By: Lilian Akin, CPDT
your dog recently growled or snapped, you may be wondering why. After
all, you may have done your research and made sure you adopted the best
dog for your family. Does this sudden behavior change mean you must
rehome him, or worse? Does it mean you have a dominant dog on your
hands that you must force to be submissive? What would suddenly make
your dog act aggressively?
To us humans, expressions of canine
aggression are unacceptable behaviors. However, for a dog, they’re
simply ways of communicating. From a dog’s perspective, there’s always a
good reason for aggressive behavior. The good news is that growling
and snapping don’t necessarily mean that worse behavior is inevitable.
put, dogs can’t use words to talk to us. They can’t say, “Please don’t
do that to me. I don’t like it.” They can’t reason with a small child to
quit pulling their ears or quit crawling on them. Instead, they
communicate via the only means available to themthey growl or snap.
and dogs have different communication systems and as a result, there
are often misunderstandings between the species. Many dogs are
uncomfortable with being hugged or being approached with direct eye
contact. When humans approach dogs in this way, they usually intend to
be friendly, but dogs may perceive this behavior as threatening or
intimidating, and react accordingly.
There’s no way around it: we
don’t want canine aggression in our homes. A dog’s aggression can lead
to a bad outcome if your dog bites someone. The good news is that a
growl or snap is your dog’s way of communicating a waning—and your dog
is choosing to warn you instead of biting.
In the past, many
dog trainers viewed growling and snapping as dominant behaviors and
advised dog owners to respond by doing alpha rolls (forcing the dog down
onto the ground and onto his back), stare-downs (staring at the dog
until he looks away, which signals his acknowledgement that you are
dominant over him), shaking his scruff, and long, forced “stays.”
Unfortunately, even though a wealth of information now exists about the
hazards of these training techniques, a number of trainers continue to
use them, including popular celebrity dog trainers who make them appear
effective through highly-choreographed video editing. Some trainers
recommend even harsher methods for dealing with aggression such as shock
collars, which allow you to administer a shock to dog when he displays
aggressive behavior. You’d be best advised to stay away from such
trainers and advice.
Any trainer/behaviorist who understands dog
behavior and the psychological process behind modifying behavior knows
that punishment does not help aggression. In fact, punishment often
makes the problem worse. If the aggression is motivated by fear,
punishment will only make the dog more fearful, and therefore more
aggressive. Attempting to punish a pushy or controlling dog is likely
to make his behavior even worse. In either case, the dog and owner end
up in a vicious cycle of escalating aggression. Punishing territorial,
possessive or protective aggression is likely to elicit additional
defensive aggression and is likely to ultimately result in worse
My own sweet collie-shepherd mix growled at me this
winter when I leaned over him to wipe salt from his paws. Luckily, I was
walking him with a dog trainer who said, “Don’t lean over him next
time.” I’d been trying to comfort him but to him, my leaning wasn’t
comforting at all, and he growled to let me know he didn’t like it.
Since then, by simply being aware of my posture while cleaning his feet,
I’ve had no further problems. Had I ignored his growl, he would have
learned that I don’t listen to him. And, if I had continued to act in a
manner that made him uncomfortable, his growling could have escalated. I
didn’t punish him for growling because I understood that his growling
was simply a verbal cue. He wasn’t behaving badly—he was communicating
with me the only way he knew how.
Sometimes, dog owners assume
that punishment prevents further aggressive behavior. I probably could
have intimidated my dog into not growling at me again. But would that
have solved the underlying problem? Not at all.
If you don’t
address the underlying issue—perhaps of fearfulness or
possessiveness—behind your dog’s aggressive behavior, you’re not
changing your dog’s feelings about the incident that caused the growl in
the first place. The danger in this is that even if you’re successful
in making your dog suppress a growl, your punishment might intensify his
feelings. Thus, the next time a similar incident happens, your dog will
still feel threatened and become more likely to bite. The dog has
learned that his warning (growling) doesn’t work, and in his mind, the
next logical step is a bite.
It’s also important to remember
that your dog will associate his punishment with whatever is causing him
to be upset in the first place. For example, if you punish your dog for
growling at a crawling toddler (when your dog was just trying to tell
the toddler, “Please don’t bother me!”), your dog may interpret your
punishment as “I get yelled at when that child crawls towards me.” Thus,
the punishment could cause an escalation of aggression towards the
The moral of this story is that we want our dogs to
communicate with us. We want them to warn us when they feel
uncomfortable or threatened and we want them to know we’ll respect their
warning. If they growl and we respect the growl, they’re much less
likely to resort to further aggression in the future. The purpose of
this article, however, is not to advise you to be permissive with your
dog or to ignore the circumstances that caused the growl. If your dog is
growling, there is something bothering him and you must address it.
It’s important to understand why your dog is growling and what you can
do to fix the problem proactively rather than punitively. Your dog will
thank you and you will ultimately reap the reward of having a great
relationship with your dog.
If you wish to learn more about how
dogs perceive human behavior, behaviorist Patricia McConnell has written
two very insightful and easy-to-read books about this titled The Other
End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog.
If you have
any questions or concerns about your dog’s behavior, please call our
Behavior Helpline at 412.847.7070 or click here.