Normal, social dogs growl, bark and snap. It’s their way of communicating. Growling is not bad.
My basset Charlotte is the most gentle dog I know, but she will growl at other dogs when appropriate, like when a puppy won’t stop biting her jowls or when a dog won’t stop humping her at the dog park.
There is usually at least one pest at the dog park who runs around trying to hump everything in sight.
Usually Charlotte tolerates this behavior for about five seconds, then s he flings his body around. If the humper persists, Charlotte’s hackles go up and she might bark at the other dog – “Do not like!” If the dog still tries to hump him, that’s when Charlotte lets out a ferocious growl. This is usually followed by a friendly tail wag – “Hey, I’m a nice guy, but please don’t hump me.” Both dogs shake themselves off and either part ways or play.
Once I was pet sitting a German shepherd puppy and an adult Maltese. The German shepherd was around 45 pounds, complete with puppy teeth and clumsy paws. The Maltese was 4 pounds. If the Maltese didn’t growl at the shepherd, he would get stepped on and injured. He had to draw some limits so the shepherd will back off. I never corrected the Maltese for growling. Instead, I re-directed the shepherd’s attention.
Growling is a dog’s way of warning us that he is feeling stressed. Dogs that are punished for growling learn to stop giving this warning sign and go right to a snap or bite. Instead of correcting a dog for growling, re-direct her attention and give her a break from whatever is causing her stress.
There are all kinds of scenarios that will cause a normal, social dog to growl. I’ve covered some of them below.
When two dogs are wrestling and playing, they will both play growl. It’s easy to tell when both dogs are having fun, because they will show an equal amount of energy.
The more dominant dog will probably roll over on her back and show “submission” so the other dog will feel comfortable “attacking” her. Then they’ll switch. Both dogs will play bite and play growl – and it gets very loud! They might chase each other, bite each other, bark or play tug with the nearest toy.
Normal dogs use growling to communicate after the other dog (or person) has ignored previous warning signs that they’ve had enough.
If one dog no longer wants to play, he will stop instigating the wrestling. He will start avoiding the other dog by looking away or pretending to be interested in something else “Oh, this smells good!” He will likely stand up and shake himself off, which dogs will do when they are ending something, kind of like a big sigh of relief – “Well that was fun, what’s next?” If the other dog continues to pester him, he might yawn (a sign of stress) and keep looking away. Next, he might stiffen, raise his lips, crinkle his muzzle and growl. If the other dog still won’t leave him alone, that’s when he will snap, lunge or let out a vicious bark – “Get the f— off me!”
Owners make the mistake of scolding the dog that snapped. Really, the other dog (the pest) should have been re-directed long before the incident escalated. Younger, more energetic dogs need to learn boundaries, especially if they haven’t been around enough dogs and can’t control their never-ending desires to play. These are the dogs that shouldn’t be at the dog park quite yet. They should socialize in smaller, more controlled groups of dogs first.
In scenarios such as dog daycare or the dog park where one dog won’t leave my dog alone, I re-direct their attentions with toys or food or by calling them. Sometimes I have them sit and stay at my side for a minute to give them a chance to re-group. Usually the other dog runs off and annoys someone else. This “time out” is not a punishment. It’s a chance for my dogs to relax and take a break. After a minute or so, my dogs are eager to go back and play. If not, then it’s a good time for us to leave the park.
I also call my dog and have him sit at my side whenever a new dog enters the park so my dog isn’t the one overwhelming the newcomer.
Dogs have a tendency to guard food or toys. This is normal dog behavior. The dog is saying, “This is mine! Leave me alone!” A more dominant dog will call the bluff and take his food. A more submissive dog will give a dog his space. Typically, the dogs work this pecking order out on their own with no issues.
The problem is, some dogs become overly possessive and will bite anyone who comes near their food or toy. This is why I do not tolerate any possessive growling from my dog even if he is guarding something that is technically “his.” If he growls, I do not correct him, instead I re-direct the attention of both dogs. I also make sure to claim the prized possession as mine by holding it close to me or standing over it while the dogs back away.
All dogs in my house must understand that everything belongs to the humans first. Nothing is given to a dog for free. Ever. If they wants a toy, they are going to sit first. If they wants to eat, they are going to lie down and wait calmly for a few minutes. I make this process fun and rewarding for the dogs (“Wow, what a good sit!”), not stressful and frustrating.
You also want to teach your dog a command such as “leave it” or “drop” or “trade” and help him associate receiving something even better for obeying. For example, if he drops the rawhide, he gets a piece of chicken. My dog understands “drop” to mean “put it down” and “leave it” to mean “don’t touch that.” He doesn’t need treats to obey these commands, but I try to surprise him every now and then with something wonderful (a tennis ball) for obeying.
Animals will get defensive if they feel threatened, especially if they are cornered.
The key here is that normal, socialized dogs are not going to feel threatened by something ordinary like a dude shoveling his driveway, a kid racing by on a scooter or a big, black dog barking. That’s why it’s important to socialize puppies and dogs to as many different people, sounds and situations as possible throughout their lives.
Dog owners need to remember that growling is a normal part of dog communication.
It is our job to socialize our dogs and give them plenty of opportunities to interact with other dogs. It is also our responsibility to limit the amount of stress our dogs experience and to provide them with safe and constructive ways to deal with the stress they inevitably will experience.