Monday, March 11, 2013

Grouchy Canines: Dogs Who Growl or Snap

By: Lilian Akin, CPDT

If 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.

Simply 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.

Humans 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 behavior.

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 child.

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.

12 comments:

  1. Me and my boyfriend adopted a dog. We had him for about a month now. He just recently started growling and sniping at my boyfriend. Only time he does it is when he's laying down. He fine when I touch him but not my boyfriend.

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    Replies
    1. I have a German Shepherd mix that was abused by a male before we got her at 4 months old. She is not as comfortable with men and she behaved the same way with my son's. I would recommend that maybe consider something negative could have happened regarding a male. I would also give the dog a treat every time she allows your boyfriend to touch her when the dog is lying down. Maybe that will work.

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  2. I was walking with my German Shepherd dog... my cousin came to me who is also his caretaker who also feeds him... we were having discussion face to face while the dog was standing on my side suddenly he attacked my cousin and bite him brutally for almost 1 min and the dog bite him 9 to 10 times brutally almost start bleeding..... while i was beating my dog brutally with rubber pipe very very badly almost i hit him 20 to 25 times with rubber pipe... but dog was not leaving him...then i put rope in his neck and separate dog from my cousin...
    Now i am still shock and don't understand why the dog bite that guy brutally who feed him and take care of him all the time...
    Would u like to tell me about this behaviour. ..
    Coz if he is abnormal dog then why he didn't bite me while i was also beating and pushing him away from cousin...
    Guide me plz what i have to do

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was walking with my German Shepherd dog... my cousin came to me who is also his caretaker who also feeds him... we were having discussion face to face while the dog was standing on my side suddenly he attacked my cousin and bite him brutally for almost 1 min and the dog bite him 9 to 10 times brutally almost start bleeding..... while i was beating my dog brutally with rubber pipe very very badly almost i hit him 20 to 25 times with rubber pipe... but dog was not leaving him...then i put rope in his neck and separate dog from my cousin...
    Now i am still shock and don't understand why the dog bite that guy brutally who feed him and take care of him all the time...
    Would u like to tell me about this behaviour. ..
    Coz if he is abnormal dog then why he didn't bite me while i was also beating and pushing him away from cousin...
    Guide me plz what i have to do

    ReplyDelete
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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. I have a very submissive dog that never growls or barks I've often joked that he is softer than my Labrador. He was sitting next to me not sleeping my friends toddler who he has always been great with Eason my lap the toddler help his hand out and the fog licked it as he normally does the toddler leant forward to stroke him and he snapped and growled never heard him do this before even in exactly the same situation I e always been careful I do believe they are animals and need to be treated right the toddler knows never touch if he's sleeping go in his bed or touch he's food. I'm at my wits end can I still trust him he never bit just made us jump please help

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  7. I have a 7 month old husky/malamute mix, so he is fairly big dog, and I got to admit I'm a bit scared of him for his size. I'm the one that feeds him, plays with him the most, and has more compassion on him, so I don't understand why he snapped at me recently (didn't sink his teeth, his teeth just grazed my skin) I didn't get it. All I was doing was petting him like I've done many many times, all I can think of is that he doesn't respect me, or the fact he had just come in from a nap.
    I don't know, I guess I'm scared he is actually an aggressive dog.

    But then again, he lets me stick my whole hand in his mouth if I'm trying to get something out of there, so I'm confused.

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  8. I have a 3 year old mix breed dog an he is so sweet however when he was about a year old he ate a packing blanket an had to take pills to poop it out. Not sure if this has anything to do with it bit ever since this instance he has been a growler. Wierd I know. I don't understand my dog. I'm not scared of him but I want to understand him. I can wake up in the morning an he will lick my face an then start growling I will say no he will stop growling an then lick my fave some more. He was never socialized. An he goes into a trance like state sometimes when he growls like he's not in there. He's only snapped at us once. I don't want him to bite us am I would like to change his behavior but I don't know how?

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  9. My dog is about 3 and he has always been friendly with kids. But now he has started growling and shaking when kids come towards him. If kids are not around he is fine but as soon as a kid goes near him he growls and shakes all over. Why?

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  10. I have a Boerboel (South African mastiff), now aged 2. He his very loving dog constantly looking for cuddles.
    How ever these last couple of days he would seek me asking to rub is head (by nosing my hand) yet growl when I do rub his head. There is no teeth showing, his body behavior is submissive. (he is sitting relaxed, no tension can be seen). He responds to voice commands very well and should you scold him he immediately lies down. But the recent growling is out of character. Is it because of pleasure or warning me? Cause I don't understand why he comes to looking for cuddles and then growling... He shows no aggression to our other dog (ridge back).

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