Have you ever wished that you could speak your dog’s language? Imagine just how magical and easier life would be if your dog could simply talk to you in the same kind of language humans use – speech. It’s unfortunate that dog’s don’t talk like we do, not even when they growl or bark. Each sound does not represent a word as language does for us, but it does have a meaning all on it’s own.
“Does he bite?”
It’s correct to assume that a growling dog has the potential to bite. In fact, it’s correct to assume that any dog with teeth can bite. If a dog growls, no matter what the context is, you know you are doing something to upset him one way or another. However, this most certainly does not mean he is being aggressive, dominate or jealous. Most of the beliefs spread about growling are just flat out wrong.
You cannot assume anything about a dog simply due to his growl. It is his growl in the context of his surroundings, body posture and events that must be read to know what the dog is saying. For example, if your dog is growling while you are playing tug with a rope toy, he is being playful and is fully enjoying what you are doing. On the other hand, if you meet a strange dog on the street, lean over and reach out to pet him when he begins to growl you know you are doing something wrong, rude, and improper according to the dog.
Lowering of the body, showing whites of the eyes, tail down and stepping away from you means the dog is frightened of you. Give him time and give him space. With positive reinforcement (reasons to like you) and gentle yet consistent interaction he will come to at least respect and accept your presence.
Standing on his toes, facing you, showing his teeth and maybe even inching towards you means that you are too close. Back off. He may be scared of you, but most likely he’s more scared of what you might do. In some instances, you will see this in resource guarding against both people and other pets. These dogs can easily be trained and need structure in their home lives. Combined with confidence building (Agility, Obedience, Rally-O and even Flyball) he will make a dramatic turn around.
Growling should be respected. Dogs should never be punished for growling. They do this for a reason, and it is not to be mean or aggressive. Without that growl, the warning that could prevent a bite has been taken away leading to reports of “random” or “unprovoked” bites. When humans meet a dog, we immediately want to reach out and pet him, shove our hands in his face and expect him to love us. This is rude in dog language, and can be threatening from a dog’s perspective. If you passed a random stranger on the street and he immediately wanted to hug you and be your best friend you would feel a little scared, too!
Outside of basic training, growling can be treated by going after what is causing it. The growling itself isn’t the problem, it is the symptom of the problem. For instance, the dog who growls while hunkering away from people is nervous around others. Through socialization and counter conditioning this can be combated so that he feels more comfortable in the presence of others.
The next time you meet a growling dog, stop and think about what is going on. Read his environment, your own actions, and his body posture. If a dog growls, just give him his space. If he wants to be your friend, he will with your respect and patience.
*Note: No dog should be aggressive towards humans. Even dogs trained in personal protection should only bite when commanded to, and let go the second they are given a release word. True aggressiveness is extremely rare, and is not specific to any one breed. It usually comes with other mental problems the dog is suffering from and needs rehabilitation, not euthanasia.*