Growling - should it be punished?

Growling - should it be punished?

Jul 09 , 2020

We often receive calls from worried owners because their dog has growled at them or their children. Growling is perceived to be a very bad behaviour in our pet dogs; but is it really?

This may come as a shock to some owners, but growling is good. Growling is your dog’s early warning system before they feel that they should snap or bite.

So why is my dog growling?

There are many reasons why dogs growl but no matter what the root cause of the growl, they are always trying to communicate to us that something is wrong.

Many of us grew up with the belief that a growl should be severely punished but this only serves to make the situation far worse. If your dog is “not allowed” to growl, how can they possibly communicate that they are very uncomfortable with the situation that they find themselves in? In a normal, healthy dog, there will have been a number of signals that have been given through body language to communicate that the dog is uncomfortable and stressed out by the situation they are in.

Sadly these communication markers are often missed by the average dog owner.

It feels intuitive to punish growling doesn’t it? Growling leads to biting and dogs who bite are bad and need to be euthanised. “I know, I’m going to stop my dog from being in that situation by nipping it right in the bud at the first sign of a growl. In fact, I’m not even going to let it get to the growling stage. The first sign of a curled lip or bared teeth and they won’t know what happened to them. Not in my house, not with my children around!” WRONG!!

When you look at this at a deeper level, you will realise just what a fatal mistake punishing communication can be. 80% of dog bites are from the family pet on family members. Shocking isn’t it? Why would this happen? How could your loving pet turn around and, quite literally, bite the hand that feeds it?

Most dogs really do not want to bite or fight. Biting and fighting are really expensive activities to take up when you’re a dog. Chances are, if you bite, you’re going to get bitten back…..with force. You’re likely to sustain some pretty serious injuries.

Dogs will try their best to make the situation go away. They start by displaying subtle changes in body language. A healthy, balanced dog will at first try to appease by displaying calming signals such as yawning, lip licking and blinking. They may turn their head away. If this doesn’t work they may turn their whole body away from you or sit and paw at you or scratch the ground. This is Dog for “Please leave me alone. I don’t feel comfortable”.

If the situation doesn’t go away, your dog becomes more and more uncomfortable. They may try to remove themselves from the situation. You will see their ears go back, they may try to make themselves smaller. Their body language becomes stiff and their gaze more fixed. Now we are in dangerous territory. The fixed gaze is dog for “I’ve had enough now. You are ignoring all of my warnings, you’re backing me into a corner. I need you to go away NOW!”.

What happens next? We’ve ignored all of our beloved pet’s attempts to communicate with us. We’re no longer his best buddy, we’re breaking his trust and he’s stressed out, so he curls his lip at us and lets out a warning growl. “I’ve had enough. GO AWAY or I will make you go away”.

This is make or break time. At this point, we should listen to our dogs. Maybe something hurts, maybe something is scaring them. We, as owners, should take this opportunity to protect and nurture them. We need to show them that we have understood. We need to make the situation better for them. Stop what is happening and allow our dogs to de-stress because if we don’t, we leave them no choice but to snap at or bite the person causing the stress and discomfort.

What most owners fail to realise is that aggression is caused by stress. Stress has many faces from pain and fear, to intrusion, loss of a resource, an association with negative events in the past, so many things that we sometimes fail to consider. A good behaviourist will be able to help you to identify why your dog is behaving in this way and here at Fur Indoors Bridgend, we can make sure that you and your dog get the help you need because when you punish a growl, or other early warning sign that your dog is displaying, you’re not helping them or your family. All you are achieving is supressing their ability to communicate, suppressing their ability to warn us. You are creating an unpredictable, highly stressed animal who has the strength in his jaws to break through bone. If you succeed in supressing your dog’s warning system, you now have a dog who is unpredictable. Your dog has learnt that it isn’t safe to warn you because you will punish him, so he doesn’t and this is when someone gets bitten.

Sam caldwell-Thorne