Why Growling Should Never be Suppressed in Dogs
Dogs tend to avoid conflicts when feasible
Learn why growling may be a 'blessing'
When two year old Golden Retriever Rover started growling after being hugged by a child, dog owner and mom, Ann Marie decided to nip the behavior in the bud and give Rover a good scolding and a strong leash correction he will never forget. This reprimand was for the dog's own good and to protect the child, according to the owner which reported that Rover's aggressive behavior had indeed reduced and stopped from that day on.
Indeed, Rover did no longer growl 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 inside Rover's mind there was 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. Rover indeed was re-homed to a family with no children and Ann Marie still cannot seem to come to terms with the behavior.
''He was such a sweet dog.'' 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 unacceptable'' . She blows her nose and continues talking ''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.
Reasons Why 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 life saving.
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
A Closer Look into Growling
Dogs are generally conflict avoiding creatures. In a pack of wolves, for instance, 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.
Before Rover bit the child, he may likely sent warning signs that may have not been perceived by the child, nevertheless, the mother. Rover may have stiffened his body, when the child hugged him and perhaps licked his lips in a calming signal. Calming signals are signs often denoting stress manifested by dogs and studied in depth by internationally known trainer and author of the bestselling book "On Talking Terms With Dogs" Turid Rugaas.
This body language may have been the canine equivalent of a human saying ''Please don't do that, it makes me feel uncomfortable''. However, since child and mother did not know about such signs, they ignored them all together. 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 continues 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, decides to try keeping them together again. Rover acts well and no longer growls. The issue seems finally solved....
Rover though is 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 scares me''. 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, 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 he learned the hard way to stop giving advance notice of an upcoming bite but now since he was scolded 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 the aggressive dog.
How to Deal with Growling then?
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 taken care of 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, do not hug Rover, it makes him uncomfortable'' and the child stopped the hugging attempt the dog will think ''Weew, 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 training techniques. If the dog dislikes being hugged, it may 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.
Any dog owner can accomplish this if willing to lose some time on it. Safety though 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 counter conditioned to associate hugs with great things like treats, in the worst-case scenario, should the child still 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 de-sensitized to being ''huggable adults''
As seen, a dog's growl is something that should be treasured. As Pat Miller, a dog trainer with more than 35 years behind puts it "a growl is something to be greatly treasured'' ultimately goes a long way. 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
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- Signs a Dog is About to Bite
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