Thank your dog for growling - why growling is a safe form of canine communication
Growling is information that the environment needs to change
Dogs are a social species, co-operative predators with an effective communication system. This communication system takes the form of body language and vocalisations. Dogs will use the system to communicate with each other and with us. Whilst there is no guarantee how another dog will respond, we can make it our business to learn as much as possible about dog communication and learn how to respond appropriately.
One of the most common vocalisations that cause humans concern is growling, one of the reasons it concerns us so much is the lack of understanding of what growling is and how to respond.
A big part of the problem is our inherited misunderstanding of dominance and the mindset of 'no dog is going to growl at me'. Another problem is our fear of being embarrassed by our dog's behaviour and other people thinking badly of our dog. Conscientious owners wonder where they went wrong or fear that their dog may need to be rehomed, even euthanised.
It is a normal human reaction to want to fix the problem quickly and the tendency is to turn towards punishment - 'a sharp smack will put that dog in it's place' or 'make sure you can take the food bowl away'. 'Make your dog work for their food' or 'Remember Pack Leaders eat first'. 'Don't back down, it's a sign of weakness, stand your ground until your dog gives up'. Not only do all of these put you at risk of injury, they are all based on outdated theories of dog training that rely on punishment. The problem with punishment is that we never know what the fallout will be. Think carefully before employing any of these types of methods.
If we flip our understanding of growling from being a sign that a dog is bad and understand growling as communication we open the gateway to connection and a co-operative relationship with our dog.
Why do dogs growl?
The primary reason for growling is to create more space. Growling is not the first part of the communication but it is often the part humans notice because it is at this point we feel unsafe. Before growling dogs will pause, go still, stop or freeze, if they have something of value they will incline their head over their possession. An on lead dog will turn their head to one side, turn away or move behind you. These are all designed for assessment and to encourage the other dog or person to step back.
Unaware of what our dog is trying to tell us, concerned that we aren't 'socialising' our dogs correctly, or worried about being seen as bad mannered, we make things worse. With the best of intentions we drag our dog onwards, encourage them to 'be nice' or allow the person to keep approaching, reach out and even touch. This picture is a stock image with the label 'sweet dog'. I'm sure they are sweet, but this dog is very anxious and communicating that approach would be unwelcome - ears back, whites of eyes visible, mouth closed.
Without our understanding of the silent communication our dog needs to escalate to vocalisation, the safest of which is growling. The first growl is often low, a rumble and the mouth stays closed. This is another opportunity to create more space for your dog. Miss this opportunity and the dog has to escalate further.
In yet another attempt to create space dog's show their teeth whilst growling, this is another warning, a reminder that a dog carries a full set of weapons in their mouth. This is most likely to be the last opportunity to back away, forward movement is likely to provoke a bite or fight.
This system of canine communication is all about safety, a way for dogs to survive in a social group without resorting to biting and fighting, which could lead to injury, illness and even death. Following the traditional advice to prevent or punish a dog for communicating in this way risks putting us, other people and other dogs in danger. From experience dog's who have been punished for growling and showing their teeth, simply drop these from their repertoire and go straight to biting. On a positive note I have experience of dog's returning to growling following a behaviour and training programme. Whilst I know from experience that living with a growling dog is not comfortable, it is normal dog behaviour and extremely common especially where possessions are concerned. Try not to take it personally, you are unlikely to have done anything wrong and your dog is not a bad dog. Remember that your dog is trying their best to communicate and let you know that something needs to change.
Need more help?
If you are struggling with your dog's behaviour particularly resource guarding or biting please reach out and ask for help. I have lots of experience of living with dogs that arrived with a history of biting and plenty of strategies for helping. All my behaviour programmes are personalised and tailored to meet the needs of you and your dogs. Email me email@example.com
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