Growls Are Good
Growls are Good
That sounds like a strange title, right? Who would want to have a dog that growls? Well, if you look at it from a behavior and training perspective, growling is in fact a good thing in many cases. Growling is an obvious form of communication and can often lead to bite prevention. A dog who is growling is telling you something. It acts as a warning and, most importantly, gives you time to act.
Growling is a fairly obvious form of communication, but there are actually many different types of growling: play, attention seeking, fear, pain response, frustration, threatening and aggressive. Most dogs growl a little when playing, especially contact games like wrestling and tug, but that type of growling is generally not the type that brings you to a full stop or elicits a fearful or angry response from an owner. In fact, the very nature of play growling is what prompted many people to avoid contact games in the 1980s-1990s before growling was researched. There was a fear that rewarding this type of growl would reward the more serious threatening and aggressive growls. If you have ever been growled at by a dog who is in a more aggressive state, you know the difference. A truly aggressive growl from a posturing dog will make the little hairs on your neck stand up and cause adrenaline to begin pumping in your body as your instinct for self-preservation kicks in. You know this is not a play growl.
I’m going to focus on the negative types of growling that we see most often: frustration, threatening and fear growls. These types of communication can definitely boil over into an aggressive growl, so it is important to catch your dog at the lower arousal level growling stage if possible. Most dogs will give lower level communication prior to amping up into aggression in order to avoid a fight (remember there is always a risk of injury in a fight to both parties, dogs try to avoid injury). Most growls are ritualized forms of aggressive communication; they serve to keep fights from happening. Many dog fights are even characterized by loud growling and snarling with little actual injury. The ritualized aggression protects the dogs from enforcing real damage.
Frustration: this is the type of growling we see in some restrained dogs; dogs on leash or behind a barrier or fence. Frustration growling is most often seen in dogs who want to get closer to a dog, person, or object. They may use a combination of body language from play to threatening as the tension builds, but you will often see this type of growling dog leashed to a very apologetic owner who is swearing their dog is friendly even if they look like cujo at the moment. Often this dog is in fact friendly off-leash, but can come up too fast or pushy on another dog and the interaction can devolve into a fight due to the frustration build up and confusion involved.
Threatening: this type of growl is often seen in dogs who are guarding an item or person or who are trying to increase their distance from a dog, person, or object. A threatening growl is generally associated with stiffened body language, leaning back or away from someone, lifted lips and bared teeth- pretty much anything that might make the situation end for the dog. Threatening growls are sometimes paired with air snaps or other “get back” signals. (See: http://perfect-pooch.com/resource-guarding/)
Fear: fear growls are somewhat unique in that they are really a sub-type of threatening growls, but occur mostly when a dog feels threatened themselves. Dogs often growl in fear if they have been under socialized or had a traumatic experience that sensitizes them to certain situations or people. Fear growling is a defensive type of communication and often is combined with stress signals and lowered body language though some dogs will posture aggressively .
All of these types of growls have the ability to morph and mutate at any time. A dog growling in fear may become threatening if pushed and potentially aggressive, etc. Once you witness your dog’s growls, it is important to remain calm and ideally remove them from the stressful situation. Growling is an indication of an emotional state. Generally it means the dog is uncomfortable. While it may seem like an adequate response is to punish or reprimand the dog for growling at what seems like an inappropriate time, changing the behavior of growling does not change the internal state of the dog. By teaching your dog not to growl you are effectively silencing a very important form of communication. A fearful dog who does not growl is no less likely to bite then a growling fearful dog, but they will give a lot less warning.
If your dog growls, you should try to remove them from the situation and then assess the cause. Do not waste time trying sooth or cajole in the moment. Just get your pup away from the cause of the stress before things get out of hand. Once you have your dog safely away, you should try to figure out the cause of the growling event and work to desensitize your dog to that situation slowly and in a positive way; essentially change their emotional reaction the cause. This is a good time to find a qualified trainer, especially if you are seeing leash reactivity, resource guarding, or any fear or threat towards people or dogs.
My own dog, for example, had an odd fear of statues as a pup. Did I want her growling at every statue in Central Park? Of course not. But I did respect her fear and worked through it by desensitizing her to small statues at a distance before working on larger and closer ones. This took time and patience, but she has never since growled or shied away from a statue. While some people might force a dog by dragging them up to the statue to show that It can do no harm, that type of forced immersion can actually do harm on its own! Imagine if every time you saw something a little scary, your best friend turned into a bully and dragged you around. Sure, the object did not hurt you, but it sure turned your buddy into a jerk! It would absolutely be worth avoiding in the future.
A combination of training and management can often help a dog readjust their view on certain people, dogs, or objects and allow both of you to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. Remember, your dog decides what is and is not okay for them. Just because you do not like what they are growling at or that they are growling at all, trying to bully them into accepting something only increases the chance of aggression or a bite.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator