If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a dozen times. Heck, I’ve even done it before I knew better. A dog growls and immediately gets told off or punished by their person, vet, groomer, or handler. It seems like a natural gut reaction; a bit like slapping a hand over someone’s mouth when they blurt out something inappropriate in a public setting at high volume. The trouble is that nothing good will come of it and that reaction can create big problems in a surprisingly short time.
What is a growl?
When a dog feels the need to growl, they are attempting to communicate something. Usually it’s discomfort of some kind, such as fear or pain. If it is not discomfort, they are giving a warning, “Stop what you are doing, or I can’t be held responsible for what I do next.”
Why punishing a growl is a bad idea
If a dog is trying to urgently communicate a message, punishing them for sending the message doesn’t remove the REASON or the EMOTION that caused the need for that message in the first place. Telling a person to stop crying doesn’t make them stop FEELING like crying. It just dismisses the person and makes them feel more alone and isolated, unable to communicate their feelings or ask for help. In the case of dogs, if we punish the growl, whether with a verbal reprimand, a pop of the leash, or some other physical threat, we are simply stopping a BEHAVIOR, we are not fixing the underlying emotional response.
For example, if a dog growls whenever they are out for a walk and see their neighbor, Bob, and their owner punishes them each time for it, one of two things is likely to occur.
- Option 1: The dog will stop growling but won’t feel better about Bob.
- Option 2: The dog will learn seeing Bob, who is already scary, leads to punishment from their owner which makes Bob even MORE SCARY.
In the case of Option 1, the dog is silenced. So maybe Bob, seeing that the dog is no longer growling, will come closer to greet his neighbor, the dog’s owner. The dog has no way of communicating his discomfort with Bob’s approach so finally, out of desperation, he lunges and bites Bob. This bite would likely be described to others as, “He bit out of nowhere!”
In the case of Option 2, the dog has learned that Bob, aside from already being scary, predicts punishment. This may cause the dog to ramp up his reaction to Bob. Now the dog reacts poorly to Bob from even greater distances and with greater displays of violence (barking, lunging, baring teeth). If Bob were to get too close, a bite would be imminent.
What should you do when your dog growls?
When a dog growls, the appropriate, albeit more difficult or unnatural, response is to say, “thank you.” Your dog just granted you with a wonderful gift!! They expressed to you how they are feeling and warned you of their discomfort. Use that information to help them!
Remove them from the situation, add distance, or stop whatever triggered the growl response. Assess what it was that caused the problem. Common instances of growling include someone getting too close to a prized possession (toy, bone, food bowl, bed, etc.), a human who is scary in some way (children, men, people with hats, people carrying large objects, a veterinarian or vet technician attempting to do a procedure, etc.), or during dog-dog interactions (a dog wants another dog to back off and give space). This list is by no means complete, but it does give you an idea of why growls are an important tool for the dog. They just want to be heard!
What can you do to help your dog feel better?
If your dog is growling at something, take note. Reach out to a professional trainer who uses positive, science-based methods to address a dog’s fears and help them form new associations. As an example, with the help of desensitization and counter-conditioning protocols (fancy words for making a dog feel less bad about something and then forming new positive associations) our formerly scary neighbor, Bob, could come to predict delicious chicken and turn out not to be so scary after all.
The bottom line:
Punishing a dog for growling is removing a warning system which is in place for a reason. Your dog doesn’t really want to bite… but they will if we don’t take their warnings seriously. Instead, practice gratitude for the information your dog is giving you and use it to improve their situation.
Nicole L Yuhas CPDT-KA
This blog is intended to be informative as well as entertaining. It contains my opinion which may not reflect the opinions of any organization I may be affiliated with. My opinions should not be interpreted as those of my coworkers, family, friends, casual acquaintances, and certainly not the opinion of my cat, although my dog probably agrees with everything I say, if for no other reason, than because I provide the treats and meals (cats are less inclined to agree with anyone but themselves). Information provided here is accurate and true to the best of my knowledge but, as information and opinions change, neither the facts nor the opinions expressed here may be true or accurate at any future date. As I don’t currently own a time machine, I cannot be responsible for things that prove to be untrue, or opinions I change my mind about, should those changes become apparent in the future. It should also be noted that, as I am human, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes in the information provided here. Frankly, even if I were a computer, it is likely there would be errors, as computers, in my experience, can be a royal pain in the butt. This blog may contain affiliate links which you are under no obligation to click. If you click them, they will hopefully take you the place I intended. But they may not. As I’ve said, computers can be a pain. If you find yourself somewhere you don’t think I intended, click your ruby slippers three times together and say, “there is no place like home.” If you do that, and click the “back” button, you should be safely returned. Computers can, at times, have a mind of their own. Any training suggestions or opinions expressed here should be taken as information only and should not be seen as advice particular to you or your dog’s unique situation. Please consult with a training professional before taking any action.