Thursday, January 13, 2011
I don’t remember the circumstances surrounding the first time Maisy growled at another dog, but I know I was surprised. Maisy was social and eager to interact with her fellow puppy-class attendees, so the growling seemed out of character. Likewise, I can’t remember the circumstances surrounding the first time she growled at a person, but I definitely remember how horrified I felt. My sweet, outgoing, friendly puppy loved people, she didn’t hate them! Why would she be growling? How do I stop it? And what should I do now??
Why do dogs growl?
I think the answer that growling is a form of communication is fairly obvious. The real question is: What is my dog trying to communicate? Scientists have wondered this, too, and in the past year, there have been at least two studies published discussing just that. The researchers found that a dog can derive specific information from another dog’s growls, which leads to the assumption that dogs growl to communicate that information.
In the first study, electronic sound analysis found that there are two distinct types of growling: that done in play and that done as a warning. This probably doesn't come as a surprise to most dog owners. However, what I found notable about this research is that even though electronic analysis couldn’t distinguish between different types of warning growls, the dogs in the study could. Upon hearing a recorded growl, dogs could determine if it was a resource-guarding growl or a stranger-associated growl. Building on that, the researchers later discovered that dogs can tell the size of a dog simply by listening to its growl.
I’m not overly concerned about play growling; most people can tell the difference and seem to understand that it is no cause for concern. No, it’s the warning growls that worry people. Which leads us to the next question...
How do I stop my dog from growling?
I’m going to answer this question with another question: Why would you want to?
It’s true that growling makes us humans uncomfortable. People often perceive growling as a sign of dominance or aggression, which are characteristics that have a negative association. Leaving aside the issue of dominance, which would be a whole post in itself, the concern about aggression, or more specifically, about getting bitten (and I do think that biting does not necessarily mean a dog is aggressive), is fair.
But that’s exactly why I like it when my dog growls. It’s a warning sign that my dog is feeling uncomfortable enough to consider biting. It’s a warning that says, “I don’t really want to bite you, but I will if I need to.” It’s a warning that gives me a chance to protect myself, others, and Maisy herself.
If you teach your dog that you don’t want him to growl, ever, you’ve effectively taken away that warning sign. What you’ll be left with is a dog who goes from mildly uncomfortable (and while you might be able to recognize those signals, I guarantee that your two-year-old nephew can’t) to biting “without warning.” Well, of course he did. You told him not to give warnings!
But if we want our dogs to growl, the next logical question becomes...
What should I do when my dog growls?
Imagine what you would do if a stranger walked up to you on the street, waved a gun in your direction, and said, “This is my side of the street. Cross to the other side or I’ll shoot you.” You probably wouldn’t take the chance that the person was joking, right? It doesn’t matter if the gun-wielder is being unreasonable or not- you’d probably move away pretty darn quickly. So then why are we unwilling to heed our dogs' warnings?
Reasonable or not, growling is the canine equivalent of "back off or I'll shoot." If your dog is willing to tell you that he’s uncomfortable, listen to him. If the growl is directed at you, stop what you’re doing. If the growl is directed at another person or dog, create some distance. Don’t worry about whether or not that’s letting him get away with a bad behavior- right now, it doesn’t matter because that bad behavior is about to become much worse. Instead, you need to worry about damage control; cut your losses and keep everyone safe.
If his growls are isolated, don’t worry about it too much. Honor his communication and move on. However, if a pattern appears- if he always growls at children or when he’s eating- it’s time to take action. The action will depend on the situation, of course, but for the majority of dog owners, it’s probably time to enlist an experienced trainer to help figure out what the action plan will be.
This information isn't new- there is a lot of information on the internet on dogs growling. Some of it's good and some... not so much. If you're interested in reading more about growling, I'd recommend starting with these:
The Gift of Growl, by Pat Miller
Jolanta Benal’s Quick and Dirty Tips
Smart Dog University’s PDF on Growling
Whole Dog Journal’s Five Things to Do When Your Dog Growls at You