In the doggie world, not all four-legged members are social butterflies who love to mingle with other dogs. If your dog isn't a social dude, he may act grumpy and even voice his opinion about other dogs with a growl. Count your blessings though; growling is not as bad as you think.
Growling is a Gift
Believe it or not, a growl is something that should be treasured. If your dog just met a dog and growled, it's not the end of the world. Rather, thank your dog for using his internal warning system to avoid conflict instead of going for a direct bite. A growl is a gift and as so should be treasured, explains Pat Miller, owner and trainer of Peaceable Paws.
Emotions Behind Growling
Often what may appear to be an overt manifestation of aggression is simply stress due to emotions such as fear or anxiety. Growling is an outward manifestation of an internal turmoil. When your dog growls at another dog, evaluate what distressing event may have triggered it. The other dog may have been too intrusive and approached too fast. Your dog may have been defending a resource such as food or a toy. It could be your dog had a negative experience in the past, was poorly socialized or is simply aloof by nature.
Growling to Increase Distance
Growling is a distance-increasing signal in dogs. It's meant to tell the other dog: "Go away, I don't feel comfortable with you coming near me." Most dogs understand a growl along with its accompanying body language and will steer clear. Dogs are masters of communicating with their bodies and often beef up their intentions with vocalizations. Growling is a form of ritualized aggression meant to avoid conflict. If the other dog does not respect this important request for space, he risks getting bit.
Growling is Reinforcing
Since every time your dog growls, most likely the other dog moves away, the act of growling is reinforced. This means your dog gets relief knowing that his growl caused the other dog to leave. In a similar situation in the future, your dog will feel compelled to growl again in hopes of having the other dog leave again. Should the other dog fail to leave, the growling may increase in intensity and your dog may even snap or lunge, as if saying: "What part of my message are you not getting?"
Avoid Suppressing Growling
The way you confront growling will have an impact on your dog's future interactions with other dogs. If, for instance, you punish your dog for growling, you risk removing this important warning system and next time he interacts with other dogs he may upgrade to a direct bite. Not only, punishing a growl may confirm that bad things happen when other dogs are around. There are better ways to deal with growling and the most effective work on changing your dog's emotions through powerful behavior modification techniques, such as desensitization and counter-conditioning.
Removing Need For Growling
If your dog has a history of growling at other dogs, consult with a dog behavior professional to get to the root of the problem. If your dog is uncomfortable around other dogs, keeping distance while rewarding your dog with high-value treats as soon as he acknowledges another dog may change his emotional response. Instead of feeling threatened by other dogs, he may start looking forward to them if every time he sees one you become a treat dispenser. With time, growling should extinguish and be replaced by happier, more relaxed body language.
Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in "USA Today," "The APDT Chronicle of the Dog" and "Every Dog Magazine." She also contributed a chapter in the book " Puppy Socialization - An Insider's Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness" by Caryl Wolff.