My dog growled at me today
Yes, I am a dog trainer, and my dog growled at me. And you know what, I liked it. I reinforced it!
I am often called to see ‘aggressive’ dogs who have been so labelled because they have growled, but what is it about growling that gets us so hot under the collar?
One of the things that appeals to us about dogs, as well as their big soulful eyes, their faithful loving nature and their ability to lower our blood pressure and heal our bodies simply by sitting next to us, is their inability to speak our language. Indeed, you may have heard the quote from an unknown author: “The reason a dog has so many friends, is because he wags his tail not his tongue”.
Perhaps this is why we are so affronted when our dogs do actually talk to us, or is it simply because we don’t like their language?
Growling is somehow seen as something only a ‘bad dog’ does and that it means your dog is aggressive. I’m not sure when this misconception was first made, but it has become very widespread.
A dog who growls is not trying to dominate you, he’s not a bad dog, or aggressive and he doesn’t want to hurt you, in fact it’s quite the opposite; he’s trying to avoid taking it a step further!
A dog who growls at you is talking to you, in his own language because that’s the language he knows, and he is asking you to make whatever it is that is making him uncomfortable stop.
So why was I so happy when Radan growled at me?
When I first got him, he had been through rescue and he had had a pretty tough time of it. When I went to collect him, he was being handled by people with very little skill in handling dogs and was being yanked around on a slip lead when he got excited to see a person, despite his incredibly friendly nature.
He was only just over a year old and I was at least his third home. Nobody knew where he had started off and he had most recently been handed in because his owners said he was growling at the children.
The thing is, Radan didn’t growl. He would let me do all sorts with no growling, there were very subtle signs that he wasn’t happy but these are not things that novice dog owners would pick up on; the flick of a tongue or the momentary freeze of an uncomfortable dog. A paw lift that just looks so cute but is actually his way of saying ‘I really don’t like that’ and the tell-tale whites of his eyes on show indicating that he really isn’t a very happy boy at this moment in time. But no growling.
Then, one day, when I wasn’t looking at what I was doing or what he was telling me, his subtle indications went unnoticed and he went to the next level. For any well socialised, balanced dog, that would have been a growl, but for Radan, who had been punished for his ‘aggressive behaviour’, growling had never worked and had only resulted in worse things happening, so he lunged at me. And he got me.
This was when I realised that this boy had no clue that he could tell me when he wasn’t happy with something. This wasn’t out of the blue, it wasn’t even unprovoked, it turned out that he had a sore ear and I had been fussing it. But if he had felt comfortable enough with me to growl, I’d have known about his sore ear before I got a sore arm.
I taught my boy to growl at me. That’s right. Reread it if you need to. I didn’t want a dog that was frightened to communicate with me because that is how people get bitten. So now, when Radan growls, I know that he is saying “there is something not right here”. Sometimes it’s something I am doing that is making him uncomfortable, sometimes it’s something else and he needs me to deal with it. Regardless, that growl is a communication and nothing more. It doesn’t mean he is going to rip my head off, and it doesn’t mean he is a bad dog. It means he has learned to trust me enough to communicate with me in his language – which makes everyone safer.
Never, ever punish a growling dog.
If your dog is growling at you regularly, something needs changing.
If your dog is growling and making you uncomfortable, you need to seek help from a professional behaviour consultant.
But remember, if your dog is growling he is communicating with you. Listen to him.
If you are concerned about your dog’s growling, you can leave a comment below or drop me an email to [email protected] and I will be happy to give some brief advice if appropriate or let you know if I feel you need to seek professional help.