Everyone wants to have a dog that “you can do anything to.” But the reality is that even though these dogs do exist, we shouldn’t expect that dogs will behave in this way. Just as we are all individuals and have individual abilities to deal with life’s stresses, so do dogs. Some are more affable than others. Some are rarely frightened or worried.
But to be fearful is not a choice dogs make.
Just because the dog you grew up with as a child was able to be pulled around by children and dressed in outfits does not mean that the next Labrador you own will also respond with polite disdain to the rambunctious attention of toddlers.
Daily I explain to caregivers the need to understand canine communication – and the more proficient humans are at reading the low level stress signs of their canine companions the better they are at predicting the outcome of encounters, and at protecting and redirecting their dogs before the dog becomes worried enough to bite.
Humans are hard wired to understand that the low guttural sound that a dog delivers when it growls means “keep away from me.” The point of growling for the dog is to make it clear to the person, or other animal, to whom the dog is directing his growl that he is uncomfortable about this encounter and wants it to stop. NOW. It is a clear and unambiguous sign that the dog is in real discomfort over the encounter and you should always heed it. Take note of what caused the dog to growl because now you have something to work on. You have identified a TRIGGER. But the time for teaching is not now.
When we tell a dog off for growling (which is almost everyone’s automatic response) we are essentially telling the dog that we are not listening to his attempts to communicate.
When we add scolding the dog also learns that the encounter was as negative as he felt it to be, and yes he was right to attempt to end the encounter. But it also teaches the dog that growling does not have the effect he wanted. The encounter continues sometimes with punishment added in. Sometimes caregivers physically reprimand the growl by pushing or yanking the dog – further confirming to him that his communication is ineffective.
After enough failed attempts at signalling politely with a growl the dog may proceed to snapping or biting and the humans are apt to label this as “coming out of nowhere.”
Please thank your dog for growling.
Understand that removing a growl from a dog, through the use of punishment, does nothing to change the dog’s association with the person, or other animal, but just removes a valuable communication tool. It is like removing the smoke detector from the home. It increases the risks of living with a dog. To change the behaviour of growling the dog must be taught a new positive association with the person or circumstance that creates the feeling of unease. This is done, not when the dog is growling, but at a later time when a desensitisation and counter conditioning program can be constructed. This is the kind of work we do at ANIMAL SENSE.