog will learn that growling doesn't work, and they will escalate to the next step. If you're lucky your dog is very socially tolerant and offers many protracted warning signals, trying to avoid escalation. You punish the growl, so your dog moves to a snarl or snap. If you're unlucky, you will have a less tolerant dog with less warning signals and may go from a growl directly to an out right bite. Now, you have a dog that bites without warning. These are some of the most dangerous dogs to live with. And it's difficult if not impossible to get that growl back.
So if you can't punish a growl, what can you do? You can take stock of the situation and ask yourself what happened right before your dog growled (this is known as the antecedent to the behavior). Did they have a high value chew? Were they being approached by a stranger? Were you touching their paws? Then, reach out to a positive, force-free behavior professional (see here, here, here, or here for listings of where to find qualified trainers) and come up with a behavior modification plan to help counter condition the dog to whatever it is that is eliciting the growling, and manage the behavior in the mean time (avoid putting the dog in these situations).
If your dog growls, don't take it personally. Understand that our dogs have a whole range of emotions, just like we do, and if we can build mutual respect by listening to our dog's communication signals it can only deepen and improve our relationship. And most of all, don't punish that valuable communication!