Originally posted May 2013

In Ontario, where I live, the law says that every floor of every home shall have a working smoke detector.  The idea is that if the smoke detector goes off, you have a good chance of getting out before your house burns down.  That is the general idea.  The problem is that smoke detectors don’t work if they have used batteries or worse if they have no batteries at all.  They don’t work if you cut the wires that go to the alarm sound.  They don’t work if they are damaged.  They don’t work if the vents are painted over.  They don’t work if they are taken down and put on a table or the floor.  Smoke detectors only work if they have good batteries, are properly positioned and haven’t been painted over or tampered with.  If a fire starts and you don’t have an operational smoke detector, you are less likely to survive.  In fact, along with your smoke detector, you should probably also have an emergency plan.

Smoke detectors save lives, but only when they are properly installed and have good batteries in them.  Growling is the doggy equivalent of a smoke detector; before the bite happens the growl tells you it is coming.  It is not the only signal dogs give, but it is one of the most important ones. Image credit: 350jb / 123RF Stock Photo

In the past three weeks, I have encountered three clients who have dogs who have growled.  In all three cases my clients were appalled and in two of the three cases the dogs who growled were heavily chastised.  None of my clients were looking at their dog’s behaviour as information; they were looking at it as “bad behaviour”.  In one case the dog was in pain.  In the other two the dog was guarding something.

So what does it mean when a dog growls?  Growling is one of the behaviours that precedes a bite.  In fact, there is a whole sequence of behaviours that usually happen before the dog actually bites.  To begin with, the dog will orient on the target of his aggression, and then freeze.  That freeze behaviour is what happens while the dog thinks through what he is seeing.  In most dogs, you will see them freezing on a regular basis; they are startled or notice something, freeze, think about it a moment and move on.  Once in a while, whatever caught the dog’s attention will cause him sufficient alarm that he goes to the next stage; he will growl.  Growling is a signal from the dog that he is concerned.  When the signal is heard and heeded, the dog will stop growling.  When the dog is confronted, then one of two things happen; either you will win or you will lose.  If you win, the dog will back down and if you lose, the dog will bite you.

Confrontation is almost always a tactic that is risky.  If the dog is confronted often enough by a wide enough variety of people, then he will learn to differentiate between people who will win and people who will lose.  The dog will quickly learn that adults are more likely to be successful, and that children are less likely to be successful.  When the dog determines who to take on, and who to avoid, then he becomes particularly dangerous.  The dog also learns that growling is a tactic that can cause people to attack him, and so he will stop growling.  Let’s keep this in mind.

The dog stops growling.  That is what we want right?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Let’s re-examine the scenarios where my client’s dogs growled.  One was in pain.  Do you want your dog to suffer, or is it better that he tell you that he is hurting so that you can help him?  From where I sit, it would be better if he told me so that I could get him to the vet.  Two dogs were guarding valuable items.  Do I want my dogs to guard their stuff from me?  No, but the problem then isn’t that the dogs growled.  The problem is that they are resource guarding.  At the end of the day, addressing the symptom doesn’t change the problem.  The dog may not growl, but may still guard, and a guarding dog who doesn’t tell you that they are guarding is a dog who bites without warning.

Some of the most dangerous dogs I have met are dogs who don’t growl.  People are proud of the fact that their dog “would never growl”.  A dog who would never growl is a dog who won’t tell you that there is a problem and if things get out of hand or the dog is overwhelmed, then the dog is more likely to bite, and the people are more likely to be surprised.  When bites appear to come out of the blue, one of the questions I ask is about growling, and when people tell me that their dog doesn’t growl I am always concerned because orienting and freezing, the precursors to growling, are often less noticeable to people than is growling.  In those bite cases, the dog has often given tons of signals that a bite is coming but the clients are unaware of those signals because they are not terribly noticeable.

This dog is showing many of the other signals that dogs show before they bite; pinned ears, puckered mouth and his tongue drawn back out of the way.  If the target of this dog had listened to the growl that came first, he may not have escalated!    Photo:  Sue Alexander

Instead of preventing growling, what I really want to do is prevent the need to growl.  Fire prevention ends with a smoke alarm that goes off.  Fire prevention starts with an awareness of the risks, and heeding the signals about what might go wrong.  Birthday candles on a cake can be quite safe; leaving a lit candle in the window to memorialize a lost soldier and then going to the movies is outright dangerous.  Bite prevention starts with recognizing that we don’t need to put the dog in situations where he is going to feel threatened.

This does not mean that we should just allow a dog to do whatever he wants, but if you have a dog who growls when you reach for his bone, you will need to teach your dog that you are not a threat.  You will need to teach your dog that bones are items that he can have and that you will share but that he can also give up.  The best way to do this is to trade for undesired items to teach your dog a pattern, and then work up to trading items that do matter and then trade items that matter a lot.  This is an education and is much safer than teaching the dog to not growl.

The thing is, when you are looking at behaviour problems, you have to look first at what the problem is.  The symptom is not the problem.  Growling is just a symptom.  Resolving growling is like taking the batteries out of your smoke detector; you may not hear any alarms, but you won’t prevent any fires.  And the problem is that if you want to prevent bites, turning off the early warning system is probably the least logical thing to do.  Determining the problem is a much better tactic, and addressing the problem is the best thing you can do.

So what should you do in the case of a growling dog?  My best tactic is to remove the dog from the situation and then reward.  Yes, I reward dogs who growl.  If you are reliable about removing the dog from the situation, and then rewarding the dog, what happens is that the dog when he is frightened will begin to go to you for help, and leave the situation; in effect you teach the dog that he need not stand his ground because it is safe to leave.  It is an elegant self reinforcing loop where the distressed dog will leave the stressful event, and the reward becomes a decrease in stress.

How might that look with a painful dog?  Let’s say that you are approaching the back end of a dog with severe hip dysplasia.  She knows it is going to hurt if you bump into her, and she turns her head towards you, freezes for a very brief instant and growls.  All this happens in less than a second.  You stop and she stops growling.  Walk away, call her to you and give her a treat.  If you know that the dog is in pain, give her a dose of painkiller, or get out the heating pad and treat the pain.

How about the dog who is guarding a bone in their bed?  Again, you approach the dog, he raises his eyes, but not his head.  He stops chewing and freezes in place, and emits a slow growl.  You stop and step back, and leave the room and go to the treat cupboard, and call the dog to you and give him a treat.  Put him out in the yard or in his crate, go get his bone and then set up situations where you can teach him to trade safely.

And how about the dog who is eating dinner, and growls when your five year old walks by and drags her hand over his back?  You call the child away, and then call the dog to the treat cupboard for a treat, and move the bowl to a safer place for your dog to eat.  Children and dogs eating is one of the most important places to prepare for this activity.  If you have a dog and a child, consider carefully where you want to place food bowls.  Do not have children drag their fingers through the dog’s food bowl while they are eating; this is dangerous and not helpful in terms of teaching the dog to be tolerant of children during meals.  Consider this ritual from the dog’s perspective.  Imagine for a moment that you are eating your dinner and your brother in law comes in and drags his hands through your food.  Then, just as you are lifting your fork to your mouth with something incredibly delicious on it he snatches the food off your fork and puts it back on your plate.  Then he touches you all over your body.  Would you not complain?  (this should be a warning to all of my brothers in law, should you be reading; I will react considerably more strongly than just complaining!)

I have a good number of students who have brought me dogs and they tell me that they have been instructed to do this ritual by other trainers, by vets and by vet techs.  This ritual is extremely dangerous and there is nothing in it for the dog.  The original ritual as described by Dr. Ian Dunbar was for the child to bring the bowl to the dog and cue him to sit.  The child put the bowl down, and released the dog and then went and got the dog some “dessert” and added it to the bowl.  Nowhere did he describe dragging your fingers through your dog’s food.  In some bizarre forms of this ritual, I have had clients who have put their faces into the bowls with their dogs in an attempt to show the dog that they can control the food.  This sort of thing is extremely dangerous, and in my opinion disrespectful.  By all means, do the food bowl game where you add a treat for dessert to an already full or half eaten food bowl, but don’t drag your hands through the bowl; that is disrespectful, rude and dangerous.  And feed your dog in a quiet place where he can enjoy his dinner without the risk that someone will do something silly to him while he is enjoying his dinner!

This puppy is peacefully eating his meal.  Dragging your hand through his bowl is not just rude, it is dangerous.  And just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!  By all means, come in and add something delicious as a doggy dessert, but don’t put your hands into his food!  Image credit: andresr / 123RF Stock Photo

There are some dogs who are naturally extremely tolerant and who don’t feel the need to growl, but when a dog does growl, we need to understand that the growl is not about the dog taking over the world.  The growl is a smoke detector; it tells you that there is something happening that you need to attend to.  Punishing the growl just puts the dog in a situation where he cannot win.  He cannot tell you he is uncomfortable and he cannot avoid the situation that makes him uncomfortable, and if pushed, the inevitable will happen and eventually, he will take control with his teeth.  All too often, with a few alternatives provided to the dog, a serious bite can be avoided.  When a dog growls…Remove and Reward.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s