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While a dog’s growl can be upsetting and disheartening to us it also serves the very useful purpose of alerting us to the fact that the dog is feeling threatened or uncomfortable. It is the dog’s way of saying “If something in this situation does not change, I may feel threatened enough to bite.”
As a certified dog behavior consultant (CDBC) I deal with a greater number of aggressive dogs than the average person, I love it when a client dog growls. When a dog growls at me it is giving me a warning and an opportunity to change my behavior, thus preventing a bite from occurring. For this reason, I advise all my clients and students that it is NEVER wise to punish a dog for growling, even by saying “No.” Dogs that are repeatedly punished for growling eventually may not give a warning and immediately escalate to biting. A dog that does not growl before biting is a dangerous dog.
If your dog is in a situation where they do growl; quietly and with as little fanfare and emotion as possible remove them from the situation to a place where they feel safe and secure. Do not keep them in the situation and try to reassure them or yell at them for growling. After what has caused your dog to growl is no longer present, you need to start to try to determine what caused your dog to feel threatened. If this has happened more than once, I strongly encourage you to seek qualified, professional assistance. The more times this behavior occurs, the more likely it is to reoccur and to escalate and the longer it will take to resolve.
While a growl is usually associated with aggression it is important to understand that there are many causes of aggression. Pain or other medical issues can cause an aggressive response as can fear. Fear can arise for many reasons; a reminder of a previous negative experience, a perceived loss of a resource, expectations of punishment and associated pain, and maternal protective instincts. Sexual competition, barrier frustration, low tolerance for frustration, differences in personalities between dogs, and genetics can also cause aggressive behavior.
If your dog is growling frequently you should schedule a veterinary exam to rule out any medical causes as soon as possible. If the growling and aggression are not due to medical reasons you should seek a consultation with a credentialed and experienced dog behavior consultant to work with you in resolving your dog’s behavior. Our website contains a page that answers many questions about canine behavior counseling and how to find someone to help you (Frequently Asked Questions About Behavior Consultations).
It is important to understand that obedience training alone is extremely unlikely to resolve an aggression issue. Aggression is an emotional response, often due to a feeling of having no control over a situation. Sitting and staying for someone on cue does not afford the dog a sense of control, only of being controlled. In order to resolve aggression, we need to change the dog’s emotions.