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Why Do Dogs Growl?

Here’s what you need to know if you’ve ever wondered why your dog growls when you pet him/her, pick him/her up, brush him/her – or why he/she ever growls particularly at children and/or strangers.

I have heard of many cases of dogs growling at children. And being a mother of three youngsters myself all aged under 9 years I can tell you that growling is good. It should alarm you that something is going on and you need to intervene. Kinda makes the perfect sense right?

👉When you have children teaching them how to enjoy the dog and teaching the dog how to enjoy and tolerate and accept children and their irrational movements are required to avoid any incidents. Don’t assume, KNOW. And no the dog shouldn’t just let a child do anything they would find appealing and interesting to them.👈

But before I would go into how to deal with it so the growl won't escalate into more violent behaviour and biting let's look into why your dog is growling in the first place. So ask yourself “why is the dog growling here and now”. Does this mean there is a space violation or an issue of hurt? Is the dog simply saying go away to the child/person/another dog? Does your dog’s growl scare you a little or a lot? Well, that's the sole intention of your dog when he/she growls. This is the way your dog communicates with you. So you must never punish him/her for this. If that seems counterintuitive, it’s because a growl often precedes a bite. Therefore, a growl must be a bad thing, no? But wait, let's get back to the question - Why does your dog growl? When you understand why you’ll realize that a growl is a good thing, and why you don’t want to punish the dog for doing it. Dogs who have been punished for growling are often those who bite “without any warning.” Punishment often suppresses any early warning a dog might otherwise give you when he/she’s scared or threatened and needs more space. Of course, you don’t want to reinforce your dog for growing, any more than you want to train him/her to bite! But if you refrain from taking his/her growl personally, and instead, take it as his/her way of saying he/she is afraid and needs more space, he/she and you as the handler will all be safer.

Growling is Communication

Your dog communicates with you all the time. Unfortunately, you as a human isn’t always great at understanding what he/she is trying to say. When your dog growls, he/she’s saying “Something you’re doing is making me uncomfortable and I really don’t want to bite you, so please stop what you’re doing!” A growling dog is stressed but trying very hard not to bite you.

Historically dog’s growl was viewed as a challenge, and we were told we had to punish him/her for growling, or he/she would escalate to biting. In the past couple of decades, as a gentler philosophy has developed the dog training profession, we have come to realize that dogs have a continuum of “agonistic” behaviours  – a range of activities associated with aggression in a social species – and that the behaviours on the lower end of the continuum are intended to avert conflict, not cause it.

⚠️The freeze, the hard stare, the growl – these are all attempts on your dog’s part to avoid having to escalate to serious aggression.

⚠️ If you punish the growl, you risk suppressing that communication – and your dog may learn to bite without giving any warning.

What to Do if Your Dog Growls

If your dog growls, remove whatever is causing him/her to growl (his/her trigger). If you are petting or grooming him/her or trimming his/her nails (or if someone else is) stop petting, grooming, or nail trimming. If he/she growls at a dog or another person, move him/her away from them, or have them move away. If someone is approaching him/her in his/her crate, have them move away. You get the idea!

Now you have options. First, consider a veterinary exam to rule out or treat any physical conditions that may be causing your dog to experience pain or discomfort, especially if it’s a new behaviour in response to something he/she was previously okay with. Then:

👉Manage his/her world so he/she doesn’t encounter his/her trigger(s). If he/she growled at a horse, well don’t take him/her to horse barns.

👉Appreciate and respect his/her growl by removing whatever is stressing him/her.

👉Do behaviour modification (counter-conditioning and desensitization training) to help him/her become comfortable with his/her trigger(s). Pair the presence of a stranger or nail clippers, or being petted or picked up with very high-value treats.

👉Teach new behaviours (operant conditioning) such as drop treats at your feet) and do a 180-degree turn and walk the other way. That can help him/her cope with the presence of stressors.

👉If you need help with these, seek the assistance of a qualified force-free professional.

Now, with your new-found appreciation for your dog’s growl, take a good look at his/her world and do what you can to see that he/she feels less compelled to communicate with you through growling. And treasure his/her growl when he/she does.

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