The Meaning of Growl

Categories: Dog Behavior
By Jennifer Lueck

This year my mom and I decided Casey needed a Mrs. Claus costume. My mom bought all the fabric and sat down the Sunday before Christmas to make it. I was feeling a little under the weather, so I was reading in bed and Casey was resting at my feet. The costume was almost done; my mom just had to put it on Casey to figure out where to place the Velcro. She reached down to Casey to sit her up and Casey growled at her! This is the first time Casey has ever growled at my mom, so we were both shocked and scolded her and told her she was a bad girl. After it happened, I remembered an article I had read in The Whole Dog Journal and I knew we had done the wrong thing. I went through my back issues and found the article I was looking for, “The ‘Gift’ of Growling.” In the article, Pat Miller explains that a dog’s growl is a cry for help.
She says, “It’s your dog’s way of telling you he can’t tolerate a situation – as if he’s saying, ‘I can’t handle this, please get me out of here!’” She says a growl should never be punished: 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. Worst of all, and most significantly, if you succeed in suppressing the warning signs, you end up with a dog who bites without warning.
She suggests the first response should be to calmly move the dog away from the situation, and make a mental note of what may have triggered the growl. The dog then needs to be counter-conditioned to the trigger so he wants the trigger to happen.
In our situation, Casey was probably quite stressed by all the fuss we were making with her all day. It was -6 degrees when we got up in the morning, with a wind chill of -30. The cold temperature, wind and snow were affecting her paws, so not only did she have to put up with being stuffed into a coat, she also had to put on dog booties to protect her feet. On top of that, she was disturbed many times throughout the day to try on her costume. Casey is a sensitive dog and I think it became too much for her. If I had been paying closer attention, I probably would have seen stress signals before she growled, such as yawning, looking away or licking her lips and been able to help her. But I didn’t. After it happened, she still had to try on the costume a few more times, so I told my mom to get a treat and ask her to stand, rather than picking her up, and to give her treats while she was putting the costume on to give it a more positive association. This worked well and we didn’t have any more growling. To make sure I assessed the situation correctly, we’re going to test her in a few days – without the costume – to make sure Casey wasn’t guarding me. Then my mom is going to practice disturbing her every once in a while when she’s resting – but she will give her treats to make it a good thing.
Follow-up: Since I wrote this, we have disturbed poor Casey many times when she’s been resting and we haven’t gotten even a hint of a growl. I, too, have been poked and prodded while Casey was on the bed with me and she was fine with that, too. I think it was just the circumstances of the day.
I definitely learned something from this experience! In telling my friends and fellow trainers about what happened, I found out that a lot of people’s dogs growl when they are disturbed. I guess that’s where the saying “let sleeping dogs lie” comes from. Don’t panic if your dog growls briefly when disturbed, but if your dog is growling, snapping or snarling for other reasons, please seek help in assessing the situation and dealing with the problem.
Source: “The ‘Gift’ of Growling” by Pat Miller, The Whole Dog Journal, October 2005.