Why we never punish growling (or other communication from our dogs!)
If your dog has ever growled at you, it's normal to be upset and concerned. And while we don't want our dogs to be growling, since it's a sign that something is wrong, one of the most important things to realize if your dog is growling is to NEVER punish them for it!
First a note about this post: anywhere that you see "growling", you can substitute growling with any other warning signs from your dog, such as stiffening, snarling, or snapping. These rules apply to all signs of discomfort from your dog
I know what you're probably thinking. "If I tell the dog not to growl, won't they understand that it's unacceptable and stop growling?" And the answer is: they may stop growling, but they won't feel any better about the situation that they're in, and that can get us in trouble.
See, growling ISN'T a dog trying to challenge you or assert their dominance. It's not a dog trying to disrespect you, or a lack of obedience. It's also not a sign that your dog is a bloodthirsy danger to society.
Growling is one of the main warning signs that a dog gives to communicate how uncomfortable they are. Even though it makes us uncomfortable, and triggers the lizard part of our brains that goes "WHOA why are you living with a WOLF?!", growling in and of itself is not "bad".
Old fashioned dog training advice would have us believe that a dog growling at us is a sign of dominance or disobedience, but we know better now. Now we know that a dog who is growling is a dog saying "I'm uncomfortable, please give me space!"
So, why shouldn't we punish growling behavior in an effort to eliminate it? Because a growl is essentially a dog's early warning sign that something is wrong. Most people know that if a dog is growling, they should back up and give the dog space. We LIKE growling because it's an easily read social signal for most of us, and keeps us safe!
If we punish a dog's warning signals without putting in the training to make them feel better about the situation, then what we will end up with is a dog who no longer gives those warning signals, but still feels uncomfortable. And if the dog is put in the same situation again, they won't growl or give other warning signs because we've told them not to. Instead, they'll suppress their warning signs which will lull the human they are interacting with into a false sense of security, and then out of the blue the dog will escalate and may "bite without warning", because we have essentially trained the warnings out of them!
So, if a dog DOES growl at you, what should you do? First of all: give the dog space. If a dog is growling, they are asking for us to stop whatever it is that we're doing and give them a break.
Second of all, make note of what the context was. Did they growl when you pet them while they were eating? Did they growl when you wiped their paws off, or did their nails? Did they growl when they saw a new person or dog? It's important to understand the context of when the dog is uncomfortable so that we can manage or change the behavior.
Next, ask yourself if this was a one time scenario, or if the behavior has been trending upward recently. If the behavior only happens once and never again, there's likely no need to hire a trainer, your dog could have just been having an off day! What is an example of occasional growling that may not need a total "overhaul" with training? One example from my personal life is this: my senior dog has arthritis in his rear legs. He is treated for the pain that the arthritis gives him, but if he runs particularly hard (like if we go for a 5 mile hike) and is really sore that night, if I go to wipe his paws off he may give a little growl to tell me he's sore and remind me to wipe a little more gently and predictably. If he growls, I say "sorry buddy", give him a break for a minute (and usually give him a snack!), then try again more slowly and cautiously so that I'm not hurting him. But the next day he's back to normal, and the growling no longer occurs in that context because the pain is managed. This is a very different scenario than a dog who is uncomfortable at all times with something and growls EVERY time it happens. The latter situation is one that I would definitely recommend behavior work for, the former is one that can be managed pretty easily since the trigger is so specific and rare. Regis is communicating with me that he's ouchy, and as long as I listen and don't ignore his communication, it all works out!
So, if the behavior is happening more and more often, you'll want to get your dog checked out by their primary care veterinarian to make sure no health issues are going on, and if they're medically cleared you'll want to hire a dog behavior professional to help you change how your dog feels!
If you can help your dog feel better about the situation that he is growling in, the growling will go away, but not because we told the dog NOT to growl. The growling will disappear because the dog is no longer uncomfortable and no longer sees a reason to growl! Remember, growling is communication and a sign that we need to LISTEN to our dogs. THAT is how you get a happy dog!