Adrienne is a certified professional dog trainer, dog behavior consultant and former veterinarian assistant for an AAHA animal hospital.
A Closer Look Into Why Dogs Growl
Dogs growl mainly because they are conflict avoiding creatures. If we take a look into the behavior of their ancestors, we will notice how, in a pack of wolves, spending time on fighting with other pack members is a total loss of energy that it is simply not worth the hassle.
Energy must be saved for more important functions such as hunting or taking care of a litter of pups.
Dogs therefore tend to avoid conflict by using body postures and vocalizations. Most dogs know what these signs mean and stay clear out of trouble thanks to them.
Growling is a dog's way of "using his words." It's the canine equivalent of a human saying ''Please don't do that, it makes me feel uncomfortable."
However, it's unfortunate, that, in many cases, a dog's growl goes ignored, or worse it may be punished.
Case Study: A Dog Being Punished for Growling
When a two-year-old Golden Retriever named Rover started growling after being hugged by a child, Rover's owner decided to nip the behavior in the bud and give Rover a good scolding and a strong leash correction "he would never forget."
This reprimand was for the dog's own good and to protect the child, according to the owner who claimed that the dog's growling behavior had reduced and stopped from that day on.
Indeed, Rover no longer growled at the child and Ann Marie carried on thinking that everything was back to normal. She kept a good eye on the dog and child for a while and after a month with no incident, she gave Rover some trust back.
She did not know though that deep inside Rover's mind there were still some big conflicts going on, and that she had only ultimately dealt with the tip of an iceberg.
One day, the child came back from school and seeing Rover wagging its tails and acting all friendly, he decided to give Rover a big hug wrapping his arms around him and giving a nice kiss between the dog's forehead. Little did he know though that that day would have turned into a memorable one.
Upon kissing the dog, the dog quickly reacts and bites the child on the face. No skin was actually broken but a few teeth marks were left, leaving a memorable emotional scar that could never be removed.
''He was such a sweet dog as a puppy!'' she explains, tears in her eyes and a little bit of denial. ''He loved the kid and played with him but to bite like that with no warning is totally unacceptable."
She blows her nose and continues, ''The dog is no longer safe and I could not forgive myself if he would hurt my child one more time."
Most people would normally understand the situation. Rover had proved himself not to be a safe dog around children. Yet, the mom missed one big, crucial, point.
Indeed her actions could have led to the very bite if only she knew a bit more about dog psychology.
Many Dogs Do Not Like to Be Hugged and Kissed
Studies have shown that bending over a dog, putting the face close to the dog's face and making eye contact (all behaviors taking place when kissing a dog), often led to bites directed towards the central area of the face.
Sadly, according to a study, more than two thirds of the victims were children. Young children often perceive dogs as stuffed animals. They want to hug them and smooch them as they do with their toys.
Back to the case study, since child and mother did not know about warning signs of a dog feeling uncomfortable, they ignored them all together. So they failed to see early warning signs such as the dog freezing, getting tense, lip licking and turning the head upon being hugged.
Feelings of Tension Building Up
Rover though did not forget about the experience. Indeed, as time went by, he grew more and more stressed. Many dogs indeed do not tolerate hugs very well as they are not part of their communication. Some feel quite threatened by them and become quite defensive.
So the child continued to hug the dog until the dog emits that growling sound that alerts the mom. As mentioned earlier, she grabs Rover from the collar and scolds him heavily.
She keeps child and dog away from each other for some time and then perhaps feeling sorry for the child asking repeatedly for the dog, so she decides to try keeping them together again. Rover acts well and no longer growls. The issue seems finally solved.
Rover though becomes more and more uncomfortable and stressed. You could almost hear him saying: ''Please, I feel very uncomfortable between your arms, please don't do that, it really makes me uncomfortable''.
However, the growling is not a very rational response from a dog, it is rather quite innate. A sort of primal form of self defense. In some way similar to our reaction if somebody gets in our face suddenly startling us and causing us to become ''defensive''.
So deprived of his most useful warning sign, his growl, he must go to one of his rarely used, ultimate last arm of defense: a warning bite. This is not a bite that breaks the skin, but a bite that warns, that comes out because other signs were ignored.
It's a dog's way of saying ''I really tried hard to warn you, but I had to do this to make you understand, this is my wake-up call, don't make me go beyond this point''.
Not only has the dog learned the hard way to stop giving advance notice of an upcoming bite (the growling), but now since he was punished when nearby the child, he may even start thinking that being close to the child actually causes bad things to happen. So the stress builds on more. Welcome to the world of an aggressive dog.
Growling May Be a Blessing
Of course, Rover could no longer be trusted among children, but the situation could have been prevented from escalating in such a way.
Dog owners often do not realize that reprimanding a dog for growling is like telling the dog ''Do not bother to warn you are about to bite next time, just do it.'' Indeed, punishing a growling dog, simply put, is depriving owners from a very important sign that can prove lifesaving.
Growling Allows Dogs to Communicate Stress
If you punish your dog for growling, the dog very likely will learn that growling is not accepted. This may sound like a good thing when it is not. The dog's underlying level of stress is still not addressed, all that is ultimately addressed is purely the silver casing.
The dog's emotions causing the stress in the first place are ignored and more trouble will eventually pop up one day.
Indeed, by punishing a growling dog, owners are not only depriving a dog from a very important warning tool, but are also proving to the dog that the owner is unreliable and unpredictable, significantly increasing the level of stress in the dog.
More stress does not solve the problem, and next time the dog encounters the same situation he may appear to be OK with the situation when he is not.
Eventually, a bite will come and this time there will be no advance warning. It will come straight and mean to the owner's eyes.
How to Deal With Growling
It is very helpful to recognize early warning signs of stress and remove the dog from the stressful situation. If the dog owner recognizes for instance, that touching the head, neck and shoulder area of a dog is too much, removing him from the situation may prevent an ugly case from going forward.
Yes, removing him may reward the behavior but this will be addressed later on.
Taking him away from the situation may cause your dog to think ''OK, growling worked, good to use it next time again."
Indeed, if the mom told the child upon hearing the dog growl: '' Sweet heart, please do not hug Rover, it makes him uncomfortable'' and the child stopped the hugging attempt, the dog will think ''Phew! That growl sure worked in keeping those arms away from me, a good strategy to continue''.
But a good dog owner will put the dog up for success while ensuring the safety of the child. Close supervision is a must with children and dogs, and no child should be left with a dog unsupervised.
While hugging a dog is not recommended, the dog may be conditioned to accept it though effective counterconditioning techniques carried out under the guidance of a dog behavior professional.
If the dog dislikes being hugged, it may therefore help to touch the dog's neck slightly and give a treat. Pat the dog's head and give a treat. Place an arm on the dog's shoulder and then give a treat and so forth, in a step by step approach performed on a routine basis for days, weeks or months. Eventually the dog will learn that great things happen upon being hugged. Ideally, this should be done when the dog is a puppy.
Any dog owner can accomplish this, but safety should be top priority and rushing is out of question. Guidance from a dog behavior professional is a must before engaging in such training.
The use of a muzzle may help but the muzzle shouldn't mean that you can relax and subject the dog to anything that makes him uncomfortable.
While a child must be taught that hugging makes the dog uncomfortable, if the dog is counterconditioned to associate hugs with great things like treats, in the worst-case scenario, should the child still happen to hug, there are good chances nothing will happen.
The same approach can be gradually applied to dogs who growl upon having their paws touched, nails clipped, and so forth.
This method if applied correctly should work deep inside the dog's mind and change the dog's emotional state which is what one wants to overcome serious issues as these.
Some puppy classes, indeed have decided to incorporate ''hugging time'' in their program so puppies are desensitized and counterconditioned to being ''huggable adults.''
As seen, a dog's growl is something that should be treasured. Dog owners indeed should be thankful dogs have been equipped with such means to avoid conflicts.
Listen to your dog and give him a chance to prove himself worthy of living with you if only you can understand him better and address issues before they are given the opportunity to escalate.
Disclaimer: if your dog is experiencing behavioral problems, please report to a professional dog behaviorist. Make safety your top priority and do not attempt fixing behavioral problems on your own.
For Further Reading
- Why Dogs Do Not Like to be Hugged
why dogs dislike hugs, a farricelli Humans appear to love to hug anybody they love: we hug our spouses, we hug our kids, we ultimately hug anybody we ultimately care about. It comes natural therefore to want...
- Warning Signs of Potentially Dangerous and Aggressiv...
Fodd Many times dogs owners are faced with behaviors from their canine friends that are a bit far from what would be expected from ''man's best friend''. Such behavior issues are often ignored or excused with...
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2010 Adrienne Farricelli
Christopher Smith on March 18, 2020:
My lab/ great dane mix has started growling at my wife when she tries to get her to go outside. What could be causing this? Sh3 doesn't growl at me when I do the same thing.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 27, 2014:
This hub isn't about dogs who bite but dogs who growl and are punished for growling. Those same methods you suggest to teach a dog to be submissive is often what triggers the biting in the first place. Yes, many people make wrong choices, but there is no such thing as a 100 percent safe dog. If a person thinks there's such a thing as a dog that is 100 percent safe and will take anything from a child, better play it safe and get a stuffed animal instead. And trust me, I have seen many dogs who were taught to be "so called submissive" that had a breaking point and ended up biting "out of the blue" because behaviors were suppressed (no more warning) rather than addressed.
Kidslibrarian on October 27, 2014:
BS a dog that bites a child who hugs it has no place in a family. I can't believe the stupidity by so called "dog lovers" who don't select the right kinds of dogs for the right circumstances. Teaching a dog that he or she is submissive in family situations is not wrong if it is consistent. It is how they communicate.
cosplay on August 05, 2010:
Enough, I enjoyed your article and will read more, I have considered writing a few, it looks like you have a great start on the topics. Thanks, 50
50 Caliber from Arizona on August 04, 2010:
alexadry, kudos on an informative article. I interact with many breeds and run a self supported shelter for "dumped" dogs. Living down a 15 mile stretch of dirt road, I get a fair amount of dogs and have 15 almost at any given time. I see all types of behavior issues, most are PTSD dogs that take different measures to make them ready for re-introduction to new homes. I have 3 female German Rottweilers that live with me. All sheltered dogs have access to the "great room" of the house but not all of the house. I find it most important to people choosing dogs to find a match for their needs, as well as learn to treat a dog like a dog and not a human. I have to admit my Rotty's are spoiled, but they are dogs and we have a pecking order with me being the alpha dog.
Enough, I enjoyed your article and will read more, I have considered writing a few, it looks like you have a great start on the topics. Thanks, 50
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 04, 2010:
Yes, indeed a wrote a whole hub on the issue of hugging:
Barbara Badder from USA on August 03, 2010:
This is a good hub. We reprimand our dog when he growls at other dogs. Maybe we need to stop. I have heard that someone hugging a dog can be seen by the dog as an aggressive gesture. We have 3 dogs and one of them doesn't like to be hugged.
India Arnold from Northern, California on August 03, 2010:
Animal behavior is treasured information for the pet owner. This hub covers a truly un-noticed dog behavior-trigger that may easily be revised when understood by the human. You are a delight to read and learn from. Dog owners owe you a tribute to the welfair of the pet as much as to the human safety issue.
As always, well done!
valeriebelew from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA on August 03, 2010:
Great dog information about understanding dog communication. I have four of the little darlings, and they do communicate if you are able to understand them. (:v
Sweetsusieg from Michigan on August 02, 2010:
GREAT HUB!!! I have spent my life as a parent and dog lover being a mediator between the two, trying to teach my children to respect dogs and not harm them in anyway. Thanks for the insightful info!! I will be sure to keep what you have said in mind.
Anne-Marie from Montreal on August 02, 2010:
I just love your hubs :)
Corin on August 01, 2010:
A very informative and useful hub. I love dogs, I began with one and now I have four : with all the time I spend with them, I learn to understand their behavior. You give really good advises. Rated you up.
Darlene Sabella from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ... on August 01, 2010:
This is an excellent hub, and being a personn that understands dog talk, this is great advise and I hope more folks read this to learn about their pets mental health. Thumbs up...