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What's in a Growl?

I work with a lot of different people, who have a wide variety of experiences with dogs from very little or no experience on up to the folks who have had dogs all their lives. There's a particular topic that I tend to spend a lot of time talking about with people from every point in the spectrum of dog experience.

And that topic is growling.

More often than not, I hear in sessions that people are worried about their dog growling. They don't want their dog to be "aggressive" toward their kids or their neighbor's dog; they are worried that the growling is a sign that they're in over their heads and their, otherwise, sweet, loving SideKick is not who they thought they were.

I completely understand the concern and I certainly wouldn't want any of the family members, friends, neighbors, etc. to feel worried about a dog's behavior or scared of the family dog.

However, growling does not an aggressive dog make. Even if a dog does a lot of growling, they are very likely not an aggressive dog. To figure out what's going on and to help the family, more information is needed; I need to ask questions:

  • What happened before the dog growled?

  • What happened after the dog growled?

  • Where did it happen?

  • When did it happen?

  • How often does the dog growl?

And so on...

It's important to get a clear picture of what is happening before, during, and after the growling to get a really good idea of the context. Dogs do a lot of growling and understanding context can make a HUGE difference in how we handle the behavior and how we can work with it!

Let's take a look at a few common situations I talk about with my clients:

Playing with other dogs

There's a fine line between play fighting and actual fighting between dogs, but barking and growling and other vocalizations can frequently be heard during really good play between two dogs. Especially if you're still seeing loose, wiggly bodies, play bows, and dangling tongues (among other things), growling itself isn't a signal that the dogs are fighting. Depending on the dogs, growling can be a sign that the play is escalating and getting a bit heated, though, so taking a little break can be a good thing.

Playing with humans

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Dogs that are vocal during play with other dogs tend to also be vocal when playing with their humans; my Ruby is one of those dogs - particularly when playing tug (and no, playing tug doesn't make a dog aggressive). She's a big fierce warrior - but it's all bluster! Growling when playing with humans, as with growling during play with other dogs, can be a sign that the play is escalating, but that's not always the case.

Resource guarding

When a dog has something they consider to be a prize - their dinner, a special chew, an earplug they found under the bed, etc., they are very likely to growl when someone tries to take it from them. Sometimes, a dog may growl when someone is simply in the vicinity or tries to come closer to them when they have their prize. This growling is telling the person, "This is mine; back off because you're making me uncomfortable." Guarding a resource of some kind is a totally natural and normal behavior (honestly, we humans do it all the time when we lock our houses and cars, label our lunches in the work fridge, and set out place cards for assigned seating); but we have language and words to tell others not to take our things or touch our stuff. Dogs have growling (and other behaviors) to discourage others from approaching or taking their prizes.

Body handling

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A dog may growl if they're uncomfortable with some sort of body handling - that is, anything we need to do to our dogs for the sake of their care. Grooming, veterinary services, tick checks, and putting on the harness are all examples of things we need to do to our dogs and that they may not be too excited about. Maybe a part of their body hurts; maybe they don't like their ears being touched; maybe they are scared of getting their nails trimmed. In each of these situations, they may use growling to convey that discomfort and ask you not to go any further.

Leash reactivity

When out on a walk, a dog that is uncomfortable with other dogs, other people, bikes, motorcycles, kids, etc., may use growling to signal that discomfort. Growling can lead to barking, to lunging and pulling, to all kinds of other things - and often does - unless steps are taken to move the dog to a more comfortable distance.

These are just a few examples of growling, but what is really important to understand is that growling is a GOOD thing. In the vast majority of situations, your dog is trying to communicate something; they're trying to tell you (or the object of their growling) that they're uncomfortable with the situation and would like it to change.

Listen and pay attention to your dog when they are growling - ignoring it won't help anyone feel better or make your dog get over it and it certainly won't help you feel better about it. Set your dog's environment up to prevent your dog from feeling uncomfortable enough to growl in the first place:

  • Make sure the grandchildren aren't grabbing at their face or climbing on them.

  • Provide a comfortable spot off to the side to enjoy their meal or their special chew.

  • Keep some distance between your dog and other dogs on walks.

On top of listening to the growl (and acting accordingly), NEVER punish your dog for growling. I understand that it can be scary; it can be concerning; and it's worrisome to hear it. But, each time growling is punished, that form of communication is slowly pushed off the table. This leads to a dog that doesn't warn people when they're uncomfortable. Instead of growling, a dog can easily choose to escalate to something more direct - like lunging, snapping at the air, or even biting - without the benefit of that warning signal. A dog that doesn't growl is much less predictable and can, therefore, be much more concerning and scary.

The best news of all: if growling means your dog is uncomfortable, we can work with your dog to help them feel more comfortable in a whole variety of situations - so that there's no need to growl! We can work with a dog to help them feel comfortable around kids or other people; we can help your dog feel comfortable with - and even participate in - nail trimming or grooming; we can make your dog much more relaxed and comfortable with neighborhood walks and the possibility of running into other dogs or people.

Nothing happens overnight and training takes time, but the first step is making an effort to understand your dog and what they're working to communicate with you when growling!

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