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Q&A: How Do I Stop My Dog From Growling at Family Members?

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Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.

Behaviors that are considered unacceptable in larger dogs—such as growling, biting, or barking—often go unaddressed in smaller dogs.

Behaviors that are considered unacceptable in larger dogs—such as growling, biting, or barking—often go unaddressed in smaller dogs.

Why Does My Small Dog Growl at Visitors, and How Can I Stop It?

We recently got a 7-month-old mini poodle from a rescue group. His name is Parker, and he’s been very overprotective of me and sits with me at all times. I don’t mind that, as he was rescued from a puppy mill, but the growling is a problem. I just want him to let my mom and other visitors come near me. When I’m outside or I have my friend over, he’s fine, but he likes very few people, even though he’s been around a lot of people. Are there tips to stop his growling?" —Bethany

Dogs Often Growl When They Feel Protective or Threatened

Growling is a very common problem with dogs if they are feeling protective or threatened. Part of the problem is that small dogs are treated much differently than larger ones and tend to develop more behavioral issues (such as growling, biting, and barking) that wouldn't be tolerated in a larger dog.

Parker probably had very little socialization as a puppy and does not even realize how wrong it is to be growling at your guests. Just stopping it and making him feel bad is not enough, as he may stop growling and instead bite a visitor without even warning them away.

How to Stop a Small Dog From Growling at Guests

Here are some tips you can use to lessen Parker's growling problem.

Have Visitors Give Treats

In order for him not to look at your guests with suspicion, have a few of his favorite treats available so that they can give him one on greeting. Parker will eventually associate strangers with something good and be less likely to growl.

Invest in Obedience Training

This is the most important part of teaching him to accept others. The training needs to be at a pet shop or a class at a park with other dog owners. Meeting more people and dogs is going to build his confidence, and he will learn to obey you at all times.

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(I also recommend asking the trainer about the AKC Canine Good Citizenship training program and how you can get Parker to join if it is available in your area.)

Emphasize Socialization Outside the House

Although he has already gone past his sensitive socialization period (up to about 16 weeks), he is not too old to learn. When you meet people on your walks each day, hand them a treat and let them give it to Parker. Growling at strangers when out for a walk may not be a problem now, but it can develop later so should be prevented before it starts.

Make Time for Plenty of Exercise

Dogs that get out of the house several times a day for long walks are much better behaved and less likely to growl or bite strangers. Even though he is small, you should take him at least three times a day if possible and walk him enough so that he is tired when he comes home.

Provide Distractions in Moderation

If you are sitting on the couch and Parker starts growling at your guest, you can clap your hands or make a noise to distract him. Do not overuse this, and try the other things on the list first.

Consider Time Outs If Necessary

I included this suggestion last because sometimes it can backfire. If he starts to growl despite training and socialization, put a leash on him and take him to another room. The time out should not be for more than 5 minutes and NOT the whole time your guest is present.

As soon as that time has passed, let him come back in. If he starts growling again, take him back to time out, but only for a few minutes. Dogs are very social and do not like to be isolated, but some dogs start to resent visitors as soon as they come into the house.

More Reasons Why Dogs Growl

Some trainers and behaviorists do not think that dogs that growl are being protective of their owners, but that they are actually afraid of most things. Here is an interesting article on reasons why dogs growl.

This article is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from your veterinarian. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2022 Dr Mark

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