This is another piece that was written for the local paper. As with an earlier blog entry, this covers growling. Remember, growling is good. It is needed communication.
Listening to a growl and looking at body language helps me understand what may be going on with a dog. Is that a play growl or is he warning a stranger to back off? Is the dog curious or is he fearful? Is he excited or anxious? A growl is a sign that something is going to happen. I need that growl. What happens when you punish that growl in order to stop a behavior you do not like? Your dog could end up like Sparky.
From the moment I saw Sparky, it was clear he was distressed. His owner reported Sparky was biting frequently and with less warning but he seemed so excited with new things. I observed the two for a bit. His owner kept stating that the behaviors I know as fear and anxiety were actually a dog excited about seeing things. (I was looking at body language along with the growl, she was misinterpreting his dancing, moving back and tail wagging for excitement). Sparky was nervous, not happy. Sparky did what I would expect: he escalated to a growl. His owner yanked hard on the lead and scolded. Sparky growled again, softer. His owner yanked harder and yelled “STOP IT!” He stopped everything and nervously sat. “Now he knows no growling and is acting better.” Moments later, Sparky lunged and snapped. “See? No warning!”
Sparky gave warning through body language. His owner did not comprehend Sparky’s early signals so he progressed into a verbal warning. Then he was punished for giving additional, now verbal, signals. There was no helping Sparky to learn to cope with a stressor, no easing of his anxiety. Sparky only learned the presence of a stressor brought bad things from the human and to stop warning. The “sudden” lunge and snap were from heightened fear and having his emotions punished, therefore, he stopped most outward signals. His owner needed to learn to recognize stress and how in effectively intervene. Instead, she worsened things.
Many growls are signals a dog is stressed with something. Do not force your dog to remain in a stressing position. Stressed dogs are more likely to react worse next time they are in a similar situation. Instead, in a calm, cool and happy manner, get your dog away from the stressor until he is no longer growling or lunging. Get rid of the old school “You will praise fear” and do anything positive needed to get him in a better mood: pat, feed, play, talk.
Now call a good trainer to create a careful plan of management and behavior modification. Avoid trainers stating that you need to show the dog you are boss (alpha, in charge, get a shock/prong/choke collar, etc) and stop that growling. You cannot change an emotional state when you employ fear and pain. You may get a fast stop of the growling, but at what future cost? You need to address the stress and the emotional state. Would you smack a frightened child? No, because most adults know it will do more harm than good. Well same with dogs.
Growling is good, it is communication. Growling is something those of us living and working with dogs must respect and understand. When we punish away the growl we increase stress and create a dog who gives less warning and reacts faster.
Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County and author of Am I Ready for A(nother) Puppy or Dog? If you have questions regarding your dog’s behavior, please consult a professional.