During our (Education and Outreach officers) workshop on ‘Feelings and Body Language’ session we often discuss why dogs may growl.
What does a growl mean? What doesn’t a growl mean? How should an owner respond/not respond?
A dog that growls, is a dog communicating with you, trying to let you know what it is thinking and feeling. It isn’t a ‘bad behaviour’, quite the contrary, it is a dog putting it’s trust in you when it feels most vulnerable and is often looking for support and help.
What does a growl mean?
A dog growling usually means they are feeling threatened, uncomfortable, scared or overwhelmed. Often a dog will have shown some other subtle body language signs e.g. lip licking, paw lift, moving away before it growls. Something around them is making them feel very uncomfortable……look what situation the dog is in.
Is someone trying to take something away from the dog? (e.g. toy/food)
Is someone disturbing the dog? (e.g. while eating or sleeping)
Has another dog approached it too quickly?
Is there an unusual noise or unusual looking object?
Is someone (child/adult) approaching/trying to touch the dog?
Is the dog in pain in an area or has been in the past? (a vet visit may be necessary)
Has the dog had a bad experience when this situation has happened before? (e.g. grooming)
Does it feel confined/cornered? (e.g. being hugged/held)
Are you asking the dog to do something it doesn’t want to? (e.g. go in to water)
What doesn’t a growl mean?
A growling dog does not want to ‘dominate’ you, be ‘defiant’ or be the ‘boss’, it’s just letting you know it’s not comfortable and needs your help. A dog shouldn’t be forced to interact (with a human, dog or object) if it is feeling uncomfortable.
How should an owner respond/not respond?
To help the dog feel more secure and relaxed again, we need to react positively to alleviate the situation. Dogs rely on us to help them, in these situations, to move them away or move the ‘threat’ away, both creates the space needed for them to try and relax. By helping, you become your dogs best friend and trusted companion, as you offer support when they feel uncomfortable.
Owners and anyone nearby should never ignore or punish a growl. Ignoring the dog may mean it feels no option but to escalate it’s behaviour to try and stop what is happening to it, which could be unsafe.
Punishing the dog will make the dog feel there is no point trying to let you know what it’s feeling, if it does you make things worst, not help. It is forced to try and deal with the situation on it’s own.
As responsible owners there are many things we can do to help prevent our dogs feeling uncomfortable.
Dogs should not feel they need to growl regularly, this means they are regularly being put in an unconfortable situation, we want our dogs to feel happy and relaxed not threatened and overwhelmed. Treating our dogs kindly (and ensuring others do) and getting to know what situations can make our dogs feel unconfortable, so we can avoid/stop these or ensure a dog has plenty of space away from them will really help. Some positive training and positive associations with situations may help to build up their confidence.
Please remember a dog that growls is in a very uncomfortable situation.... always listen and try to help by creating space or removing/stopping the causal factor.