Why Growling is Good

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!.


87 Responses to Why Growling is Good

  1. Kuruk says:

    I only growl if I need to protect my Mama! Woooooowoooooo!

  2. Ivonne says:

    LOVE this blog. Exactly my sentiment. I actually tell my students that I love growls because they are a precious warning that we must maintain and respect. Thanks for explaining it so nicely!

  3. I agree that we should say thanks for the growl and respect what the dog is telling us. Dr. Ian Dunbar said that punishing the growl is like removing the ticker from a time bomb!

  4. Exactly! I learned that a couple years ago and now I tell anyone that will listen that it is a warning and teaches you something about that dog at that moment. Good article!!

  5. Thia says:

    Let me get this right, If my dog is growling at me I should look down and walk away ?

    • philospher77 says:

      Yes, at that time. Then you need to consider the situation and figure out what you can work on to reduce the likelihood of it happening again. Does your dog have a resource guarding issue? Is he reactive to other dogs? Uncomfortable with small children in his bed? Once you have identified the cause of the growling, you can work on counter- conditioning or management techniques.

      • Katjia says:

        My great Dane hates being woke up or asked to move off the couch or my feet when I’m sleeping, he growls very loudly. I had a trainer suggest I take the leader of the pack role and place my hand on his scruff and hold his neck down and tell him no, would you suggest your technique instead?

    • wildewmn says:

      Actually, I could have made that part clearer. The backing away slowly applies to an unfamiliar dog growling at you. But still, if it is your dog, I do NOT recommend getting physical with him for growling. You might instead look disgusted, give a sigh or an “I can’t believe you did that” look, and walk away. Then work on the underlying problem when you’re both calmer.

  6. Angie says:

    What about barking at other dogs when passing them at a park? And straining at the leash?

  7. Chris Vereide says:

    Great article! I hope the people who correct their dogs for growling read this article and start dealing with it in a different way.

    • Evelyn Haskins says:

      The trouble is, I think, that any eople feel embarrassedwhen their dog baks or growls and feel that other peple EXPECT them to chastise their dogs.

      I have told people that their obligation is to their dog, NOT to avoid embarrassment. If it worries otehr pople to see you praising your dog for growling (rher than lunging withoout warning) that it THEIR problem.

  8. Cory says:

    I have a pack of dogs at my house (6 total). I am the human alpha and I growl at them to get them to submit to me when a issue arrives. I treat them just like the alpha in a wolf pack would and believe it or not it works wonders. I have 4 English mastiffs and a lab/beagle and a austrailian cattle dog. It works for all of them. I rarely have to raise my voice or correct them. I just use different growls and if I am really serious I can show my teeth and then they roll over and show thier bellies to me, which in the canine world is total submission……..I have never hit one or never would. This works for me. Pack mentality.

    • Matisse says:

      Hey Cory… You do realise that the ‘alpha’ isn’t actually the pack leader? It’s the mating pair… So if you want to be pack leader – well, there’s laws against that, fortunately. Actually, I’m slightly disturbed that you seem to be acting out the antithesis of anthropomorphism in some sick ego feeding exercise. Why do you dogs have to totally submit to you? Get training them to offer behaviours because it’s rewarding, not because the crazy human is emanating unpleasantness. They know you aren’t a dog, so stop kidding yourself you’re a good one.

      • Alpha is leader! as in this pack of wolves is lead by this Alpha male! Or this Alpha female! The pair can be called and Alpha pair but that would mean more then one pair in a pack and that does not happen most of the time. In most packs the Male is Alpha and his mate is Beta. Lowest rank adult is Omega. I know this because I have had wolf mixes for almost 20 years and I read and I watch tv. Look it up. as in….In social animals, the alpha is the individual in the community with the highest rank. Male or female individuals or both can be alphas, depending on their species. Where one male and one female fulfill this role, they are referred to as the alpha pair. Other animals in the same social group may exhibit deference or other symbolic signs of respect particular to their species towards the alpha or alphas. also as in……Beta animals often act as second-in-command to the reigning alpha or alphas and will act as new alpha animals if an alpha dies or is otherwise no longer considered an alpha.[original research?] In some species of birds, males pair up in twos when courting, the beta male aiding the alpha male. The beta male is not generally allowed to mate with the female, but if the old alpha is removed or dies, he takes over the alpha’s females, becoming the new alpha.[citation needed] It has been found that the social context of the animals has a significant impact on courtship behavior and the overall reproductive success of that animal.[2]
        Omega (usually rendered ω) is an antonym used to refer to the lowest caste of the hierarchical society. Omega animals are subordinate to all others in the community, and are expected by others in the group to remain submissive to everyone. Omega animals may also be used as communal scapegoats or outlets for frustration, or given the lowest priority when distributing food.

      • wildewmn says:

        Francine, a lot has changed in the understanding of the “alpha” concept in the last 35 years. David Mech, for anyone who isn’t familiar, is an internationally recognized wolf expert, top in his field. He is also the author of a seminal book called “The Wolf,” where he coined the term “alpha.” Since that time, even Mech says the term “alpha” is incorrect in wild wolf packs. While he does admit that in an artificial pack, meaning someone keeping unrelated wolves in captivity, a dominance hierarchy is formed and you could certainly use “alpha” for the leader who emerges. So yes, among captive wolves there would be an alpha. We, however, are not wolves. In a *family* situation, which is what we have in an artificially created situation where a person keeps wolves, the person should certainly be in charge. However, the old alpha pack mentality does not really serve, as it opens the door for all sorts of ridiculous behavior people perform to keep their wolves in line, like alpha rolls, etc., with the excuse that that’s what wolves do to each other. Again, we are not wolves. I would suggest that anyone interested in this topic watch this short video of David Mech discussing the alpha concept: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNtFgdwTsbU

        Edit: Correction, sorry, the term “alpha” was originally coined by Rudolph Schenkel, who did the original studies that Mech’s original work was based on. Mech popularized it, though.

      • So in an artificial pack there is an alpha, when we combine dogs and people is that not an artificial pack, my dog and I are we not a

      • wildewmn says:

        Richard, let’s get rid of the terms “pack” and “alpha” for a moment, as they are so charged. Let’s say there is a group living together, of two different species. Within the one species (the wolves, or the dogs) there will be one who is the leader among them. (This is what would correctly be referred to as “alpha.”) Then you have the human, who cares for the group, hands out the food, makes the rules, etc. Clearly, that person is in charge of both species. No one is debating that. But there is not technically an “alpha” in a group of two different species. It is important for scientific terms to be used correctly, even though terms like “pack” and “alpha” have become such common vernacular that they are tossed around and used to the debater’s advantage. My problem with people, especially those in the wolf/wolfdog world, getting so caught up in being the “pack mentality” and how they mistakenly believe wolves behave in the wild is that it is often an excuse for behavior like alpha rolls that they mistakenly believe wolves do to each other. (That’s a whole other blog post.) Hope that helps to clarify.

        Here is a quote from an article David Mech wrote in 2008: Hopefully it will take fewer than 20 years for the media and the public to fully adopt the correct terminology and thus to once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack. You can read the full article at http://www.wolf.org/wolves/news/pdf/winter2008.pdf

        I allowed these comments because I feel the issue is an important one, but as this conversation has strayed far from the original content of the blog, I will end this thread here.

      • I agree we need to use the terms correctly, important in educating others, I tend to use the phrase “dominant role”, and I do believe that it is essential in training a dog, just like staying calm and relaxed. I have used the term Alpha as it is a word that most understand but I always add “calm & no anger”. Most people know the word Alpha from the bible, meaning the only one in charge and I do believe that is how most people use the word. Emotions and feelings in animals, I feel, can not be described by one word, they are just too complex. Thanks for your response.

    • Whinny says:

      Absolutely a great way to train them! Works with other animals as well such as my horses. They learn to respect their fellow herd mates and will defer to you as the leader. Great job Cory!

    • Lynnette says:

      I agree, Cory. I once trained with an excellent trainer who always said that you must communicate with the dog ih a way that he can understand. Anyone with multiple dogs can observe and see for themselves that the pack leader is the LEADER — the one who is the most confident and who LEADS the others. The pack leader makes the decisions and is the one the others look to in a bad situation. Our trainer taught me to stand up straight, be decisive, don’t baby talk, and keep commands short and clear. I don’t growl because we are in public a lot and it would scare people. However, I make my thoughts known in clear, simple responses my dogs can understand. My dogs hear lots of “good work!” in a happy tone of voice. However, when my youngest dog barked in a retail store, I turned to her with a horrified, “Noooo. We do not bark in a store.” I put so much drama into it that bystanders giggled, but she got it. That is a tone of voice she almost never hears and she knew it meant that the pack leader was not okay with store barking. She has never done it since. As my trainer often pointed out, dogs who have no leader to submit to feel insecure and vulnerable. There is, of course, nothing wrong with submission. It is an acknowledgement that the leader is in charge. Since the human is the one who knows about cars, hazardous food lying on the ground, risky strangers, etc., the dog that submits to the human pack leader is the dog who is safe.

      • Everything you do with your dog is a chance to educate your dog! There are many people who have told me that you should NEVER play tug of war with your dog. What a great opportunity to teach your dog to never touch with their teeth, to release, stop on command. Being your dog’s leader this is possible and easy and enforces your leadership. If you are not the leader you will have problems and get frustrated.

      • Oh yea…getting old forgot the main reason for my comment, tug of war is a great exercise to also teach your dog to growl, while playing with your dog and it will not growl in fun, growl at him followed by a laugh, dogs understand laughter, this will help the dog get it’s growl back. You must be in charge and the dog must follow all the rules of the game.

      • Meira Frankl says:

        Our dogs are smart enough to know that we’re not dogs. We don’t have reflexes that are fast enough, nor do we have ears, tails, and fur (piloerection) for our dogs to ever mistake us for fellow dogs. No matter how hard we’d try, we’d come across as so clumsy.

        We’ve been breeding dogs for over 15 thousand years to work with and for us….they’ve been bred to pay attention to us and our body language.

        As others have mentioned, we’ve come a long, long way in the last 40 years, and the pack leader rules, as well as dogs being pack animals, as well as dominance theory have been debunked by science time and time again.

        We, as humans are far more obsessed with dominance than any dog is. They aren’t out for world domination. They are actually peace keepers….always looking to resolve a situation.

        Happy learning. 🙂

      • wildewmn says:

        Meira, very well said! Exactly, dogs want to avoid conflict, not cause or escalate it.

        On the bright side, all of this talk about pack theory and dominance has inspired my blog for next week. Stay tuned. 😉

      • Julie Ward says:

        meira, I’ve often pondered if our dogs are baffled by us. they look at us and they see us as moving painfully slow, we have substandard hearing, our olfactory senses are laughable and our teeth couldn’t bring down prey bigger than a lizard, YET, despite all of this, we seem to be such successful providers! dinner bowls get filled twice a day with really good stuff! it must make them wonder how we manage.

    • Kovari Shera says:

      Great job Cory!!!! I have 5 wolfdogs and do the same thing.

      • Please read the replies to Cory’s email. The information he provides on wolf pack order has been debunked years ago. It is outdated and pop science. I am a biologist. I have read the literature. Dogs know we aren’t dogs. We don’t need to growl at them. That is just silly.

      • threenorns says:

        “dogs know we’re not human” so there’s no need to growl.

        would you continue to speak english to someone who only speaks russian?

    • wildewmn says:

      To Cory (and all those who replied under his comment),

      I am aware that the “pack mentality” philosophy is alive and well in our dog (and especially wolfdog) culture. I don’t doubt that you all have a good relationships with your dogs. But you should not need to growl at your dogs to establish that you are the leader.

      Dogs live with us in family units, not packs. Your parents were automatically the leaders when you grew up, since they controlled all the resources and were able to influence your actions to a great extent. It’s the same with our dogs. If you look at the wolf research where most of this started, even David Mech and others have changed their philosophy.

      You might find this TIME Magazine article interesting: http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2007250,00.html

      Take care,

      • philospher77 says:


        One of the things I have wondered about when considering dominance theory is whether a dog leads because its the most dominant, or if a dog winds up being a leader because all the others choose to follow. I got to wondering this when watching Meerkat Manor (acknowledging, of course, that meerkats aren’t dogs and dogs aren’t wolves), where they had a season following a band of meerkats that had lost their dominant female, who is the linchpin of a meerkat group. There were two females that were competing to become the new dominant female, and what struck me was that, at the end of the day, the one that won the role did so simply because the others followed where she went, and not where the other one did. It wasn’t that the dominant female beat up the others, or chased off the rival, or really did anything obvious to say “Hey.. follow me cause I’m the best”.

        I ponder this, because I know that there are cases where dogs seem to be in control of families, but they are perfectly happy to give up that control when someone else steps into the leader role.

        So… is dominance something an animal seeks, or something that is basically forced upon it by everyone else deferring?

      • wildewmn says:

        Interesting question. Dogs or wolves who are dominant, the ones others follow, do not beat up on the others or use excessive force to prove their status. In fact, it is middle-rankers in the pack who usually squabble. So I would say dogs follow the “leader” because they show natural leadership qualities. Dogs in families with humans is a different issue since you’ve got different species involved, but dogs are normally pretty happy to have a person in charge as long as that person is a real true leader and not someone using physical force, being a bully, etc.

      • threenorns says:

        THANK YOU!

        that’s what i’ve been telling ppl because, anthropomorphism or not, dealing with my dog is *precisely* and *exactly* how it was dealing with my youngest daughter when she was unable to effectively communicate in english.

        literally no difference.

        even now, when she’s six years old, we’re in the middle of a parenting course that is teaching us operant conditioning to help control and eventually eliminate her raging tantrums (she is high-functioning autistic) and it is EXACTLY the same principal: reward good behaviour, ignore or punish bad behaviour as appropriate (iow, ignore it if she’s yelling but if she’s throwing things at people or trying to run into the road, she needs to go on a time-out or have privileges removed).

        that’s why when i say i’m dandy’s “mum”, i mean literally and precisely that.

    • Evelyn Haskins says:

      I prefer to use the ‘human’ term. Boss.

      I am the boss when it comes to my dogs. They know it, but it has little if any relevance to their own social arrangements.

  9. Saeed says:

    Very true, great article!

  10. bron says:

    Question…I’ve been trying to knock barking out of my dog. A behaviourist said that you say “thank you” or “OK” to the first bark, (because its warning of perceived danger), check what he is barking at with the second bark and isolate with any subsequent. This is to teach the dog that you are in charge (pack leader). So…my dog has stopped barking when neighbors walk or drive past and started growling instead. This is different than what you are talking about here isn’t it? or should i allow her to growl at the cars/people through the window?

    • Evelyn Haskins says:

      Dunno. But it sounds to me as thugh she is merely trying to tell you tht there are people passing by. in which case I would continue ‘noticing ‘ people, describe the people to your dog.

      I have one dog who has ALWAYS barked her great big boney (she takes after her dad) head off. I have finally realised that she is mererly shouting “HELLO! HELLO! HOW ARE YOU THIS FINE DAY!” IF I’d realised that when she was young I might have been able to moderate the volume — as it is I now shout with her!!

      (It does tend to calm visitors 🙂 And still scares off the baddies! Except I don’t shout at them, so Pearl keeps going.)

      • bron says:

        How funny, her name is Pearl as well! Its not so much hello as Oy! I’m here and this is MY pad so just know that i’m keeping an eye on you. But the neighbours walking down our street don’t like it so much….hence trying to being the volume and frequency down…. 🙂

  11. Bobbie says:

    I had the exact opposite experience: a gsd puppy on leash on the trail who lay down when she saw an adult dog off leash approaching. The adult walked up to her growliing and stood there, continuing to growl, until the owner finally showed up and took it away. In this case, the owner of the growling dog was right to apologize, which he did.

  12. Ouiseau says:

    My newfies growl all the time and are communicating with us. Different growls for different things. I want to go out, I am happy to see you, time for bed, I am excited because we are going for a walk, I want my breakfast, hey there, etc. They are totally non-aggressive dogs and wag their tails when they growl. They seldom bark, except when they see someone they know arriving. Strangers only get tail wags. Their hackles are not up and their tails are wagging when they are growling. Dogs have a limited repertoire of sounds they can make so when you have dogs like ours who like to talk (and wish they had opposable thumbs), they growl and grunt and make weird noises all the time. When they see other dogs, they just wag their tails and sniff. If the other dog is aggressive, they just come back to us and look reallllyyyy confused. They have been bitten by smaller dogs and just walk away. We have to tell the owners of the smaller dogs that it is not funny that five pounds of dog not on a leash bites a 155 pound dog who does not respond. (Honestly, they let their dogs follow and attack ours and think it is absolutely hilarious how brave their dog is and how chicken our dogs are). Larger dogs are much smarter about our three really big dogs.

  13. Evelyn Haskins says:

    There are of course ‘growls’ and ‘growls’. I lot of dogs ‘growl’ with pleasure — rather like a cat’s purring.

    But in the Bad Old Days, I was taught to ‘correct’ my dog for growling, and so she became (as someone else here said) a Time Bomb. Sudden “unprovoked” aggression, seemingly out of nowhere. (And that’s no way for a dog or a dog owner to live! 😦

    Older and wiser (and better educated 🙂 I had to re-teach her to growl. She learned then that, IF she growled, then I would get her out of that situation, as best i could.

    Even more old, and more wise, I now teach my dogs as pups to tell me when they want out (usually with their face pressed against my knee) and we can usually by-pass the growl altogether.

  14. Kristen Yon says:

    We have a fear reactive Cane Corso, and we’d love if he growled to tell us when he was uncomfortable. Instead we have to scrutinze his body language to try to pick up on subtle signals, complicated by the fact that he wears a muzzle, which masks his face (and has had eye surgery which may or may not alter how his eyes express his emotions). We adopted him when he was about a year and half old, so we can’t be sure if he was punished for growling or not, but as part of his rehabilitation, we are definitely trying to teach him to use growling as part of his repertoire. He’s started using other growls (play growl and a soft growl to get our attention from another room), so we hope his vocabulary is going to keep expanding.

  15. Gina says:

    Very true, unfortunately i didn’t know any different when I told by boy off for growling at other dogs. Now he will just launch into attack mode with no warning signals whatsoever, wish I had known better!

  16. Angela Cancilla Herschel says:

    Punishing your dog for growling can have repercussions and is like ; taking the batteries out of the smoke detector!

  17. Linda says:

    I have a question. my 5 month old pup growled at me when I tried to take something he wasn’t supposed to have away from him. it was a serious growl – not a play growl. another time a couple weeks later, i brought him in from outside, went back out to quick do something, and when i came back in the house he growled and chomped down on my hand hard – but did not break the skin. he is a loving and affectionate puppy at all other times. i am doing positive reinforcement obedience training with him. how should I have handled those 2 times with him? please help – i don’t want a nasty dog. i bring him around other people and dogs daily to socialize him as well.

    • wildewmn says:

      Linda, I would need to have a lot more information to give you a proper response. But this is the type of issue that is best addressed with a trainer in person. Go to http://www.apdt.com, click on Trainer Search, and enter your zip code. It will bring up trainers in your area. Be sure to interview them before hiring to be sure they use positive methods, but most you’ll find there do.

  18. Kaitlin Justin says:

    Thank you for writing this article. Too many pet dog owners think aggression is their dog being “bad” or “mean,” when really a growl is useful communication. I am curious if you have a more detailed example of one of the cases of dogs who bite with no warning that you describe. I would have thought that dogs who are punished for growling will growl more often, more loudly, and sooner in anticipation of their human acting aggressively. Do you have an example of how the dog acted before being punished for growling and after? Is there a “transition” phase or does this happen suddenly?

    I have a rescue currently who has a history of being a “flash biter” but towards other dogs. Multiple trainers and behavior specialists have offered their interpretations, but none of them have agreed. She seems to have an unhealthy and intense interest towards smaller dogs who act fearful. My current theory is that she has a higher baseline arousal around all dogs (she used to be leash reactive), and that the fearful behavior of other dogs causes trigger stacking and leads to predatory drift. Because predatory behavior does not involve warning signals, she seems to bite “out of nowhere.” The only “warnings” that preceded a bite in the past were intense sniffing and alert body language. And these were serious bite and hold cases, not warning snaps. How would you handle an aggression case like this?

    • Kaitlin, my Cane Corso is an example of a dog who “attacks” with no warning. He’ll go up to a stranger and sniff and then suddenly start barking and try to bite. We adopted him at 18 mos., were told that he was fearful (but not what the implications of that were) and then with all the best of intentions did a series of things that seemed to make a small problem worse and worse until we found the right 100% positive trainer. He’s made huge progress, but we’ve had to turn a bunch of our thinking on its head.

      We ditched the collar. He is only attached to a leash by his harness (usually the ring on his chest), so there’s no association between the leash and a stressful tug on his neck, let alone any constriction. (And wow did I feel like I had zero control the first time we went out for a walk like that!)

      We bit the bullet and muzzled him when out in public (or in other high-risk situations like at the vet), which was psychologically very hard to do (who wants Hannibal Lechter for a dog?), but one of our best decisions, because it allowed us to relax and communicate less stress to the dog. (The Baskerville Ultra muzzle is fabulous: comfortable, lightweight, easy to give treats, and does less damage when he bonks you or another dog with it.)

      We always carry a bag of yummy food when on walks and the appearance of Scary Things gets associated with yumminess.

      I can’t detail everything we’ve done with our trainer, but here are some of the key things that have been helpful:
      * The Look at That exercise where the dog gets rewarded for looking at Scary Things without reacting. Through this, he has been learning to look to us for guidance when he is uncertain.
      * BAT — Behavior Adjustment Training (Grisha’s Stewart’s book on this is really helpful, best when used in partnership with a professional trainer, of course, but a really good step-by-step manual if you have no professional available. For me, the added value of BAT is that it teaches the dog to make his own good decisions. Ours is much better when we can give him guidance but still makes terrible decisions for himself (i.e. reacts).
      * Learning to be super aware of the dog’s subtle body language signals. By doing this, we’ve come to believe that he’s not actually as happy around other dogs as we thought. He’s terribly rude and often on the receiving end of “corrections”. We believe now that his social awkwardness is because he is very nervous when approaching other dogs, especially in a group. He’s terrified of small dogs, probably because most of them bark menacingly at him (because they’re uncomfortable in turn). If the situation isn’t defused, he will eventually “react” to the dog as his tension builds up.
      * Which leads to the concept of asking the dog what he wants to do. This basically means that when there is a Scary Thing or another dog, etc. we take one step towards it with a loose leash and then see if the dog follows or not. If the answer is no, then we don’t go in that direction. This is totally different from the traditional “just make him deal with it” mentality that would see this as coddling the dog. However, if the dog DOES follow us, he usually gets treated for his bravery and then we either stop or even back away to release the tension. I’ve found that our dog often likes to watch new dogs, things and people with great curiosity from from a MUCH larger distance than we had imagined he needed.
      * As a result, I’ve become much stricter about not letting him rush up to another dog when he is anything less than composed (i.e. most of the time). By gradually exposing him to new dogs in this way (sometimes over several days), we’re finding that his behavior is becoming less rude. However, this is REALLY hard to do in real life. Other people and off-leash dogs (that’s common in France) want to be friendly and come over, despite my pleas to let me manage the situation. I’m frequently told that his aggression is my fault because I keep him on leash (as if it would be responsible to let a reactive dog run loose). So I have learned to develop a thick skin and accept that he won’t die if he can’t say hi to every dog we see, even if he cries.

  19. wendy says:

    agree for the most part but what about a dog that growls and then the others attack her–if she would just keep quiet the other dogs wouldn’t bother her. Obviously she is fear growling but she won’t stop even when she gets jumped.

    • threenorns says:

      it’s not “obvious” to me that she’s fear growling – if the other dogs are jumping her, it sounds more like she’s challenging them.

  20. Chev says:

    Great post, very accurate. Why the other chap didn’t call his pooch back I dont know. Very rude honestly. Anything growls at my dog, whether warranted or not and the first thing I do is call her over. I would rather hear a dog growl than not. It’s when they don’t growl there is a problem. Mine gets grumpy at night and is prone to growling when I touch her. It;s nothing personal and I see no reason to chastise her, it’s her way of saying “go away” It’s usually followed by a lot of licking lol, like she is saying, go away. I still love you. Now go away.

  21. Great blog. I have one quibble, which in no way affects the conclusion. I would say that technically, a growl IS aggression, and it’s meant to avert a physical fight. It depends on how you define aggression, but the definition I prefer involves “violence or threat.” Growling is a threat. I still do not stop growling, because I would much rather be growled at than bitten. That simple!

    • Evelyn Haskins says:

      “Technically” according to who?

      In Australian law, calling out warnings or even threats does not constitue “abuse” for humans, so it should not for dogs either. (Neither does it qualify as ‘provocation’ 😦

      A ‘threat: is not aggression — it is a warning at most but can also be simply information from a dog.

      Let’s say, I wandered onto your property and you called to me to ‘get off my property’ would you consider that you had been aggressive?

  22. Kaitlin Justin, right, this is not normal social aggression so growling — a warning and request to negotiate a peaceful solution — would be totally out of place. Handling predation or extreme competitive aggression is very difficult and the number one rule is management. I don’t see any knowledgeable behavior consulting trying to address this over the internet. 🙂 Where are you located?

    • You’re absolutely right, it wouldn’t be something you could advise on without seeing my dog in person. Just wondering if anyone had any resources about it, because nearly all of the materials that I have read are about fear aggression as a social display. She is currently on a martingale collar and leash at all times when out and about to prevent any accidents.

      I’m in rural Eastern Washington. Unfortunately there is a dearth of behaviorists out here. The shelter has done what they can to help me, but it’s not an easy case.

      • wildewmn says:

        Hi Kaitlin, sorry, I’ve been away at a conference…if you go to http://www.apdt.com and click on Trainer Search, you can enter your zip code and a search radius and hopefully find a qualified trainer in your area to help.

  23. Ewa says:

    If my dog growls at a dog behaving inappropriately (which is common), I never stop him. Instead I tell the owner of the other dog that my dog is unhappy, and if they don’t control their dog then my boy will correct them. People just don’t understand normal canine behavior.

  24. Evelyn Haskins says:

    Simply put.

    I trust a dog that growls. I trust a dog that ‘looks aggressive’ (or worried or timid or angry).

    I know what to do about such dogs. With my own dogs and with other dogs we encounter.

    I don’t trust dogs whose faces and bodies I cannot read or who attack silently.

    You often need to see a video in slow motion to tell WHO the real aggressior is, in these cases, Often it is “Little Miss Prim” who has been hurling out silent insults to other dogs.

    IF you have a dog who is always ‘being attacked” you need to consider your own dog’s behaviour.

    • threenorns says:

      i go by my dog – so many times, we encounter a dog that’s lunging on the leash snarling and yapping and foaming at the mouth and i’m worried but when i look at my dog, he’s all leaning forward, tail swishing in neutral, ears pricked up, eyes laughing, mouth open, tongue hanging out so i’m all “okay then – go say hi” and then other times i see a dog calmly and smoothly trotting nicely beside the owner and i’m all “wow! what an amazingly well mannered dog!” but when i look at my dog, he’s all hunched down, ears down, tail down, looking away from the dog, licking his lips, even shoving me back from the path, and then i’m “yeah… thanks… nice dog – just, you know – keep it over there, k?”

      i don’t know dogs but i know MY dog and he knows dogs. i believe in consulting the experts.

  25. Simon Falla says:

    Great piece. My Collie doesn’t like being bothered by other Dogs..and she steers clear of them. I refuse to put her on a lead, just because some idiot owner lets their dog come charging up to her!…they’re lucky if they get a single growl, before she sees them off!…and they look at you like you have an aggressive Dog…when they are the ones with the problem!

  26. Val Hughes says:

    There is something wrong with this sentence: “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 pup did not *lack* cluelessness – he lacked a clue. It’s a double negative gone wrong and should be very easy to fix.

  27. Robert Neville says:

    Growling is okay in most contexts, but my dog better not growl at me or my immediate family. Growling at them indicates that she places herself above them in the “pack”. (Of course this also assumes that me and my family respect the dogs space.). It’s a surprisingly complex topic that’s hard to fully discuss in a comment. Growling, in general, is not bad.

    • Evelyn Haskins says:


      The point here is ‘What do you do when your dog growls AT you?”

      I still think that it is entirely inappropriate and very counter-productive to ‘punish’ the growling.

      I would still consider it as a sign that there is SOMETHING wrong, and look to address the cause of the growling, not to simply try to suppress that growling.

      What you need to do is consider your whole relationship with your dog, and adjust your training/management accordingly.

      You must also consider if the dog is making a habit of getting its own way through growling or if it is a response to pain. IF my dog, for instance, growls when I take his hand, I will look for injury, because this is most unusual.

      I my dog growls at me whenever I try to move him from the doorway, the doorway simply becomes out-of-bounds (with management). I would at the same time, up the Obedience training — more doing as asked and more rewards for doing it 🙂

      • There’s also the question of whether the wisest response to a minor aggression on the part of the dog is an escalation of the aggression on the part of the human. That sets up a dangerous chain reaction.

    • threenorns says:

      growling at your family is no different than your child shouting “no!” or “go away!”.

      if they’re not being heard, they’re entitled to blow a gasket.

  28. ckhungerford says:

    Reblogged this on slobberhound and commented:
    Some dogs are just vocal! Reece will grumble and growl ’til the cows come home, Bella is silent all the time. My dog’s growl scares people, but he isn’t always angry… I never apologize for his canine ways. He’s a dog!

  29. Nichole, you are a goddess. I am a trainer in San Francisco and use your book Don’t Leave Me frequently. You and I met briefly in Spokane. I love any science-based dog information, and I have told many people the same thing about growls…they’re great communication to diffuse situations. People can be so clueless. I recently saw a woman embarrassingly apologizing for her dog sniffing another dog’s butt!

    • threenorns says:

      yeah – my dog’s bad for butts but he doesn’t care whose it is: dog butt, cat butt, people butt, even frog, goose, and chicken butt, it’s all fair game.

      i just roll my eyes and tell ppl “i’m sorry – he’s got wonderful doggie manners but his human manners suck!”

  30. John Hadfield says:

    I’ve realized that dog is that growl are great communicators. It’s the dog’s way of saying,” Duude…”

  31. Often, puppies who leave home too early don’t understand canine behavior very well. If that puppy had stayed with his mom awhile longer, she probably would have taught him what happens if you ignore growling.

  32. Naomi says:

    I agree with 90% of this. Only thing is there are different personalities of dogs, and personalities can be huge. Not to mention Dog breed differences that can be a huge factor in how you handle a dog. Example: my boyfriend and I own 4 very high drive and for the most part, dominant dogs. We have 2 Belgian Malinois (type of Shepherd (what the German shepherds were bread from) a West German Shepherd and a German Shephard /Husky mix. Given the breeds , what they are trained for (police work, personal protection, ring sport &hunting in our home) and their personalities, we would never allow a growl towards an allowed human in our home to go unpunished. We would also personally dominate over any one of our dogs who would growl at us for any given reason. (A few techniques being to physically flip the dog on its back and stare right back at them till they look away, a smack on the nose, a correction of the collar or just saying no (or nine) depends on what dog you’re dealing with) if either one of our boys got away with a growl, and gained our submission, it would empower and build them up. The next time a growl might come with a snap or an advance that could have been stopped with that first encounter. They don’t easily forget being handed the “upper hand”. We see plenty of these dogs and train weekly to keep them where they should be obedience wise as well as performance in their sport.
    The breed makes a huge difference. That being said, I’ve seen a few high drive and dominant dogs who aren’t typical for the breed, that’s where personality becomes a factor.
    Know your own dog well and you’ll always know what their behavior is coming from.
    We do have an “Alpha” in our own “dog pack ” and he feels the need to remind the other boys of his dominance every now and then. Even he submits to us 🙂
    With other dogs , being vocal is encouraged. We help raise new puppy litters and have a couple of our boys teach them manners. It’s never been more than a snap to keep the little ones inline:) “gotta respect the space of the face ” lol

    • wildewmn says:

      Naomi, I have worked with Belgian Malinois and know what serious dogs they can be, especially if there are aggression issues involved. But I would hate for people to read your comment and think that alpha rolling, smacking, or jerking are the right way to “correct” their dogs. If you understand canine behavior, regardless of how high drive or serious a dog is, you should not have to resort to physical violence. It’s the old issue of whether we look at “who’s dominant” in every interaction,
      or actually try to solve the underlying issue. Yes, we do need to be in charge, just as a parent needs to be in charge of a child. But there are ways besides physical violence–which only teaches the dog that’s the currency of the relationship (and which can lead to nasty surprises for the human)–to keep control.

  33. This is so true! It’s actually pretty great that dogs let us know that they don’t like something before attacking the source that is annoying or becoming aggressive!

  34. susan says:

    If my dogs don’t like a kid or dog who comes up to them and the owner does nothing to get the offending being away from my dog, I step in between and yell at the offending being. My dogs know I am the provider and protector.

  35. CCack says:

    Seems to me an additional – nonpet-related – issue is that the woman felt compelled to apologize for being … completely in the right, and the man didn’t feel compelled to correct any of his incorrect actions, or even apologize. Curious and unfortunate how often women in our culture feel compelled to apologize for simply existing.

  36. Angela Cancilla Herschel says:

    I always tell people allow them to growl if you punish it ….it is like taking the batteries out of the smoke detector !!

  37. Pam Gray says:

    My young collie barks and growls at other dogs. She was knocked over by an excited pup when she was a pup and she hasn’t forgotton. Her dad doesn’t bark, but he will fight in an instant if another dog starts the aggression. I muzzle them off lead just in case. As for the person who’s dog growls at him while he is on the couch? No way! Get him his own bed and stop that nonsense.

  38. How would you respond to a dog that is growling at you in a scenario where it is being treated by a vet, physiotherapist etc? Obviously the dog has to be treated and handled, and most likely growling due to pain or associates being handled, as painful. For the safety of those involved, I’m assuming it would be muzzled but my question is, do you ignore the growling because it has good reason, or ?????

  39. Angela Cancilla Herschel says:

    Punishing growling ; is like taking the batteries out of the smoke detector !

  40. Emma Chan says:

    I am surprised no one has mentioned Rotties. Rotties as a breed vocalise alot, and because they have been demonised in the media, most folk don’t hang around long enough to see whether that growl is a ‘hi, how are you’ or a ‘get the hell out of here before I make you scram.’ That is humans for you. Constant barking is annoying the neighbours, debark the dog. Certain breeds look ‘cool’ with a docked tail, so dock the tail, regardless of the fact that while there are in fact, due to human meddling, breeds that are tailless, most breeds use their tail as well as their voice, if it has been left them, to communicate and most dogs are fair minded and will say ‘ouch, that hurts, stop it’, or ‘piss off, you’re annoying me’ before they do something physical about it.

    • threenorns3 says:

      *generally* speaking, i agree with you about the tails – but in the case of rotties, i have particular experience that it’s just kinder for the dog to have the thing off. my bff had a rotti – purebred, he weighed 110 or so. he was about 2 when she got him and he was big in all aspects – big body, big smile, big kisses, big heart – except for the brain. dumb as a box of rocks, him.

      he’d stand in the patio door and stare out into the yard, big smile, panting happily, while his tail would go WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! against the metal edge of the frame. he’d stand and grin away while his tail cracked repeatedly against the edge of the kitchen cabinet. he seemed totally oblivious to what was happening back there.

      the third time she had to take him to the vet for a haematoma on his tail (this time it was the size of a lemon – the first was about the size of a walnut, the second the size of a small chicken egg), the vet told her it was obviously going to continue and it’d be kinder to have the tail off before something really serious happened.

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