Growls Are Better Than the Alternative

dog growls
Hocus Pocus is offering an appeasement behavior to both the camera in her face and Albert in her space.

Growls Are Good. 

Let me be clearer: Growling is good when compared to not growling, and biting instead.

In this post I will share with you what I have learned over the years concerning The Growl.

Why I Don’t Recommend Punishing a Dog for Growling.

When a dog growls he/she is asking for help.  They need an out.   Growls are a dog’s way of telling you, another dog, another person, child, or animal, I do not like this. I cannot handle this. Go away, or let me get away. NOW.

A dog that chooses to growl instead of bite, should not be punished.  Punishing a dog for growling doesn’t teach the dog that growling is unacceptable behavior.  It only suppresses the dog’s natural form of expressing their fear and discomfort.

Punishing a dog for growling takes away a very critical warning signal.  Dogs who are punished for growling learn to not growl anymore, to avoid being punished.  So if you have successfully managed to stop your dog from growling, you have only suppressed your dog’s behavior.  The fear and stress are still present within your dog!   You haven’t addressed the underlying cause for growling.  Now you have a dog who is just as stressed as before s/she growled, but the dog has no safe means of express his/her discomfort. The growl may be gone, but now you run the risk of having a dog who could bite without warning.

Instead of punishing a dog for growling, we must learn to see the growl for what it is – Communication.  

Growling is a valuable (and productive) form of canine communication.  There are many reasons dogs growl!  Growling is a behavior that more dog guardians should understand, appreciate, and respect rather than punish.


Give Your Dog a Mental High-Five for Growling.

I suggest giving our dogs a mental “high-paw” when they growl because our dogs haven’t done anything wrong.  In fact, they did something right!   Growling is normal canine communication!   By choosing to growl your dog is clearly and appropriately expressing his/her fear, discomfort, anger, frustration, and stress level in that moment.  Without the growl, a bite can happen when we (or another animal) fails to recognize the dog’s warning signals.

Growling is a dog’s way of saying, Back Off! Go Away! I’m very uncomfortable!!

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, and 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. –Pat Miller


Is Your Dog In a Grumble Zone?

In our Family Paws Parent Education program, we refer to crowded, close quarters as “Grumble Zones.”  These areas in the home have an escape route, but a child, cat, or another dog may be blocking the escape route.  This can lead to a potential “grumble”.  Grumble zones are important for families to consider if you have multiple dogs, cats, or children in your home. You can see examples of these here.


Is Your Dog In Pain?

Growls can occur during a defensive reaction if a dog is in pain or any form of discomfort.  The growl can happen when a dog anticipates being moved or touched.  Questions that need to be asked? Could your dog have an upset stomach, tooth ache, stomach ache, or arthritis?  When is the last time my dog had a full check up, including blood and urine analysis?


Is Your Dog a DINO?

Some dogs need more space.  They are referred to as DINOS (Dogs In Need Of Space).  We have a DINO dog.  In the past she would become reactive in certain circumstances if I did not properly manage her environment.  Dogs who need more space (and display this through various behaviors) are not “mean” dogs.  The have learned to communicate to people, dogs, cats, or other species that they either need some more space, a slower introduction to a newcomer, or a gentler interaction with another dog.  Growling is how dogs communicate this.  Growling is meant to avoid aggression.

In general, the more behaviorally healthy and mentally sound a dog is, the more relaxed that dog will be in varying situations. This means the dog is less likely to aggress quickly.   Since dogs are not able to verbalize their thoughts, they communicate through very specific and deliberate behaviors.  But we have to know how to read and recognize these behaviors.

Let’s look at the image below.  To the untrained eye, it looks like our dog and cat are just hanging out.  Ah, not so.  Hocus really does not want Albert in her space.  Albert just wants to be near Hocus. But she is tired, and wants to relax right where she is, without anyone (including me) in her space.  She IS communicating.  All of the canine clues that she’s sending out are not being heard.  This is a perfect opportunity for me to step in and  help Hocus by calmly calling Albert away from her.

Do you ever see these behaviors in your dog? These are Canine Clues.
Do you ever see these behaviors in your dog? These are Canine Clues.
In the next image you will see another Canine Clue that is often overlooked; the stress yawn.  This behavior usually happens repeatedly in a situation that’s stressful to the dog.  This type of yawn is done with more intensity than a dog’s “sleepy” yawn.
dog behavior_stress yawn_dog yawn
STRESS Yawn

Other Canine Clues 

When Hocus begins to emotionally respond to something that makes her feel threatened or uncomfortable, she will display physical signs of this.  I call these her Canine Clues.  It varies based on the situation, but these are some of her common canine clues:

First she will close her mouth.  Ears will fold back.  Then maybe she will close her eyes, or look away.  She then she gets very still (she freezes).  If she is standing, her tail will raise very high and start to wag vigorously.  If she is sitting her tail is motionless.  If I am unable to intervene at this point you would see her whiskers stiffen.  If I am not able to intervene quickly and positively at this point, her emotional response to the perceived threat will continue to escalate and present itself in more physical forms.  I will then see a slight forward or backward wrinkle of her lips, or the top of her muzzle will begin to twitch.  When I see any kind of stillness, flick of a whisker, or her lip wrinkle I am already behind the ball.  I am late to the “Help Me” Party, and I have failed to help her.  She is now screaming  BACK OFF.


The image below is a great example of what I call “The Perfect Storm” in our home.  I’ll share more on this in an upcoming post, but I for now I will quickly cover the factors involved here that are setting Hocus and the cats up to fail.
This scene could become the perfect storm for a growl
This scene could become the perfect storm for a growl, or air snap.
The arrows in the above image are triggers, perceived threats, or circumstances in which she’s unable to cope effectively:
  • Beaux, the black cat creeping up behind Hocus
  • Albert the grey cat in Hocus’ space
  • Hocus is “pinned” to that spot, unable to back up because the stairs are behind her.
  • She is tired, and does not want to get up from her chosen place of rest.
  • She has just returned from a long romp in the woods; the stress hormones in her body are high.

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.― Maya Angelou

I have no problem admitting that when our dog growls at one of our cats or another dog, it upsets me.  Thankfully, it rarely happens these days, because I have learned how to better manage Hocus, the cats, and also Hocus with new/unfamiliar dogs.  But life happens.  And growls can happen when the perfect storm creeps up.  If she does growl, I can feel the fear and anxiety hit me in the stomach immediately.  That’s how I know how easy it is to yell at a dog for growling.  But I don’t.  I know better now. 

Yelling “HEY! Cut it out! Stop it!” at the dog is our natural response when they’re doing something that makes us afraid or uncomfortable.  Growls and lunges make us feel awful!  We just want it to stop!

But if you step back and think about it, responding this way is really just telling the dog to shut up and stop doing what’s making us feel awful at the moment.   We don’t help them by yelling at them.  We only added MORE stress to a stressful situation.

And, if you are in the habit of hitting, yanking, poking, or “tttssst”-ing your dog, he/she will quickly learn to not growl in front of you.  Why continue to do a behavior that you are going to be punished for?  By punishing the growling behavior, you teach your dog to avoid doing that behavior.  Well done!   The next time your dog feels uncomfortable, he or she might skip the growl, and bite instead.

 Growling is meant to avert aggression, not cause it. ~Nicole Wilde


The Fear Doesn’t Have to Make Sense. 

Our belief or personal opinion about what’s threatening the dog does not have to make sense to us.  The perceived threat is very real to the dog.   My fear of roaches is ridiculous to my entomologist friends, but the fear and my response to the perceived threat (The Roach) is totally appropriate to me.  Usually I flee, but under the perfect storm I will fight.  -Sorry bug friends, trigger stacking happens in people, too and we lash out.  Our dogs’ fears and perceived threats are not unlike my issues with the “R” word.

roach fear
Even googling “roach images” was hard for me.

Growls Work!

In the past our dog learned that growling and/or air snapping worked for her.  Each of these behavior increased distance between our dog and the perceived threat.  So today, if our dog is placed in a situation where she is unable to cope, I know that the growling and/or air snapping behaviors will happen again.  Why?  Behaviors that work (and were reinforced — the animal leaves her space) are likely to repeat.

 Growling and air snapping is a distance increasing behavior.  Dogs do what works for them. 

For example, let’s say Hocus is chewing a high value treat or bone and another animal (cat or dog) has the opportunity to get too close for Hocus’ comfort, a growl will most likely occur if The Perfect Storm is at hand.  (We refer to this as Trigger Stacking.)  When the growl or lunge happens, the other animal quickly leaves Hocus’ space.

What has happened here?  The growl has effectively increased the distance between Hocus, her prized possession, and the perceived “intruder” threat has left.  Growls work.  That’s why dogs choose to use them.


Growls Are Better Than the Alternative.

There are far worse things than a growl.  Think of it this way: Would you rather your dog warn you, a child, or another animal with a growl, or would you rather your dog skip the growl, and go straight to lunging or biting?

I’d prefer a lip curl or a growl, compared to a lunge, air snap, or bite.  But we ultimately want to help our dog to feel like he/she doesn’t need to growl, or lunge at whatever is making our dog feel threatened.

Clearly, no one wants their dog to growl, but we don’t want the dog to NOT growl if something makes her uncomfortable. Growling is communication. So it’s very important information that needs to be heard in a successful canine-human  canine-feline, or canine-canine relationship.


Thanks for the Head’s Up!

If we encounter an unplanned negative situation and Hocus growls or becomes tense, like the images above explain, I make a mental note along these lines, “Oh wow, so that really freaked you out and made you very upset.  Ok. Noted.  Looks like we have to work on how that (insert the perceived threat) makes you feel threatened.  Got it. Thanks for expressing that.  Now I know.  Next time I won’t put you in that situation or I’ll know what to avoid.”

Thank your dog for growling, then calmly remove your dog from the situation or remove the perceived threat away from your dog.


Shake It Off!

After I make the mental note and thank her, I then shake off the stress that I’m feeling, and I encourage her to shake it off too.  I encourage her to play, run, or be goofy!  Help your dog shake off that stress and switch gears in their mind.  We have to remember that seeing that kind of behavior does affect us; it’s alarming and scary to witness, but we don’t have to stay in that fearful place and neither does our dog.  Get out of that situation.  And Get Loose together!

shake it off _dog behavior
Encouraging Hocus to Shake It Off, be Loose, and have FUN after an awkward dog encounter

Set Them Up for Success!

Of course we don’t want dogs to continue to growl all the time.  We want to change the way they feel about a perceived threat.  We do this by setting them up for success.  We do this through positive training techniques.   We do this by managing the environment very carefully.  We do this by using counter conditioning / active desensitization techniques.

How I Set Our Dog Up for Success

I practice full, awake supervision when she is around other animals that might trigger her.  I am aware of the possibility of Trigger Stacking, so I work around that and prevent that from happening.  I am proactive when I know there could be potential triggers for my dog.   Now that I know better, I never put my dog in situations where she is unable to cope.   She now makes better choices that work for her, and the perceived threats are diminished because we helped to change the way she feels about them!


Learn Your Dog’s Canine Clues.

If you can learn to recognize the Canine Clues you will understand your dog’s language, and be able recognize when your dog is uncomfortable and unable to cope.  Set your dog up for success by preventing those circumstances.  Positively respond to the message your dog is sending.  Thank your dog for the message.  Then work with a force-free, science based trainer or behaviorist to work on changing the way your dog feels about that perceived threat.  Rule out any medical issues, and ensure your dog is healthy and free of pain or discomfort.


This week is National Dog Bite prevention week.  We are focused on increasing the safety and harmony of kids and dogs, but I would also love to see an increase in the safety and harmony of all animal companion species in the home.  Cats and dogs, canine companions, and dogs and other pets can become harmonious house mates if we know what to look for, manage them appropriately, and set them all up for success.  This is how be become Conscious Companions.

We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.
Success

Recommended Reads:

Nothing Happens “Out of the Blue”

Image
If this dog could tell us what she is thinking, it might be something like, “I warned you several times through my body language, but you failed to notice, so now I have to do this to make sure you leave me alone!”.

Myth:  Animal bites happen “out of the blue.”

Truth:  Animal bites are provoked in some form, and they can be prevented.  


When I think of common animal bites, three companion animals first come to mind:  dogs, parrots, and cats.  All three of these are social animals. Why does this fact matter?  Well, social animals use very clear cues to communicate with each other and they know how to read and respond to these very subtle cues within their groups.

Now let’s look at humans.  We are very demonstrative when we are speaking with each other and even when thinking silently to ourselves.  We flail our arms around, we grandly gesture, and the more animated characters in our species have very expressive features on our faces.   Now think about a cat, a horse, a rabbit, a parrot, a fish, a tortoise, or even a snake.  Their facial expressions are not designed the ways ours are.  They appear to not be as expressive as humans, but they are quote communicative.  And their species’ form of communication is exceptional amongst themselves.

Each animal’s body language is explicitly clear within the individual species. Each species has evolved to learn how to communicate with exquisite precision, each in their own unique way, without having to be loud and demonstrative. As humans, we often fail to understand their communication.

DAVIS FAMILY PICS 126
Chopin is one example of an animal who was known for Trigger Stacking.

Communication is Key.

Many of the species that I studied, bred, and trained at The Audubon Nature Institute  were the same way.  They used very subtle communication with each other and with the people who cared for them.   When I first started working at Audubon I quickly learned about a common saying that I still practice and believe:  “If you get bitten, it’s always your fault”.  That was a tough truth pill to swallow when I first started began my career there.  I didn’t understand how that could be true. There were so many animals and so many different behaviors to learn!  How could I learn them all and prevent getting bitten?  Two words: Education and Observation. I had to learn how to speak their language by observing them.

Over the decade that I was there I was fortunate to have worked with some of the most amazing and incredibly intelligent species on the planet.  Many of these animals could  bite, scratch, stomp, kick, or gore you, if they were having a bad day.

It was our job as zoo keepers and public educators to keep ourselves safe, the animals safe, and the public that was interacting with the animal safe.  We did this by educating ourselves about each species that was under our supervision and care.  We took the time to learn about their natural behaviors in the wild.  We learned how they tend to behave in captive environments.  We learned how they reacted in certain situations, and with certain people.  We knew their limits. We knew their individual triggers. We knew their boundaries.  Knowing all of this was vital to keeping everyone safe.  It was the responsible and ethical thing to do.


Safety in Your Home

I truly believe that this kind of education should not end at at a professional animal care facility.   This should be happening in every home that has an animal and especially in homes with multiple pets or children.  I find it incredible that so many people love all sorts of companion animals, but they invite them into their home without doing research first.  Many people love their animals but don’t understand how to read the subtle signals and behaviors of their animal companions.  When this happens, scratches, bites, and severe injuries occur.

At a recent dog safety workshop someone asked me, “But don’t some of these animal “attacks” happen out of the blue?”   My answer was simply,”no.”

And here is why:  It’s very dangerous to our community to  say that bites are random occurrences.  If there isn’t an actual stimulus triggering the aggressive behavior, then how can we prevent it?   We can prevent bites, because animal bites happen in response to something that triggered the bite; knowing and understanding this is what helps us understand animal behavior.


 

Awareness Facilitates Understanding about Aggression.

It’s helpful to know that most forms of aggression, except for predation, are distance-increasing behaviors (the animal is attempting to actively increase the distance between itself and the stimulus/stressor).   Think about when an animal lunges at you, this behavior will increase the distance between you and the animal nearly 100 percent of the time.   Animals do this because they know it works.

Very often, bites are a last resort for animals.  Bites often happen when all of the other cues the animal has given are unknowingly ignored.  The Ladder of Aggression helps to explain how aggression can stem from various stressors.


Bites Do Not Occur “Out of the Blue”.

Animal bites are never a random occurrence.  Often there are conditions in the animal’s environment that have continued to “stack up” and set the scene for a bite to occur. This is known as Trigger Stacking.

This happens when multiple “triggers” (stressors unique to the individual animal) happen close together, or at the same time. When these triggers stack up they can have a cumulative negative effect on the animal.   Stress hormones can create a cluster effect of reactivity, causing the animal to behave in a way that he/she normally would not. This can quickly escalate into a dangerous situation.

Trigger Stacking_by The Crossover Trainer

Trigger Stacking_animal bites_dog bite_cat bite_agression_Conscious Companion


Prevention and Awareness Are Necessary.

Make no mistake about it.  Bites can be prevented.  It’s up to each of us to learn the unique signals and respect the boundaries of our animal companions, or the animals that we are working with.

Assuming that animal bites are random can lead to more unfortunate and often fatal incidences, as we are sadly seeing in the news.  The cat that “bit for no reason” probably gave the person at least 6 different signals that a bite would happen if they continued doing what they were doing.  That parrot that “randomly bit” also gave a clear warning.  The dog that bit a person or another dog “out of the blue” gave off a number of red flags well before the bite happened, or they were neck deep in their own personal nightmare of stress hormones and Trigger Stacking!

There ARE signals. There are ample warnings.   They may be subtle, but they are there. I assure you.

Every species is unique and has a unique way of communicating. Every animal within that species has its personal boundaries and individual triggers (just like we do), so it’s up to us as animal guardians to know these individual boundaries and signals.  It’s how we keep them safe, keep ourselves safe, and keep other people and animals safe.

Despite what we often may think, animals are pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t.


Respect Their Boundaries.

Being safe around animals is not something that comes naturally to most animal lovers. It’s natural to want to give love and affection to them, and to receive it from them, but doing this safely has to be taught and learned.  I had to learn how to practice restraint, while recognizing the animals’ clear boundaries.  Over the decade that I worked at the zoo, I worked with crocodiles that would love to add you to their menu, king cobras that could outwit you, feisty donkeys that patiently waited to chomp you, lions that would love to maim you, and hormonal parrots that enjoyed taunting you.

Out of the countless encounters that I had with hundreds of exotic animals, I was bitten five times.  Each of them was a nasty bite, but I never blamed the animal; each one of those bites was my fault.  Three of the bites were food related (I got in the way of their food, or they confused me for food).  One bite was a defensive bite during breeding (they were getting their groove on and I accidentally intruded).  The other bite was redirected aggression at another animal and my hand was in direct-line-of-bite. I can create all the excuses that I want, but I could have prevented ALL of them.

Learn and Grow.

Taking responsibility for these kind of common mistakes can only make us better animal guardians, animal trainers, and animal stewards. There’s no need to feel bad or guilty about it; we just have to learn from the bite so we can help to educate our friends, family, and colleagues on how to prevent it!  Judgement and guilt have no part in learning from our mistakes.  We live and learn.  We then teach others.


Becoming a Conscious Companion

If you are reading this, I can assume that you love the animals that you share your life with enough to be inspired or learn more to improve their lives.  I encourage you to take that love and funnel it into educating yourself, and your family and friends about the basic behavior of the species that you work with, live with, and adore.  Every day I challenge myself to learn something new about the animals I love and live with.  I hope you do the same.

“I am who I am today because of the mistakes I made yesterday.” ― The Prolific Penman

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Hocus Pocus teaching Girl Scouts about dog safety and bite prevention