To fear the growl or not to fear the growl: THAT is the question!
As I was walking one of my client’s dogs today, I heard a car pull up behind me and looked to see who it was. Curious if I was running into someone I knew, or being asked for directions (bad idea, for future notice, I’m terrible at giving directions. “Turn left at the mossy rock, if you’ve hit the house with the Great Pyrenees you’ve gone too far!”), I turned around to see that it was the owner of a dog I had watched toward the end of November. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about the upcoming holiday, and she asked me how her dog had done over the weekend service. I told her that he was clearly very nervous when I first arrived but warmed up eventually when he realized I was there to walk him and feed him. Her response: “He didn’t growl or anything did he?!” And I told her the truth: “Yes, he did growl.” She was shocked and immediately began apologizing and expressing her surprise, saying that that behavior was totally atypical. I went on to explain to her that no apology was needed, he was probably worried because I entered through a dark doorway and he didn’t recognize me, and that once he realized I was there to care for him he was cooperative. We said our goodbyes, we went on our way, and I finished up my walk with plenty to think about.
This owner’s response is not an uncommon one. The vast majority of dog owners still believe that growling is a sure sign of a ‘bad dog’, and classify growling as aggressive behavior. It is a long held belief that a dog that growls will surely escalate to biting if the aggressive response isn’t ‘nipped in the bud’, so growling must be punished to keep the dog from aggressing further. This thought, in addition to pack theory and the common belief that your dog will fight to be ‘alpha’ with you, leads to a relationship filled with conflict and struggle. However, with recent breakthroughs in canid behavior and ethology, we have been able to reframe the growl so that we can better handle and cooperate with our canine friends.
First question: What is a growl? Dogs have a large variety of vocalizations, but you’d be hard pressed to find a person who doesn’t recognize a growl when they hear it. A growl is a warning from the dog to whoever they are growling at. It says “I’m uncomfortable with what is happening right now, and if pushed further I may feel forced to escalate”. Dogs may growl at strangers, dogs may growl at family, dogs may growl at the vet. I walk a Portugese water dog that used to growl at the evil recycling bins before I worked on desensitizing her using gradual counter-conditioning. One thing is for sure, a growl is a dog saying “please don’t push me”.
So why, then, has the growl been so demonized? When you take away any stigma attached to the growl, any negative association or preconceived notion we may have, a growl is simply another tool of communication that a dog has.
If I may anthropomorphize a bit: If you were walking down the street one day, and there was a person following you a bit too closely, what would you do? You’d first attempt to increase distance, correct? This is often dog’s first choice as well, if it’s an option. So you quicken your pace and get a few steps ahead. Suddenly that person is behind you again, matching your quickened pace. Maybe you turn a corner. That person follows. Eventually, you may feel compelled to say, ” Excuse me!” or “Can I help you?!” THAT is your human version of growling. That is your verbal warning to that strange person, saying “Would you mind?!”.
Now imagine that the person ignores your warning. They get closer. Maybe they put their hand on you. Just what might you feel forced to do? If you’re feeling unsafe and desperate for action, you may very well punch that person or cause some other physical harm. You justify this action by saying you felt forced to, they simply wouldn’t listen to your warning! With a little bit of empathy and creative thinking, you’ve just felt the reason why a dog growls and eventually might feel the need to bite.
If that stranger had listened to your warning and backed off, would you have felt compelled to use physical force? Most likely not, most people prefer not to escalate to physical confrontation if they can help it. That is why it is such a WONDERFUL thing when a dog knows that growling works as a communication tool. If a growl is heeded, it will very rarely escalate into physical action.