Updated: Aug 26, 2018
A common question among dog owners is what to do when their dog growls. First, let’s address what growling is and why it occurs.
Growling is a form of canine communication and can be seen in many different situations. This article will primarily focus on Growling when a dog is unhappy as this is the most common time for owners to seek a solution. However, we will briefly highlight another extremely common occurrence of growling below:
Play Growling - Growling can be a normal play behaviour. Just like barking, mouthing, jumping, humping, wrestling & chasing, growling can just be another perfectly normal play behaviour seen in puppies and dogs alike. To assess whether your dog is play growling, you need to look at the rest of their behaviour and your dog’s body language. If both dogs are engaging in the play and both dogs are going back for more, this is nothing to be concerned about. Some breeds may be more vocal than others during play and learning what is normal for your dog can really help ease your mind. To learn more about canine body language, I highly recommend the Dog Decoder App which can be found on both IOS & Android.
“I’m Not Happy!”
Whilst growling can be a perfectly normal play behaviour, it can also be a very clear way for your dog to say, “I am not happy!”. Sadly, whilst this is a perfectly natural dog behaviour, us as humans often quickly look for ways to stop the growling. This often involves telling the dog off or punishing them for this behaviour. Often people ask “How do I stop my dog growling” when this isn't the question we should be asking.
Let’s put this into human terms.
Imagine you really don’t like being tickled. Someone starts to tickle you. What are you going to do? Your going to say “stop”, “get off”, “no”, “I don’t like this!” or something along these lines. Now Imagine you are not allowed to speak. This doesn’t mean you are now happy with the tickling, you just can’t express this in the way you did previously. You are going to have to use another means of communication to express your dislike. Maybe you will push the person away, maybe you will try to kick them. You are more likley to use physical force because your discontent cannot be expressed verbally. You may run away but this may not be an option if you are in a corner or cornered in a chair.
Lets now compare this to our dog scenario. Dogs growl to show that they are not happy, just like we would use words to communicate this. If we focus on stopping our dog’s growling, we are stopping one of their primary ways of communicating. Remember the scenario with the tickling? We are taking away their ability to tell us how they are feeling. Whilst on the outside, you may now be satisfied that your dog is not growling and therefore not displaying any “aggressive behaviours”, your dog is not feeling any happier about the situation. In the scenario above, us as humans would often move to physical force or run away. This is the fight or flight response. If our dog cannot escape because they are on a lead or being restrained in some way, we have also taken their flight option away so all that is left is fight. As our dog’s need to communicate that they are unhappy, they may progress to a nip or a bite.
This is why we must NEVER punish a growl. A growl is our dogs way of communicating that he isn’t happy with something. Instead, we need to take a step back and assess the situation. What is it that your dog isn’t happy with? Is it a person, is it a dog, a new sound, object, place, being handled, people near their food? We need to address WHY they are growling not the growling itself.
Only then will we see not only a reduction in the growling, but also a happier dog overall!