The Gift of Growl
Growling is often misunderstood, especially by those who have little experience with dogs. All dogs growl, as do wolves. It’s an important element in their communication. It lets others know that the dog is uncomfortable about something. He is scared, nervous, or in pain.
As an owner, you can use this information to determine what is causing your dog to feel conflicted. Then you can take steps to remedy the situation so she feels comfortable again. In addition to making your dog happy, it will build trust between you, which is a very good thing.
The manner of resolving the conflict depends on the source. If your dog is feeling threatened by another dog approaching, you might turn and walk the other direction. If your dog has had enough of being petted by a visitor, you might ask that person to give the dog a break.
Dogs who are punished for growling will simply learn not to growl. They don’t become any less frustrated or nervous, but they refrain from expressing it with a growl. This can be very dangerous. If whatever is bothering the dog persists or increases, she may well defend herself with a bite. To the observer, it may appear that the bite “came out of nowhere,” when in reality the dog had been deprived of the use of her normal language.
As with people, sometimes just because a dog doesn’t like something, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to do it. Food aggression is an example of this. A dog who growls when someone moves to take food away from him should not be allowed to persist with the behavior. He needs to be taught to be more trusting around food. Because of the danger of a bite, this education should be handled gradually and carefully, with input from a professional trainer.
Another example is nail-trimming or brushing. Dogs might not like these activities, but they have to be done. There are many ways to help a dog to become more comfortable. The best is to introduce the clippers and brush gradually, but that’s not always possible if you have a dog who is already afraid of them. In that case, do just one or two nails or a small patch of brushing. The goal is to stop when the dog is being calm, to avoid reinforcing the growling. Treats are often valuable in this kind of training.
Many dogs growl while engaged in play. If you listen closely, the sound of it is different than a true warning or threat growl. There’s a lighter edge to it, almost a laughing sound. It’s sort of analogous to “trash talking” in sports or friendly teasing among friends.
Learning about canine language, including growling, through observation will help you to become a better owner who is more responsive to your dog’s needs. In turn, you will have a more well-adjusted, confident dog.
NR Tomasheski is a dog trainer who spent seven years as co-owner of a canine daycare, boarding, and grooming facility in Sherman Oaks, California. She has competed with her own dogs in agility, obedience, and rally.