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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.

Does this mean that growling is never cause for concern? Absolutely not. There are many reasons for growling, some of which need to be addressed, and some of which can simply be carefully managed. If your dog growls every time a visitor comes over, that dog should be very carefully managed, and put on a desensitization plan created by a certified, positive reinforcement trainer. If your dog growls every time you get near their food bowl, that dog should also be seen by a trainer who can work with you on creating a relationship of trust between you and your dog, so they don’t feel threatened when you approach their resources. If your dog has only ever growled once, at a large bearded cable man wearing a hat that was at your house one time and won’t need to return? Probably not going to be a huge issue, and if you ever have a visitor that frightens your dog like that again, be prepared with a nice bed and a chewy bone locked away in a back room. Easily managed. And thank goodness your dog knew that growling at that big man would suffice, instead of feeling uncomfortable enough to snap or bite. What a GOOD dog.

What must you NEVER do if a dog growls? NEVER punish a growl, and NEVER push the dog further. If you punish a growl effectively, you will cause that growl to disappear. And do you know what you have with a dog that doesn’t growl? You do not have a ‘calm-submissive’ dog, you are not the ‘alpha’ of that dog, and you have not calmed that dog’s fears. You have taught the dog that verbal warnings do not work, and that next time they shouldn’t even waste their time. Not only that, but you’ve taught the dog that they cannot depend on you to help them if they’re frightened. You have a ticking time bomb on your hands that will give little to no warning next time they feel uncomfortable. And THAT is a truly dangerous dog to be around.

The bottom line is, the more we know about our dogs, and the more involved in our lives they become, the more we realize just how complex their full range of emotion is. If a dog growls at you, step back, assess the situation, think about what is bothering the dog, and consider if there’s a way to assuage their fears, then do it. If you have a dog that growls at you, thank the stars that they have the self control to use their voice and say “Would you mind?” before taking further course of action. Remember: A growl heeded is a bite avoided.


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