Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Growling dogs: Should we punish or not?

So let's discuss a Facebook post from last week that I made on my business page – Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior – that stated a quote from a trainer (I've yet to identify with certainty who said this so it's stated as "unknown") – “Punishing a dog for growling is like taking the batteries out of your smoke detector.”

What does that even mean?! I mean heavens no Fido shouldn't be growling at my 2-year-old just for wanting to come over and pet him! I'm not going to allow that behavior in my house!

Whoa, whoa ... Let's back up a bit.

Dogs don't speak English ... or German, or Spanish, or French ... they don't speak at all! So, they have a set of skills they use to communicate in the same way we humans use verbal language, some are vocalizations and most are body language cues. So that we can better understand, since we aren't canines, let's use this example . . . Have you ever seen a deaf person "speaking" with sign language? If you are not proficient in sign language then you likely thought to yourself, "hmmm, I don't know what she is saying." However, you might begin to read their body language and get some idea, but not as much as you would if you knew sign language and/or if they could speak to you. Why? Because this is our first line of communication as humans – using verbal language to communicate with one another. So everything else is foreign and sometimes confusing.

Do we punish deaf people if they are using sign language to try to communicate with us and we don't understand? No we try to understand and figure out what they are saying so we can help them. Why should we not extend this courtesy to other species so that we can live harmoniously together?

Dogs growl as a form of communication. It’s one of their “voices” just like barking is one of their voices, as well as snapping. Dogs have many “voices” but since they aren’t like what we are used to and they are much more cringe-worthy at times, us humans often have emotional reactions to when dogs use their “voices” to communicate.

It’s important to note that if your dog has resorted to growling 99% of the time many previous signals have been ignored and so the dog has resorted to growling. Growling isn’t usually the first line of communication for dogs. In most situations a dog will give off subtle body language cues and signals that let others know they are not comfortable. When those cues go unnoticed or, at least to the dog, unheard (so-to-speak) the dog will resort to growling or other more dramatic means of communication.

When a dog growls they are possibly saying one of a few things:
• I’m highly fearful/nervous
• I’m uncomfortable right now
• I’m hurting/ill
• I’m unfamiliar with this
• I’m worried you're gonna take my stuff!
• I’m playing!
• I’m a growly-talker
• I’m confused & very conflicted

So, let’s discuss these reasons for growling in more detail. While reading these details keep in mind that growling is part of a set of communication and body language signals. You should always, as with all animals, look at the entire dog to put the puzzle together.

It’s important to always take into consideration – body language of the entire dog: ears, eyes, facial expression, tail, body, hair, paws, and mouth/tongue. What do all these things put together indicate the dog is “saying”? The below details of why dogs growl is only part of a puzzle piece. In order to help dogs that may communicate with a growl, we must take into account the rest of the puzzle.

Some highly fearful dogs growl when they feel afraid and uncertain about the situation they are in, and/or the person/animal that is approaching them. When I say “highly fearful” I’m speaking of dogs that react with extreme fear in normal situations – hiding from all people, hiding for no real apparent reason, retreating fearfully from people, situations and/or sounds (one or a mix of those).

What does this sound/look like?
Often this presents as a low growl, an under-the-breath-type growl with no teeth bared and no open mouth, followed with hollow barking – not loud and alert-like but more several barks, some growls, and some woofs that are half-hearted. Some highly fearful dogs are completely silent and make no sound at all, and would rather just retreat to a perceived safe place. However, more commonly I’ve seen the scenario with the low growl and hollow woofs.

If a dog is cornered or becomes incredibly fearful due to lack of space or way to escape, often they will bare teeth, squint eyes, blink a lot, tighten their body into the smallest ball they can (like when hunched into a corner) and growl low and guttural. This is an extremely fearful dog that it trying it’s hardest to “keep it together” while also telling someone they are afraid and their flight response is frozen but they don’t want to directly go to the fight response.

It should be noted that in some scenarios a highly fearful dog may go directly from growling to a fight response. A common scenario where this may happen is at a veterinarian’s office. Please note, in these cases a dog goes to fight-mode quickly due to lack of space, overwhelming fear and uneasiness in this environment. Add to this, a veterinarian or vet tech that continues to approach the dog regardless of her obvious signs of stress, and you have a recipe for the perfect storm. This dog may resort to snapping or biting when the veterinarian or tech reaches for or touches the dog. Not all dogs will respond this way, but it’s definitely not uncommon. (More on that later.)

What is an example case?
One client case I had a dog was horrified of strange people coming into the home. As soon as a stranger (to the dog) entered the home the dog would growl very low, no teeth bared and no mouth open. Just a low, soft growl sound could be heard, with low hollow woofs. While this particular dog was growling and woofing he was also showing severe signs of stress with the rest of his body language – head lowered, ears back, tail under his body and he was darting quickly back and forth to “get away” from the person as they moved further into the home while also maintaining a huge amount of space between the person and himself.

This dog was extremely afraid of people, it was quite obvious when listening to and reading the dog.

What is a likely outcome?
Dogs that are highly fearful and/or nervous have a much higher propensity to snap and/or bite. This does not mean all fearful dogs will bite, however, a highly fearful dog is usually mentally unable to cope appropriately and therefore, a much higher risk for inflicting a bite.

It is imperative that highly fearful dogs get professional help, even if they aren’t biters, from a qualified trainer/behavior consultant that can consult with a qualified veterinarian and/or Veterinary Behaviorist if necessary (often fear cases do need medication, but only a veterinarian or Behaviorist can make this decision.)

A treatment plan – both medically and behaviorally – are the only way to work with a dog like this. It isn’t unusual to have extremely fearful dogs that never become totally normal household companions. While this isn’t an absolute, it is definitely more the case than not. However, these dogs can learn to cope and live a much better quality of life with the right protocols in place and dedicated, patient owners.

Here is an excellent video from FernDog Training with a fearful dog that barks/growls (you cannot hear the growl so much in the video.)

Many dogs become growly in certain situations, environments or with things that make them uncomfortable as a non-confrontational way to say “um, please don’t do that again” or “you’re making me very uncomfortable right now, please stop/go away”.

What does this sound/look like?
Often this presents as a low growl, an under-the-breath-type growl and if the person doesn’t hear or respect this first line of communication, the dog often begins to bare teeth while growling. Often in these scenarios the dog is frozen and doesn’t really move. This can often be mis-read and brushed off, or worse the dog is reprimanded in some way for growling in this scenario. Reprimanding usually causes the growling to escalate to more growling and very often snapping or biting.

I have often heard, “if he was uncomfortable why didn’t he just get up and walk away?” Often this is due to the dog feeling so uncomfortable that he freezes in fear of making a move or making things worse for himself. His brain freezes and he is unable to get up. Then, sometimes the dog doesn’t move because he was there first and/or was comfortable. Plain and simple!

What is an example case?
One client case I had a dog kept growling at the toddler in the home when she would try to pet the dog while she was lying on her dog bed on the floor. The dog was not comfortable with the toddler during this time and more often than not, would end up growling at the toddler.

Another case was a dog that would growl when the owner tried to grab him and pull him out of his crate. As soon as the owner’s hand went in the dog began to growl. If the owner kept going in to grab him the dog would snap at the owner’s hand.

What is a likely outcome?
Dogs that are growling when the dog is uncomfortable have very positive outcomes when the owner is able to work with a qualified trainer. The trainer should be showing the owners’ how to implement classical counter-conditioning (making the dog form a new association that elicits a pleasant emotional response, or no response to the trigger) and desensitization (gradually making good associations to the trigger) to the trigger(s) that usually cause the dog to start growling.

With proper training this type of growling can be totally diminished and go away completely.

Many dogs become growly when they are in pain and/or sick. Some dogs are very good at hiding pain/illness, however, some are sensitive or the pain or illness causes enough discomfort that it triggers a growl or snap.

What does this sound/look like?
Often this presents as a low growl, an under-the-breath-type growl, often with teeth bared (but not always). If the person doesn’t respect this canine communication the dog often snaps quickly once then retreats. Usually the dog that growls when hurt and wants the person to go away and leave them alone. This is why the dog will often snap once and retreat if the person doesn’t leave them alone. However, don’t assume that all dogs will react this way. Some will bite and make contact with skin or break skin when in pain.

Often this is stated to be “totally out of the ordinary” for the dog and the owner is quite surprised by the dog’s reactions. This is a very good indication the dog should first be seen by a veterinarian, as they are likely reacting due to pain or illness.

What is an example case?
This is actually a case where the dog was growling out of character toward the other dog in the home. The two dogs had always gotten on very well with one another and one day, for several days consecutively, the owners noticed when the dogs played one dog would become really agitated and began to growl and snap at the other dog in a non-playful manner. It was recommended that a vet visit was in order. The vet found the offending dog had cancer in his front leg. The dog was in a great deal of pain unbeknownst to the owners.

There was a case where a dog would growl at the owner every time she picked the dog up. She felt this was a behavioral thing as the dog had done this for well over a year. She took the dog to the vet and the dog was found to have arthritis in its little hips (it was a small dog). The dog had been uncomfortable for quite some time and luckily for the owner had only resorted to growling and never snapped or bit the owner.

What is a likely outcome?
Dogs that are growling when in pain usually stop when the medical condition is treated and resolved, if it’s a treatable condition/illness.

In some cases, like the little dog with arthritis, the owner was just more respectful of the dog and learned how to handle the dog in a way that wasn’t painful or would just leave her be if she wasn’t comfortable enough to be picked up. Medication helped that little dog but she would still have bouts of pain and growl if the owner mishandled her at all, so she learned a work around that respected the dog and lessened her need to growl.

Many dogs become growly towards inanimate objects or sometimes people they don’t immediately recognize or if the person appears in the dark or in an abnormal situation (like walking through the back gate, instead of the front door, and startles the dog).

What does this sound/look like?
This is a very common behavior with puppies when they are learning what the world around them is like and they encounter new, unfamiliar things. Usually the dog shows some strong “oh my gosh I cannot get near that whatchamacallit” body language while growling and huffing at it. This often presents as body stretched out long and far but not too far so that they don’t get too close to said whatchamacallit. Usually they are trying to sniff the object to get a feel for what it is, often stopping to growl and huff while moving stealthily around the thing.

When this presents with people often the dog is backing up while growling and huffing and/or darting from side to side trying to make sense of what they are seeing.

What is an example case?
One of my own dogs was like this when I rescued him. He was very wary of strange men in particular and once a friend entered through our backyard gate when we were outside. People rarely, if ever, entered our yard. This set him off and he darted to the back door first then crept a bit closer while low growling and huffing a bit.

Another case was a puppy that was uncertain about fire hydrants on the sidewalk. This puppy was around 3-4 months old and when he first saw a hydrant he jumped back, then went back in with a long body stretch and tried to sniff. Then he backed up and growled and huffed and barked a little bit.

What is a likely outcome?
If this involves a young puppy, usually just proper exposure while conditioning the dog to make good associations with unfamiliar things will do the trick on this. They will totally move past it.

If it’s an adult dog with some fears of objects or people in unpredictable scenarios, a qualified trainer can help lay out a plan to help the dog overcome these reactions. Most dogs can totally overcome this with proper work and dedication, and some dogs don’t, or the owner decides to just live with these infrequent bouts of growling.

Some dogs can growl when they are in possession of an object, toy, bone, food, water, or even a person. This is due to the dog fearing what they are in possession of will be taken away from them. We refer to this as "resource guarding". They are guarding something they view as a valued resource. 

What does this sound/look like?
This is actually a pretty common behavior with dogs. It is definitely not something us humans see as desirable or tolerable in any way, however, it's not an uncommon dog behavior. As listed above, people can also be resources to a dog and the dog can growl when someone approaches a person the dog is standing/sitting near or if the person is holding the dog. 

This usually shows up with the dog lowering his head, stiff body, frozen body (not moving), ears pinned back, lips turned back and teeth showing while a low, guttural growl can be heard. The closer someone gets to a dog guarding something the lower their head usually goes and the more intense the teeth showing and growling becomes. If the person actually approaches this dog it is not uncommon that the dog lashes out and bites the person and/or lunges to snap at the person.

It should be noted that resource guarding can vary greatly. It can be a small growl at times without all the display of teeth, etc. or it can be so extreme the dog just lunges from across the room if someone enters and the dog is in possession of something (this is an extreme case, and not as common). So, resource guarding is on a huge sliding scale.

What is an example case?
I had a case where the dog would grab a toy, run under a chair and begin to rip the toy to shreds. This case the dog had things taken from him so often and was "getting in trouble" for it that he began to just guard the things he'd steal. His behavior had escalated as the owners (unknowingly) scolded him and got very upset with him 1) for stealing and 2) then for growling once he took the item and they tried to retrieve it. 

This escalated the dog's fearful behaviors and therefore his resource guarding behaviors. He was so confused and afraid that he responded with growling and snarling and snapping. 

What is a likely outcome?
If this behavior is handled correctly with the appropriate training style and method  not punishment or "showing who's boss" type stuff, then the outcome can be very good. There is no other way to handle this than to hire a professional who is very well versed in dog behavior and how to overcome this behavior. This behavior can escalate and become dangerous if it is not handled properly or is mis-handled. 

Many dogs become growly as a form of play or during play. This is totally different than growling as a warning sign. This is play growling! Often seen when playing tug-o-war with your dog or if two dogs are playing tug-o-war with a toy together.

What does this sound/look like?
Often seen when you are playing tug-o-war with your dog or if two dogs are playing tug-o-war together. It’s not always with toys or tug, but it is only presented during play. This growl is usually low but the important thing to remember with this growl is that the rest of the dog’s body language is clearly not afraid, nervous, conflicted or confused. The dog is in total play-mode – bouncing around, jumping, loose body, happy and clearly having fun.

What is an example case?
Since this is a different category than the other growl categories, I don’t really have a case example. I will say that my Beagle loves to play tug and if I start saying “Get it! Get it!” while I’m holding the end of the tug in my hand, she has the other end in her mouth; she’ll let out growls.

What is a likely outcome?
Dogs that like to play!

Many dogs become growly as a form of “talking” to their owner or other people. Usually this isn’t as much a growl as it is a low weird sound. It’s honestly best described as “talking”. But some dogs do some growling as talking. If your dog does this you definitely know what I’m talking about!

What does this sound/look like?
This is usually a weird sound that sounds like growling but talking but weird sounds. It’s different with all dogs but it’s usually funny to hear. It’s also very obvious to most dog owners that this is a silly growl/talk.

What is an example case?
Since this is a different category than the other growl categories, I don’t really have a case example. However, my Great Dane was a huge talker with some low deep growl-type sounds mixed in. It was really funny to hear him.

What is a likely outcome?
We put it on cue for my Dane and if you said “tell me, tell me” he’d start talking to you.

Many dogs become growly in certain situations if they are confused or do not know what we are asking of them. I see this more often in dogs that have been corrected for certain behaviors, usually including growling, and have a huge distrust of their owner. This is usually with a very impatient dog owner and a dog that has learned that it cannot do anything right in the eyes of the owner.

What does this sound/look like?
Often this happens after the owner attempts to ask the dog to do something (like lie down) and the dog is clearly confused at the request. The dog usually presents her confusion as body language of fear, then when the owner continues to confuse or correct the dog for not complying, the dog often begins to growl out of pure desperation to make the owner stop.

As stated, this often presents as fear behavior at first – the dog will bare teeth, might squint eyes, might blink a lot, might tighten her body into the smallest ball she can (like when hunched into a corner), or may just freeze and growl low and guttural. This is a very conflicted dog that is trying her hardest to “keep it together” while also telling someone she is confused and wants the owner to stop whatever they are doing or asking of the dog.

What is an example case?
It should be noted this is more along the lines of what I’d be apt to call abuse. So, I’ve not personally worked with a lot of cases with dogs like this but I’ve seen it in public and in other venues, on TV, etc.

I do recall one case I had many moons ago in a group class I was holding. A man had pretty high expectations of his really young Labrador. We were going over a basic cue – sit or down, I don’t recall – and his dog wasn’t given clear instructions (from my point of view). The dog kind of flopped to the ground in what I call "silliness defense". The owner became highly frustrated and raised his voice to the dog, repeating “get up!”. The dog began to squint his eyes and blink and look away – all the signals to say “please stop, I am so confused and scared”. Then, the dog began to bare his teeth and let out a low growl, as an act of desperation. Keep in mind this happened in a matter of seconds and I was trotting as quickly as I could over to stop this mess while saying to the owner "Stop!"

You should also know that this man became one of my best clients and did several classes with that dog, successfully. The dog and man did form a lovely bond and he stopped berating his dog and instead trained him appropriately.

What is a likely outcome?
Dogs that are growling when totally conflicted are often very “soft” (sensitive) dogs to begin with. So, with proper training of the human this will likely be a thing of the past! 

The question of the day! The truth is that if we can learn to “read”, understand, respect and communicate with our dogs we can avoid all kinds of unnecessary things.

I feel that there is no time that it would be beneficial to the dog or the situation to punish or correct a dog for growling. I feel that a dog that growls should either be respected, such as in case that the dog is uncomfortable (just remove the dog or the thing that is making said dog uncomfortable) or more training on the end of the owner is needed.

Punishing growling can often lead the dog to believe that line of communication isn't working so she needs to get more direct next time. Perhaps this means a snap or a even a full bite to someone. She may skip growling altogether if it either gets punished or ignored over time.

If we can train our dog to move off of a bed when we ask, there would be no need for a dog to growl when attempted to be moved. 

If we could read our dog when she showed signs that the hug we innocently thrusted upon her made her very uncomfortable, we would likely avoid a growl from her telling us to “please don’t do that.” This would in turn diffuse a situation that could escalate from a growl to a snap or bite as the dog would perceive that your lack of “listening” to the warning growl was insufficient and more drastic communication was necessary.

Of course the trainer is going to suggest training. However, this is truthfully one of the best ways to help learn more about your dog’s body language and communication skills, as well as what to do with all that information.

Training dogs to understand cues from us is a key to a dog not being confused or finding the need to do what works for them because they don’t understand what is being asked or what is happening. As stated before, we have to teach our dogs our language and how to understand it. We also need to learn their language and how to understand it. This is what will build a trusting relationship and make living with one another a happy and stress-free experience!

Stacy Greer
& Private Trainer with The Family Dog™
Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior
servicing the Dallas/Ft Worth, Texas, USA metroplex
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