A growling dog is often distressing to people. They might feel threatened by it, or they may be embarrassed if their dog is growling at visitors or other dogs out on walks. Growling often occurs after your dog has already communicated its displeasure by giving other, perhaps less noticeable signals, and has now graduated onto a more direct tactic. (Dogs do also growl during play, but in this blog post we are referring to growling as a defensive or aggressive action).
It is very important not to punish a dog for growling. Growling is a way in which dogs communicate, both with each other and with us, and instead of simply telling them off or dismissing it, we should think about what they are actually asking of us.
By punishing a dog for growling, we can gradually reduce the likelihood of it doing that. On the surface of it, this might seem like the problem is solved, but growling is just a small piece of a much larger problem. A growl can be a warning, and if that warning isn’t heeded the dog may escalate its behaviour and bite. By removing the opportunity for the dog to growl, we also remove the ability of the dog to warn us that they are unhappy, and this can result in a dog that progresses immediately to a bite.
Instead of trying to tackle the growling as an isolated problem, we should take a step back and figure out exactly why the dog is growling. Does he feel threatened? Is he guarding something? Is he sick or injured in some way?
By tackling the root cause of the problem, we can often eliminate the growling without actually having to deal with it face on. If the dog is fearful, then we should build his confidence through positive reinforcement and desensitisation. Respecting the dog’s need for space in this situation is essential, as to work through fear we have to inspire trust in the relationship. If the dog is possessive of an item, place or person, we can mix things up and create situations where guarding is no longer the most rewarding option.
If your dog is growling, examine other aspects of his life before attempting to train him. Growling is communication, and communication should never be punished.