You freeze up, and your heart goes numb.
Your sweet, beloved dog is growling at you, your kid, or your other dog – and you fear the worst.
You fear that a devastating attack is underway. Your fear that your dog is vicious. When that growl rumbles in her throat, you can no longer recognize the loving, doting animal you brought into your home.
As human beings, fear of a growl is in our primal instincts.
When a bear growls, we run. When our very own dog growls… it’s somehow even scarier.
That’s why we react so poorly.
We never want to hear that horrible sound again, so we scold the dog.
Some misled individuals react by confronting the dog and rolling her onto her back to “put her in her place.”
These reactions come from the gut. Sometimes, they “feel” right, because they do work to make the growling stop.
But scolding or punishing a dog for growling can lead to escalated aggression. This kind of reaction causes vicious attacks, broken families, and it means good dogs get put to sleep. This is a huge problem for dog owners everywhere.
What you must understand when your dog growls
Before you can learn to react properly to a growling dog, you first need to understand why your dog has chosen to communicate this way, and what she’s trying to say when she goes, “GRRR!”
Dogs growl for many reasons.
Some growls are harmless. Your dog might growl while you’re playing tug-o-war with her. Some dogs use a variety of rumbles and grumbles to “talk” to you. Talkative dog breeds like the Siberian husky, beagle, and Shetland Shepherd are known for their playful growls and happy noises. You know your dog better than anyone, so you can probably recognize a playful growl when you hear one.
Your dog might growl when you try to take away her food or toy, especially if it’s a particularly tasty, forbidden object. This is a sign of resource guarding.
She might also growl when your cousin’s baby is hugging her too hard.
She might growl when you’re trimming her nails, or giving her a bath.
She might growl at friendly visitors who dare approach your doorstep, or at people you meet when you’re out for a walk.
In all of these cases, the growling dog is feeling fear. She’s not angry. She’s not mean. She’s still the sweet dog you know and love. She’s just trying to communicate to change a situation that makes her uncomfortable.
Never punish your dog for growling
Growling is her polite way of saying, “Please stop. Please go away. Please.”
So many of us mistakenly ignore this polite but desperate cry for help. When we punish a dog for growling, we take away her only way to communicate. She’ll stop growling, but she won’t stop feeling scared.
If she’s not permitted to warn you with a growl, she’s unable to communicate how she feels. Her fear and tension builds. She will change the situation in the only way she can: by biting whoever is near.
The correct way to react when your dog growls is stop the situation.
Give her space. Allow her to cool down.
That’s the only way to remove the fear that is causing your dog to growl.
Counter-conditioning to prevent growling
Forget about trying to make your dog stop growling.
Instead, work on the underlying problem: the fear or discomfort that makes your dog growl.
The best way to do this is to create a positive association with whatever is scaring your dog.
This needs to be done slowly, or you might make her fear stronger.
Let’s say your dog growls at your tall, bearded brother-in-law, Jack.
When your dog first sees Jack, her body may stiffen. The fur on her back may spike up, and she might stare at him. As he gets closer, she may start to growl.
You’ll want to make your dog really, really happy in that split second before she starts to stiffen up.
The very moment she lays eyes on Jack, give her something rare and delicious. Meat, of course. Some unseasoned cooked chicken will do. Praise her, and make her tail wag.
Timing is everything. You want to prevent the fear so it doesn’t happen.
You don’t want to get to a point where you over-expose your dog to Jack too soon. He may only be able to approach her from 15 feet away when she begins to stiffen up. At that point, he shouldn’t get any closer. You’ll need to end the session if your dog is getting scared. Another sign that you’re doing too much, too soon: when your dog won’t accept even the yummiest of treats.
As your dog learns to associate Jack with something yummy, you can have him get closer and closer, even tossing chicken from a distance until she’s able to eat it out of his hand without a hint of fear.
When you should use this technique
You can use the same technique as in the example with Jack as you would with anything that makes your dog fearful: the vacuum cleaner, the nail trimmer – you can even use this technique to treat and prevent resource guarding.
You should not use this technique to force your dog into uncomfortable situations.
If your dog growls when your annoying niece hugs her too hard, you need to teach your niece to be gentle.
Dogs shouldn’t have to tolerate affection they don’t want. Teach every member of your family to look for signs that your dog wants to be petted, and signs that they need space.
Lastly, don’t bite off more than you can chew. It’s easy to mess up counterconditioning if you’re not fluent in your dog’s body language. If you’re ever in even the slightest doubt about whether you can safely handle the situation, contact a professional dog trainer. It’s worth keeping you, your dog and your family safe.
Wednesday 26th of February 2020
I just adopted a 2 yr old Chihuahua ,He is a little aggressive, I can't put on his harness because he growls and barks, can't pick him up either today I dropped a piece of chicken on the floor and when I went to pick it up he bit me on the thumb. if anyone can tell me how to get a harness on him I would really appreciate knowing. Thank You
Tuesday 25th of June 2019
My 3 yr old Jack Russell growls when tired, he didn't appear sleepy this AM after he ate and when I picked him up off the couch to take him outside to go to the bathroom, he gave a small growl and stiffened up. I should have been paying more attention to his signals, but to calm him down, I leaned in to kiss him on the cheek and he nipped me. Didn't break the skin, but I am absolutely devastated. If I didn't go in for the kiss, this wouldn't have happened.
When he growls like that, is it best to just walk away? I don't want him to get the idea that he can get his way whenever he growls.
He doesn't growl with his food, he does get mad when he has a toy that he doesn't want to share with my other JRT, but this isn't something that always happens. They play together often and sometimes share the same toy doing a tug of war. If we see signs of aggression, we take the toy away and all is fine.
Please help, I love my little guy & don't want to be scared of him.
Thursday 27th of June 2019
Oh no! I'm so sorry to hear that Gina, it's awful to feel afraid of your own dog.
He could have been tired, he might have even been a little sore from playing too rough the day before, so when it comes down to it... you really do want your dog to be able to communicate when he doesn't want to be picked up. That means you really do have to just walk away when he growls.
In the meantime, I'd really suggest seeking a trainer or behaviorist, once a dog does get close to biting, there's always a chance of making it worse, unfortunately, without professional help. I'd suggest going through the APDT website to find someone reputable.
Tuesday 8th of May 2018
Any tips for a dog who growls almost constantly at everything and nothing at all? He growls at birds he hears outside, dogs far in the distance, growls and barks at the TV, when everyone is completely still and the only sound is music playing, barks when someone sets their phone down on the table, etc., etc.
3 Steps To Getting Your Dog To Share Toys With You - Little Dog Tips
Tuesday 30th of May 2017
[…] give them reasons to share, or play with another toy to show them what they’re missing. Possessive aggression can be a serious problem, but a polite growl is nothing to worry […]
Sunday 3rd of July 2016
I was so happy while reading this article!! In my opinion, this is one of the most valuable pieces of information you can give to dog owners! Majority of people who own dogs, even experienced dog owners, still punish their dogs for growling. It is so, so important to not do this. This blog is extremely informative and very well written. Awesome job!