The way that dog’s communicate with us can, at times, be complex, subtle and hard to interpret. One tool that dogs do have in their communication toolbox that is none of those things however is growling. Even the most un-doggy person knows that when a dog growls it is not happy and would really rather you stopped what you were doing before things escalate!
Now, many people understand the basics of social learning theory – that is the way that dog training works. With positive training, you encourage desirable behaviours by rewarding them and discourage undesirable behaviours by ignoring them. Some people also use positive punishment as a way of discouraging undesirable behaviours (such as hitting, shouting at, or shocking the dog). This method is not recommended, not only because it is inhumane and has a negative effect on the welfare of the dog, but also because it is rather ineffective and very difficult to get right. Growling is a fairly negative behaviour and is thought by many people to be undesirable and thus a behaviour that they want to discourage. People may believe that their dog is growling because it is just being “grumpy” or “dominant”, they may dislike their dog growling at the children because it frightens them. They will then want to use social learning theory to eliminate this undesirable behaviour through punishment – whether that is physical punishment such as hitting or shocking the dog or negative punishment such as ignoring the dog. It is easy to see how this would make perfect sense to some people and they may believe that are being good, well informed owners or trainers by doing this. Some trainers, such as a certain so called “dog whisperer”, may even recommend this method.
It is extremely important to think about why the dog is growling and what function growling serves for the dog. Dogs really are limited in the ways that they can communicate with us and they do their best to let us know when they are not happy about something. See my post on the language of dogs for more details about how dogs communicate with us and how we can interpret their behaviour. Dogs experiencing low levels of anxiety tend to show more subtle behaviours that can be easy to miss and so we may continue to do the thing that is worrying the dog. This then teaches the dog that there is no point in trying to communicate with us in these subtle ways because we will just ignore their gentle requests for us to stop. This means that next time the dog is feeling worried they will use more obvious signs that they are unhappy such as moving away, raising their hackles or tucking their tails. If we still don’t get the hint, then the dog will up the ante even further to growling – surely nobody could ignore that?! A growling dog is quite clearly saying “I am really not happy with this situation right now, please stop doing the thing that is worrying me or I might have to take further action…”. If we then ignore this or punish it then all we are doing is simply teaching the dog that growling doesn’t work as a way to communicate that they are unhappy.
In the future, where the dog finds itself in a situation where it is very worried, it will no longer try and communicate through growling or showing its teeth – it may go straight to a bite response. We then have a dog who bites “out of the blue” without any warning. Sadly these dogs are then either put into shelters for rehoming or are put to sleep for being an “aggressive dog”. All because the dog has desperately tried to communicate that they are unhappy or scared in the past but these communications have been ignored or punished and so the dog felt that they had no other choice than to bite. In human terms, you may ask someone politely to leave you alone, if this is ignored you then ask more forcefully, eventually it may lead to you physically pushing the person away or even hitting them if you feel trapped and scared. This has escalated in the same was as it can do with dogs.
Modern dog training is no longer just about encouraging one behaviour with rewards and discouraging another with ignoring (although this is of course still a major part of it!). The key is to think about exactly why the behaviour is occurring and how the dog is feeling. Treating the cause rather than the symptom is what it’s all about. A dog will growl when it feels unhappy or scared of something. The way to stop it is simply to listen to the dog and take away the thing that is worrying them, and hey presto – no more growling and no more scared dog! Plus, this teaches the dog that growling does work and you will listen to it so next time you will still get a warning before things escalate.
You can then start training the dog using positive training methods to become less scared of the thing that is worrying it with lots of positive rewards and encouragement, while always keeping an eye on their body language and backing things up at the first sign of them being unhappy. Listening to and acting on the signals that your dog gives you will lead to both you and your dog having a happier, more harmonious life together.