We've long been told that growling is a sign that the dog is seeking total world domination, and the only way to maintain one's dominance is to fight back.
Fast forward to the modern world of dog behavior. We now know that aggressive displays are a normal, natural, NON-VIOLENT form of communication. Growling is a dog's way of saying "stop," "stay away," or "go away."
Once a person stops whatever behavior triggered the growling or gives the dog more space, the dog will stop growling. A healthy dog will not escalate once the interaction ends. They don't need to. They were able to communicate their discomfort and we listened. Dogs don't bite when a growl will do.
Since my job requires me to regularly walk into homes with dogs that have bitten or a high risk for biting, I am always appreciative of dogs who communicate so clearly, letting me know that I screwed up and missed signs of the dog's growing discomfort.
Growling is valuable information that I can use to develop a better training plan and prevent the dog from biting in the future.
Growling is not the problem. Growling is the SYMPTOM of the problem.
Punishment won't address the reason the dog is growling to begin with. It doesn't change the dog's discomfort when being pet, groomed, or handled by the vet. If we don't address the dog's discomfort, we aren't changing behavior.
Claiming that punishing a dog for growling will cure aggression is like claiming that Nyquil is a cure for colds. The symptoms are suppressed, but it's not a cure. And if the symptoms are caused by something more serious, like pneumonia, suppressing the symptoms could be dangerous.
Left unaddressed, the underlying cause for the growling can develop into something much more serious. A dog that doesn't growl before biting. And a dog that bites once without warning is far more dangerous than a dog that growls 1,000 times without biting.
Growling PREVENTS bites.
Not every dog will escalate to biting. Some may growl and then walk/run away. Some may inflict an inhibited bite without causing injury. Some might inflict a muzzle punch. Or any combination of these avoidance/escape behaviors.
However, good training involves a fair amount of risk assessment. And if we punish a dog for growling, we are increasing the risk of a bite. Depending on how serious that bite is, we could be gambling with the dog's life.
"BUT MY DOG NEEDS TO RESPECT ME!" Do you believe that punishing a dog for growling communicates your leadership? Imagine you're sitting in your car, waiting for a friend to return from the bank. A person approaches your car and sits on the hood. You roll down your window and say, "Hey, get off my car!" The person responds by pulling you from the car, then screams at you and pins you to the ground.
Do you find their reaction totally rational? Do you now have great respect for that person? Did you learn that you should let people sit on your car whenever they want?
When one dog growls and another dog stops and moves away, that IS "pack behavior." If their goal is to attack, they attack. Dogs use growling to avoid violence, not start it.
"WAIT, SO I JUST HAVE TO LIVE WITH IT???" Absolutely not! Your choices are not limited to punishment or ignore the problem.
The solution is to first determine what caused your dog to growl, then use behavior modification techniques to decrease their stress and increase their tolerance to that situation.
IF YOUR DOG GROWLS:
- STOP. If your dog growls at you, stop what you're doing. If your dog growls at someone else, remove him or her from that situation immediately.
- EVALUATE. What happened right before your dog growled? Is there something you can do to temporarily prevent putting your dog in that situation?
- CALL a qualified behavior consultant to help you develop a behavior plan so you can learn how to increase your dog's tolerance for these situations in the future. Check iaabc.org and ccpdt.org for certified behavior consultants near you.
A dog that growls is a good communicator. Punishment takes away their ability to communicate. A dog who can't communicate is a very dangerous dog.