Information About Growling
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Many people think that if a dog growls aggressively then you should show him who’s boss and punish him. However, this could not be further from the truth. Punishing a dog for showing aggression, including growling, can have many negative effects on your dog and your relationship with your pet. We all know that it can be frustrating and embarrassing when your dog growls, whether he’s reacting to a new person in your home or someone walking down the street. Most people’s gut reaction is to jerk on the dog’s collar or manhandle him into a controlled position, but that does not help fix the problem and can actually make things worse by turning a dog who growls when in a state of fear or anxiety into a dog that bites without warning when faced with the same situation if he learns that growling will result in punishment.
There are many reasons why you should not punish your dog for bad behavior, but instead work to find the cause and use positive training tips to eliminate the unwanted behavior. When you use force and fear- based tactics it is extremely dangerous both for you and your dog, because it can worsen your dog’s behavioral problems and increase aggression and fear-based behavior (which can result in you being bitten by your dog). While punishment may temporarily inhibit the aggression response, such as stifling a growl, over time using punishment often intensifies a dog’s reaction and escalates his aggression or anxiety. Punishment also damages your relationship of trust with your dog, as your interactions become less predictable because your dog may go from showing signs he is in a situation he does not want to be in to hiding his signals that he is about to become aggression and simply bite without warning.
Most forms of aggression are rooted in fear and when you punish your dog for aggressive displays, the punishment doesn’t change your dog’s emotional state to a positive one. Punishment simply suppresses your dog’s way of releasing his anxiety and expressing his unease at a particular situation. Punishment temporarily masks the symptoms of the underlying issue, such as fear of the stimulus that causes his barking and growling, when the goal of training is to identify the underlying issue and work towards it not causing an unpleasant response in your dog. Again, with the use of punishment the symptoms may temporarily fade, but the emotion and the real issue, remain. In many cases, the aggression intensifies with punishment because it may heighten you dog’s negative association with the situation. Punishment increases tension in your dog because your dog anticipates you may be upset and may punish the growling. As a result of this negative association, your dog’s ability to communicate how he is feeling is inhibited and in turn he will decrease his warning signals before a bite. The biggest thing to remember is that dogs that have been punished for growling, or other aggressive warning signals, may progress faster into a bite response and they may display fewer warning signs – which turns them into more dangerous and unpredictable pets.
In many cases, a dog that seemingly becomes aggressive and bites without warning has a history of having been punished for aggressive warnings, like growling or barking. If you pay close attention, even dogs that seem to bite without warning usually still show subtle signs before escalating, such as a freeze, flattening their ears, or tucking their tails. These subtle signs are often less noticeable and harder to read for an owner, so it seems like the bite is coming out of nowhere. Though dogs speak in many ways through body language and other vocalizations, a growl is one way dogs communicate the loudest about their discomfort. When a dog communicates how he feels, such as growling at another person or dog, this is their way of letting you know that something isn’t right and is triggering an unpleasant response. It is much better for you and for your dog when you respect a growl as a warning and immediately try to identify what is causing the distress in your dog and leave that situation. When a dog growls or is an aroused state, this is not the time to try to work towards fixing the underlying issue. This is due to the fact that there is a high risk for a bite from the dog’s over aroused emotional state and dogs can only learn a better response to the trigger (the situation that is causing the dog to growl) when he/she is in a non-reactive state and is at ease. You want to start reinforcing a positive feeling about the situation when your dog is not reacting to the stimulus. Often times this will involve removing your pet from the trigger situation and teaching him/her to have a positive experience by redirecting the dog to do another behavior, like going to their bed or looking at you in a calm state, and rewarding that behavior. In situations when you are dealing with aggression, it is often beneficial to consult a professional trainer who uses positive reinforcement (being rewarded for good behavior instead of punished for poor behavior) to help your dog learn to react differently in particular situations. Growling and other aggressive displays are merely a symptom of a deeper underlying issue, such as fear or anxiety. By identifying and addressing the actual issue and changing a dog’s emotion of fear into happy anticipation in the same scenario, the growl and other aggressive displays fade on their own as you change your dog’s emotional state.