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Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Growling a way of communicating

January 19. 2018 9:37PM

I recently gave a talk at the Manchester Rotary Club about dog behavior. One of the questions a Rotarian asked was about his dog growling - and what it means and what to do about it. This is an important topic, often misunderstood and handled improperly. Does scolding, threatening or even punishing a growling dog work? What should you do if your dog growls?

A client, Mary, was having a dispute with her husband, Ed, over their 18-month-old Labrador retriever, Jake, who growls sometimes. When he's sleeping and someone pets him, he growls. Ed believes Jake shouldn't be allowed to get away with this. After all, if we ignore his growling, what will be next? Mary noticed, however, that when Ed punishes Jake, the growling gets worse. And when Jake's growling escalates, so does Ed's anger. She said the angrier Ed gets, the more Jake growls. Ed worries Jake might be dangerous.

Is Jake dangerous? Let's examine why he is growling. The trigger that starts Jake growling is petting him when he's sleeping. Clearly, he doesn't like this and communicates his discomfort by vocalizing. Then when Ed yells and scolds in response to Jake's communication, Jake is put in an even worse situation - he's being scolded and frightened by someone he loves.

I have two recommendations for this scenario. First, rather than petting Jake when he's asleep, call his name and wake him up, then pet him. In other words, stop putting Jake in a situation he clearly doesn't like, and one that is easy to avoid.

Second, rather than punishing growling, figure out what the dog is trying to tell you. Examine what it is about this situation the dog is uncomfortable with. Don't yell, don't hit, don't scold. As Mary noticed, Jake's growing increased when he was punished. The louder growl was Jake's way of saying, "Holy cow! Boy, did you overreact. I just wanted to say I don't like being petted when I'm sleeping, and I dislike this even more!" When Ed escalates the "lesson," is it any wonder that Jake becomes even more self-protective and growls louder to try to get Ed to stop punishing him?

I understand this is contrary to what many believe - after all, as Ed says, we can't let the dog get away with growling at us. But exploring what the dog is trying to say isn't "getting away" with something. It is part of our responsibility as dog owners to understand what the dog is communicating. Growling is most often the dog's attempt to let us know that he's afraid, upset or uncomfortable with something that's being done to him.

If it's at all possible, avoid putting the dog in a position that makes him uncomfortable and leads to growling. That is so much kinder to the dog. If what your dog is growling about can't be avoided, working with a behavior consultant to help desensitize your dog often can help your dog learn to cope without growling. Desensitization is a program to change the dog's view of the activity or object, turning it into a positive experience. Training often helps a dog accept an activity as pleasurable, or at least not growl-worthy. The bottom line: Don't blame the dog for expressing dislike by growling. It's just his way of communicating.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog" and a dog behavior consultant, runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, which appears every other Sunday, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.

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