Nothing quite gets your attention like hearing the grumbling of a dog’s growl.
However, is that growl out of excitement, fear, anxiety, or something else in their environment? Dogs use growling as an effective way of communication in all of those scenarios. The key is being able to identify between a playful growl and an aggressive one.
You should never punish your dog for growling.
Growling is an essential part of a dog’s language. When dogs growl, they are trying to communicate their stress about something happening in their environment. That could be them guarding a toy, seeing a stranger, or even just excited to see someone they know. When we punish a dog for growling, this cuts out this line of communication.
When you punish a dog for growling, you are only eliminating the growling behavior, not the actual issue. If your dog feels like they can not growl, they will go to the next best option: snap or show aggression. For example, if you punish your dog for growling when you reach towards their food bowl, the growl will disappear, but they will still be resource guarding the bowl. Without the growl to communicate, they could escalate to the next form of communication, like snapping or biting.
There are two types of growls to identify: happy growls and warning growls.
You will hear happy growls in situations where they are roughhousing with a playmate, when they’re getting pet or scratched, or just excited to see someone. You can tell if it is a play growl during these instances based on their body language. It is generally a playful or excited growl if the dog is loose and wiggly.
When a dog gives a warning growl, they are telling you that they are uncomfortable, and the growl should be taken seriously. Dogs will give a warning growl in situations involving things like resource guarding, stranger danger, feeling cornered, or feeling stressed. Dogs use these warning growls to communicate to you or another animal to “back off” because they are uncomfortable. If their body language is stiff, ears back, giving a hard stare, or freezing, then this indicates a warning growl and is serious.
What do you do when your dog gives a warning growl?
First, it is important to identify the reason for the growl. For example, are they growling because you reached for their toy? Are they growling because another dog is approaching? Once you identify the trigger, you will help set your dog up for success.
Once the trigger is identified, you will begin working to counter-condition the situation or change their environment. It is important to help your dog become comfortable with the situation causing them stress. You will need to manage their environment to help them overcome what is causing them to growl.
If you can eliminate the cause of the stress, that is an excellent place to start. For example, if your dog is growling when you touch their feet, do not touch the dog’s feet until you can adequately counter condition that scenario.
Next, you would want to use a behavior modification program to address their growling.
Once the growling has been addressed by using a behavior modification program, you will need to continue to manage the situation. Still, ideally, the dog will not feel the need to growl in that situation again.