Why Growling is Good

October 22, 2013

Bodhi growls at Sierra crop small copyA woman I sometimes chat with during my morning dog outings asked my opinion about an encounter she recently had. She’d been been walking her four-year-old mixed breed dog around a local park when she crossed paths with a man whose dog was off leash. As the owners walked toward each other on the narrow trail, the foot loose and fancy-free puppy ran up to the adult dog. With the usual lack of canine cluelessness that accompanies early dogdom, the pup leaped at the dog relentlessly in an attempt to initiate play. The woman’s dog, while not aggressive, did not want to be bothered. He growled. The puppy didn’t back off, and again tried to engage the older dog. The dog growled louder. The man made no attempt to put his dog on leash. The woman, feeling embarrassed that her dog had growled, ended up apologizing to the man and walking her dog away.

The adult dog’s hackles might not have been up during the encounter, but mine certainly were. The woman’s dog had done nothing wrong. She had nothing to apologize for! Growling is a perfectly acceptable canine warning. It’s a dog’s way of saying, “Hey, I don’t like that,” “Don’t come any closer!” or “Please stop what you’re doing.” Being on leash, the adult dog didn’t have the option to leave. He could certainly have snapped at the puppy, or worse. But instead, he gave an appropriate warning. That the puppy didn’t buy a vowel, get a clue, and understand what was being spelled out was a problem, so the dog growled louder. Hopefully that puppy will learn to back off when adult dogs warn him away, before his puppy license expires and an adult dog cleans his clock. And hopefully the man will learn to leash his dog when encountering others.

Understanding that a growl is a threat is hard-wired in humans, so it’s reasonable and even advantageous that we become upset when we hear one. But a growl from a dog is actually a good thing. I’m not suggesting that it’s a good thing for a dog to growl at his owner, but growling is a non-aggressive form of communication. Think about it. If someone kept shoving into you on line at the post office, you’d eventually say something like, “Excuse you!” But what if you didn’t have a way to warn the person that you were getting irritated? Eventually, you’d have to resort to either leaving, or physically getting your point across. Whether a dog is growling at another dog or a person, it’s simply a warning. If the dog wanted to attack, he would have. Growling is meant to avert aggression, not cause it. But people misunderstand, and punish dogs for growling. A dog then learns that growling leads to being punished and, unfortunately, once his early warning system has been removed, the dog is likely to begin biting with no warning. As a trainer, I’ve seen many dogs like that over the years and believe me, they’re no fun to rehabilitate.

If a dog is growling at you, whether the dog belongs to you or someone else, the best course of action at the moment is to defuse the situation. After all, the dog’s arousal level is already elevated. You don’t want to shout or worse, get physical, as those things could lead to a bite. Instead, glance down and to the side (this tells the dog you’re not a threat while allowing you to keep him in your peripheral vision) and back away slowly. Don’t turn your back on the dog if you can help it, as some dogs are more prone to attack from the rear. If the dog in question is your own, address the situation that caused the growling—for example, food guarding—at another time when your dog is calm, with the assistance of a professional trainer if necessary. Remember, growling is simply communication. If we take a moment to assess why a dog is growling instead of automatically taking the attitude that he’s behaving inappropriately, we will react appropriately ourselves.

My full day seminar “Talk to the Paw! Understanding What Dogs are Saying–and What We’re Saying to Them” is now available on DVD! Click here to check it out!.


Is Your Dog Who You Thought He’d Be?

October 14, 2013

under tree limb portrait small copyLast night, in a jet lag induced bout of sleeplessness, I watched a Sex and the City marathon. Somewhere in the midst of this guilty pleasure, Carrie or one of the other girls (I can’t be sure—it was 3 a.m.) opined that we might all be better off if we didn’t bring so many expectations into our relationships. Naturally, this made me think of dogs.

In some cases, strict requirements are understandable. Nancy, a trainer, got a dog specifically to do agility. An experienced competitor, she has a high skill level and knows what types of dogs excel at the sport. Not only did the dog have to be nimble and built for speed, but he also had to have certain traits including the ability to focus and the strong motivation that’s often referred to as drive. On the other hand, Sue, a retired woman in her late sixties, spends most of her time at home and wanted a dog for company. She didn’t care much what the dog looked like, or even the breed or age. She just wanted a smallish dog who would cuddle with her at night and not need too much exercise during the day. Nancy’s final choice of a young, intense border collie would not have made Sue any happier than Sue’s eventual adoptee, a sweet, calm, mixed breed senior, would have made Nancy.

For Nancy and Sue, the dogs really did need to meet specific expectations. But most adopters, whether an individual or a family, are simply looking for a dog to fit into their homes and lives without too much trouble. They typically envision an affectionate dog who’s fairly easy to train, won’t make major demands on their lifestyle, and is friendly with the family and visitors. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, really, who goes looking for a dog with baggage? Who wants a long-term project? Regardless, sometimes that’s exactly what happens.

My own dogs are both shelter rescues we adopted a few months apart. You might think I wouldn’t care much whether a dog has major issues, since as a trainer and behavior specialist, I know how to fix them. Wrong! Even professionals need a break now and then. My last two dogs were much loved but had their own issues—one with fear and the other, aggression—and I longed for an easier dog. As it turned out, Sierra, who came to us at around age two, had a wicked case of separation anxiety. Bodhi, who was allegedly two but turned out to be closer to one, was steeped in the hormones and outrageous behavior of adolescence. He was a handful and a half; rowdy, destructive, reactive toward other dogs, no manners…I could go on. Suffice it to say that despite careful screening (I still believe that he walked quietly past other dogs during his in-shelter temperament test chanting, I will hold it together until I get adopted, I will…) neither dog turned out to be quite what I was expecting. Working through their issues was challenging at times, but eventually, things resolved. Are they absolutely perfect now? Nope. Who is? Still, I wouldn’t trade either of them for the world.

So what can you do if your dog turns out to be very different than what you were hoping? First, unless you’re an experienced trainer yourself, hire one. (The Association of Professional Dog Trainers’ website is a great place to start your search.) Unless there’s an issue such as major aggression toward a child or some other deal-breaker, be patient and work at it. In the end, sometimes the best course is to change what you can, and then accept and appreciate the being for who he is. I’m sure Carrie Bradshaw would agree.

Should You Always Eat Before Your Dog?

October 1, 2013

dog dish istockphoto cropPick up ten books on dog training and you’ll find ten different opinions: you should always eat before your dog; dogs should never be allowed to sleep on your bed; you should always go out of doorways before your dog; and, you should never let your dog walk ahead of you on leash. That’s an awful lot of “always” and “nevers.” And they all have one thing in common: they’re meant to teach your dog who’s in charge.

I just finished feeding my dogs. I haven’t eaten yet. Are my dogs gleefully celebrating this obvious clue that they’re about to inherit the kingdom? I doubt it. It might shock you to know that at my house—the house of a professional canine behavior specialist—my dogs often eat before I do. And, hold on to your hats, they sometimes go out doorways first. Sometimes—gasp!—they even walk ahead of me on leash. The trick is, it’s up to me when those things happen. If I open the back door of the house, I don’t mind if my dogs race out ahead. That is, most of the time I don’t mind. If I’ve got something in my hands or there’s another reason I want to exit first, I’ll give them a cue to wait, or let them know with my body language to hang back. But when we’re going out the front door for walks, all bets are off. I expect them to sit on a mat and wait until I’ve clipped their leashes on, and then wait until I open the door, look around, and give the release word. The routine never varies, as we have rattlesnakes out here and I do a careful porch scan each and every time before we go out.

Everyone’s rules will be different, based on their lifestyle and needs. It doesn’t matter what your house rules are, so long as you have them. Just as one parent’s mandates on curfews or borrowing the car will differ from another’s, some owners allow their dogs to sleep on their bed, while others don’t. Although our dogs aren’t allowed in our bedroom at all (my husband’s choice), I don’t have a problem with anyone’s dogs sleeping on their bed so long as there’s no aggression or related behavior issues, the dog is invited up, and there’s no snarkiness when they’re asked to get down.

Rules and boundaries are important, but some people are just working too hard. A man who emailed me years ago always spit in his dog’s food before serving it, to prove he was boss. (All I can think of is that dog’s incredulous expression and the canine equivalent of “Eeuuuu!”) A woman I know of always chews a cracker before feeding her dogs to show she’s eaten first and is therefore in charge. The thing is, we’re the ones with the opposable thumbs, therefore we control all the good stuff. We can open doors; clip on leashes for walks; open containers of food and treats; and a lot more. Sure, I eat before my dogs do—sometimes. Our dogs are allowed on the couch, but only when I’ve put a large, woven blanket over it first. Those are our choices, and the way we run our home. Your mileage will vary. But don’t believe all of those “you musts” that are still floating around out there. You absolutely should be the one in charge, but it’s not about following someone else’s ideas of what’s right for all dogs. It’s about setting your own rules, creating boundaries, and teaching your dog to respect them. 

You can find Nicole’s books, DVDs and more on http://www.nicolewilde.com.

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