Clients always appear a bit stunned at first when I tell them their dog's growl is a good thing. In fact, a growl is something to be greatly treasured.
A professional dog trainer or behaviorist can help you learn to see and interpret the signals your dog uses to try to tell you that he is uncomfortable, so you can remove the stressor - or at least, remove the dog from a stressful situation.
These are my aggression consultation clients, who are in my office in desperation, as a last resort, hoping to find some magic pill that will turn their biting dog into a safe companion. They are often dismayed and alarmed to discover that the paradigm many of us grew up with - punish your dog harshly at the first sign of aggression - has contributed to and exacerbated the serious and dangerous behavior problem that has led them to my door.
It seems intuitive to punish growling. Growling leads to biting, and dogs who bite people often must be euthanized, so let's save our dog's life and nip biting in the bud by punishing him at the first sign of inappropriate behavior. It makes sense, in a way - but when you have a deeper understanding of canine aggression, it's easy to understand why it's the absolute wrong thing to do.
Most dogs don't want to bite or fight. The behaviors that signal pending aggression are intended first and foremost to warn away a threat. The dog who doesn't want to bite or fight tries his hardest to make you go away. He may begin with subtle signs of discomfort that are often overlooked by many humans - tension in body movements, a stiffly wagging tail.
"Please," he says gently, "I don't want you to be here."
If you continue to invade his comfort zone, his threats may intensify, with more tension, a hard stare, and a low growl.
"I mean it," he says more firmly, "I want you to leave."
If those are ignored, he may become more insistent, with an air snap, a bump of the nose, or even open mouth contact that closes gently on an arm but doesn't break skin.
"Please," he says, "don't make me bite you."
If that doesn't succeed in convincing you to leave, the dog may feel compelled to bite hard enough to break skin in his efforts to protect self, territory, members of his social group, or other valuable resources.
Caused by stress
What many people don't realize is that aggression is caused by stress.
The stressor may be related to pain, fear, intrusion, threats to resources, past association, or anticipation of any of these things. An assertive, aggressive dog attacks because he's stressed by the intrusion of another dog or human into his territory. A fearful dog bites because he's stressed by the approach of a human. An injured dog lacerates the hand of his rescuer because he's stressed by pain.
When you punish a growl or other early warning signs, you may succeed in suppressing the growl, snarl, snap, or other warning behavior - but you don't take away the stress that caused the growl in the first place. In fact, you increase the stress, because now you, the dog's owner, have become unpredictable and violent as well.
Once you learn the triggers that make your dog uncomfortable, you can try to keep them at a distance.
Worst of all, and most significantly, if you succeed in suppressing the warning signs, you end up with a dog who bites without warning. He has learned that it's not safe to warn, so he doesn't.
If a dog is frightened of children, he may growl when a child approaches. You, conscientious and responsible owner, are well aware of the stigma - and fate - of dogs who bite children, so you punish your dog with a yank on the leash and a loud "No! Bad dog!" Every time your dog growls at a child you do this, and quickly your dog's fear of children is confirmed - children do make bad things happen! He likes children even less, but he learns not to growl at them to avoid making you turn mean.
You think he's learned that it's not okay to be aggressive to children, because the next time one passes by, there's no growl.
"Phew," you think to yourself. "We dodged that bullet!"
Convinced that your dog now accepts children because he no longer growls at them, the next time one approaches and asks if he can pat your dog, you say yes. In fact, your dog has simply learned not to growl, but children still make him very uncomfortable. Your dog is now super-stressed, trying to control his growl as the child gets nearer and nearer so you don't lose control and punish him, but when the scary child reaches out for him he can't hold back any longer - he lunges forward and snaps at the child's face. Fortunately, you're able to restrain him with the leash so he doesn't connect. You, the dog, and the child are all quite shaken by the incident.
It's time to change your thinking.