The growling response is hard wired into the canine brain, no doubt part of the wolf that the domestic dog evolved from. Dogs are pack animals, and in the wild the ability to show dominance and aggression can mean the difference between life and death.
The problem comes when that natural instinct manifests itself in our homes, where we expect our dogs to be friendly at all times. Understanding what causes a dog to growl is the first step toward correcting that behavior before it can become a threat.
Whether you own a dog or not, you should take growling seriously, since some dogs can be quite aggressive under the right circumstances. If you encounter a dog you do not know, it pays to err on the side of caution if that dog growls at you. Staying as far away from the dog is the best course of action. You should avoid running, since that could trigger a natural chase response in the dog and make a potentially dangerous situation even more difficult.
Dealing with Growling in Your Own Dog
In many cases that unwanted growling will be coming not from a strange dog, but from your own canine companion. Listening to that first growl can be quite disconcerting, especially if your dog has never expressed any aggressive tendencies before. If a previously placid dog suddenly starts growling, it is a good idea to schedule a thorough exam with your vet. An undiagnosed illness or overlooked injury could be causing your dog pain and making it irritable.
After you have ruled out any physical causes, it is time to examine the things that cause a dog to growl. Puppies often growl when they play, and many adult dogs continue this behavior as well. If you are tuned into your pet and its moods, you can no doubt distinguish this play growling from the real thing.
As a dog owner, it is important to remember that dogs growl as a warning. In fact, dogs have an entire vocabulary of warnings and subtle cues, from stiffening their backs and curling their lips to turning their heads and growling. Other dogs understand these subtle cues quite well. If you have ever watched a group of dogs at the dog park, you have seen this type of behavior. When one dog acts aggressively or does something another dog does not like, that dog responds with a subtle change in body language. If those subtle cues go unheeded, things can escalate into growling or even biting. That first growl is a warning to back off, and most dogs will readily heed that warning.
Unfortunately, dog owners are often oblivious to even the most obvious cues and changes in body language. The growl is often their first sign that something is amiss, even though the dog has been telegraphing its unhappiness through many other cues.
When our dogs growl, the first instinct is often to punish that behavior, but confronting growling in this way can be counterproductive. When we punish our dogs for growling, we discourage them from warning us that something is wrong, and that can cause the dog to act even more aggressively the next time it is stressed. Instead, it is best to back off a bit when the dog growls or snaps, wait a few minutes then think about what may have triggered the situation.
Dogs are very protective of their food, some dogs more than others. This is a perfectly natural hard wired behavior, designed to allow the dog to survive when food is scarce. Something as seemingly innocent as a child approaching the food bowl can be enough to trigger a growl from a normally placid dog. Dogs may be similarly protective about their favorite toys and sleeping spots.
If your dog growls when you approach the food bowl, you can use positive reinforcement techniques to replace that negative behavior with the desired one. One of the easiest ways to do this is with small treats. Approach the bowl as you always do, but do not give the dog a chance to growl at you. Casually toss a small treat or piece of meat to the side of the bowl, then allow the dog to take it. After a few of these positive reinforcements, your dog will no longer be stressed when you approach the bowl.
You can use a similar method to discourage growling when you take a favorite toy. Wait until the dog is playing with that coveted toy, then toss a small piece of beef or a biscuit to the side. Pick up the toy when the dog goes for the treat, then return that toy after the dog has finished. Continue with this positive reinforcement until the dog willingly trades you the toy for the treat.
Of course not every method works for every dog, and it is best to get professional help if the growling escalates, or if your dog exhibits any truly dangerous behaviors like lunging and biting. Dogs growl in response to stress in the environment, and a professional dog trainer can help you identify and reduce those sources of stress. Your veterinarian can recommend a good dog trainer to deal with serious problems. by beconrad