When Raider first growled at me, I raised my eyebrow and asked, “What’s up little buddy?”
Growling was completely out of character for my border collie cross. So, I began a calm, yet thorough investigation of Raider and his surroundings to determine what it was that was causing him to warn me that he was uncomfortable.
Growling is something all dog owners find deeply disturbing. This is mostly due to the fact that growling is associated with aggression. A growling dog is often assumed to be an aggressive dog and this is simply not the truth.
Growling is an expression. It is a form of communication indicating that something is wrong. It is a warning that the dog is uncomfortable and if the current situation – whatever it might be – continues to escalate, then the dog will have no choice but to use the only defence mechanism it has to protect itself, which is to bite.
And even still, a bite in and of itself, is still not an indication of aggression. It means that the warning growl was not heeded.
Instead of punishing a growling dog, a dog owner should appreciate the communication. This does not mean that I want your dog to growl at you, but rather that you learn from the situation because if a dog is punished for growling it then stops this important communication tool.
Stopping a dog from growling does not make the reason a dog is growling go away, it simply teaches the dog to not communicate its discomfort with a warning. That leaves a dog with one last resort: a bite.
This is when dog owners then label their dog as an unpredictable biting dog. Bad humans!
If you find yourself with a growling dog, the first thing to do is to stop what you are doing immediately.
Don’t get all dramatic, but simply stay where you are until your dog relaxes When he does, calmly move away so you are rewarding your dog’s relaxed behaviour instead of the growl.
If your dog has been pushed beyond its tolerance threshold and you feel a bite is imminent then move away calmly even before your dog has finished growling to keep yourself safe.
Once you are at a safe distance, get a food treat and call your dog to you and away from the area it was when it growled and praise it for coming.
Then if possible, place your dog in a safe zone such as another room or even its crate if the crate is viewed as a happy place while you do the next step.
Next thing to do is to figure out what it is that is causing your dog to growl.
Is it guarding a valuable resource such as a prized bone, or did it steal a piece of laundry and is hiding it somewhere? Or, as in Raiders case, is there something that is causing him physical discomfort?
Knowing that Raider is not the biting type of dog gave me the ability to investigate.
I found a large bur stuck deep within the long fur between his legs and his manhood. With some scissors, some treats and patience I removed the bur and all was well in Raider’s world once again.
Consider all options, even a change in the dog’s living arrangements, as a possible cause for its growl.
If you need to do a physical exam with your dog and are concerned about a bite you can make an emergency dog muzzle (google it) to keep yourself safe.
If it is not a physical issue, then this might be the time you consider contacting a qualified trainer to help you not only reduce whatever stressors are causing your dog to growl but to help modify the dog’s behaviour.
Stress in dogs functions just like stress in humans. It is not one particular circumstance that causes a reaction but a cumulative effect where the dog is repeatedly placed in a situation that it is not mentally or emotionally stable enough to cope with and this causes stress.
The stress causes discomfort and the discomfort causes a dog to growl or bite.
A trainer can help boost your dog’s confidence and thus increase your dog’s ability to cope with stressful situations.
Finally, if you are remotely nervous, uncomfortable or unknowledgeable then do not attempt try to sort out your dog’s growling issue as you can do more harm than good.
Instead contact your veterinarian to do a physical exam and then a trainer to help figure out and then correct the problem.
Joan Klucha has been working with dogs for more than 15 years in obedience, tracking and behavioural rehabilitation. Contact her at email@example.com.