Communication is important for any animal. There are universal signals that can be understood from animals of the same specials and between different species. The same goes for us as humans with our canine companions. However, each species has also subtle signs and ways to communicate, and these can be dangerous if we don’t read them correctly. This is why I like the growl.
A growl is a clear warning sign that the dog gives. An exception to this rule is when the dog is playing. My dog gets very vocal when she plays and growls a lot, but the rest of her body lets me know that this is just play, nothing more.
But why would a dog growl in other instances? Well, most of the time it is to let us know that the dog is not comfortable in a certain situation or she is trying to protect/guard something. If a person is walking up to a dog and she growls or air-snaps (biting the air), that lets you know that she is not comfortable with that particular stranger approaching her. So why not discipline her for growling? Well, if you use any form of punishment i.e. yelling, leash corrections, or shock, you take away her warning without changing how she feels.
Let me put this in another way. Let’s say you don’t like spiders, but I allow a huge, hairy one to approach you. Every time you scream I hit you or yell at you. You still don’t like spiders, but now you are afraid to scream because you get hit or yelled at every time. So now the spider approaches you and instead of screaming to scare the spider away, you stomp on it if it gets too close. This is the same for your dog. In this case, it’s best to remove her from the situation or prevent the scary thing, be it a child, adult, or other animal, from approaching her. If you punish the growl, your dog may now only give more subtle warning signs, such as enlarged pupils or tongue flickering, which most people can’t see or don’t realize are warning signs, too. Then, you may hear comments like “That dog bit with no warning.”
By using Positive Reinforcement techniques instead of corrective/punishment methods, we can help the dog view things that are scary in a different way. Eventually with desensitizing and classical conditioning, the dog will become more comfortable around these scary things. Before you attempt to modify your dog’s behavior, seek help from a Positive Reinforcement trainer.
If your dog is growling when you get too close to her possession, a toy, food bowl, etc, this is known as resource guarding. If your dog is resource guarding, please contact a Positive Reinforcement trainer for help.