So often when I get a call about a dog growling, a lot of the blame is on the dog. Dogs get yelled at, sprayed with water, jerked on the leash, shocked or something else meant to punish when it happens.
Here is the problem with that response to a growl. Outside of play, dogs may growl for a number of reasons—whether out of fear or discomfort, resource guarding, or offensive aggression. The common factor in all of these reasons is underlying stress. Dogs growl as a warning signal when their other ways of communicating (such as tense muscles, closed mouth, or looking away) have not worked for them to get more distance.
Punishing a dog for trying to tell others that things are not right in his world is taking away his early warning signs and his ability to communicate non-aggressively. If you take this tool away from your dog, you are taking away his last safety net to give him that wanted distance from his trigger, and giving him no other option but to escalate his behavior even further into a bite. Most certainly punishing your dog is NOT addressing the underlying emotional cause for that behavior.
You are also teaching your dog that he is justified in feeling stress in that situation because that trigger causes other bad things to happen like the jerk on a leash, being yelled at or shocked. And, if you are the one delivering that unpleasant consequence, then you too can be a cause for feeling stress.
The unfortunate thing is that once your dog has learned that whale eyes, turning away, licking his lips, curling his lip, holding his tail low, or even growling will not work but biting does, that past experience will teach him to choose biting again the next time a situation gets tense.
Please do not blame your dog. Instead thank him for warning you that you need to pay closer attention to his environment and his body language.
Children and adults need to learn how to avoid situations that may cause a dog to growl such as grabbing at your dog’s toy or food, giving him a big bear hug, or looming over him. At the same time, beginning early to desensitize your dog to a variety of situations, people, and touching is important because a behaviorally healthy dog will communicate stress and discomfort incrementally starting with the mildest body language.
If a dog growls at you, give him safety by stopping what you are doing and giving him distance from his trigger (whether that is you or something else in the environment). And then analyze what happened so as to avoid situations that cause him to growl in the first place. A trainer who focuses on positive reinforcement can help you with an individualized behavior modification plan.
I encourage parents with young kids between ages 6 to 11 to register them for one of my online My Dog, My Best Buddy classes where they will learn how dogs communicate, how to interact appropriately with their dog, and how to be a positive dog teacher.
Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com.