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Thank Your Dog for Growling

Written by Leah Roberts
Taken from the Orlando Dog Training and Behavior Examiner.

Dobie's story

Dobie started growling at children while on walks.  On a recommendation by his vet, his concerned owner brought him to see a trainer who followed traditional training methods.  Here she was taught to correct Dobie's growling by giving a short, quick yank on a choke collar and saying "No!"  After a week or so of following this advice, she was very happy to see that Dobie had stopped growling at children.

And then a while later, a child ran up to the dog while on a walk and reached out her hand to pet him.  Because Dobie didn't growl, the child was not hesitant and the owner was not concerned.  Suddenly Dobie turned and bit the child's hand.  His owner described this incident later as "It happened out of nowhere!"

Growling is a valuable warning signal

Did it really come out of nowhere?  Not at all.  Dobie's growling was a way of telling his owner, "I am afraid of these children who come by while we are on a walk."  It was also his way of telling the children, "Please get away from me."  For whatever reason, Dobie had begun to perceive children as a threat.  Correcting his growling forced him to inhibit his warnings, but his feelings about children did not change.  Therefore it was only a matter of time that some child would step over his fear threshhold, and without the warning growl Dobie's only way to cope was to escalate to a bite.

Correcting a growl, snarl, or even a lunge/snap is like putting a bandage on an infected wound.  It will disguise the problem for a period of time, but not solve it - in fact, it will fester and get worse.  Aggressive acts are simply reactions to a fearful stimulus.  Like humans, when dogs become fearful they have the choice of fight or flight.  Some dogs hide behind their owners' legs.  Others act out in an aggressive manner. 

When a warning display is inhibited and escape is not an option, the dog (or human) who feels helpless will shut down.  Though Dobie appeared to be in no distress, one experienced in reading dog body language would have seen his signals.  His head was down, his ears were tensely held close to his head, the whites were showing in his eyes, and his tail was held clamped down.  Feeling cornered and with no way to express it, he panicked and bit the hand that he perceived as attacking him. 

Not only does correction inhibit the dog's way of communicating his discomfort, the owner's tone and body language exacerbate it.  To the dog, the child's approach not only makes him nervous, it causes his owner to tense up and yell.  This is powerful confirmation to the dog whose owner is his whole world that his fears are well-founded. 

Heal the cause, not the symptom

Fortunately, due to modern research in behavioral science,  more humane and effective ways of dealing with aggressive acts have been developed.  These methods are grounded in the use of desensitization and counter conditioning. On the Clicker Train USA website, it states: "We want to counter condition our fearful dog to accept other dogs.  By combining counter conditioning and desensitization we can accomplish that.  We will start exposing our dog to other dogs at a very low level - in this case a far enough distance (that's the densensitization part).  In addition, we will give the dog very tasty treats when he sees the other dogs (that's the counter conditioning part).  Gradually, we can convince the dog that other dogs mean good treats." 

Leslie McDevitt, MLA, CDBC, CPDT took this concept one step further when she developed the Look At That (LAT) game detailed in her book, "Control Unleashed."  Previously counter conditioning protocols required the dog to look away from the aversive stimuli (person or dog that frightened him).  With this method, the dog is actually rewarded for looking AT the object of fear.  The result is that the dog starts to seek opportunities to look at, and even eventually approach, the object that used to cause him to growl, lunge, or snap.  Instead of thinking, "uh oh, here comes something scary," his response changes to "oh yay, here comes something that makes GOOD things happen!"

Kellie Snider, MS, the Manager of Animal Behavior Programs at the SPCA of Texas, developed Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT) as her graduate thesis under the direction of behavior analyst Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, PhD.   In this revolutionary treatment, the dog is rewarded for calm behavior by allowing him to increase his distance from the feared object.  Since it's very important that the dog be kept below his fear threshhold at all times, the procedure requires that the initial distance be easy for the dog to handle, therefore helping to increase his feeling of safety when in the vicinity of the person or dog that frightens him. 

On her website Kellie states, "In the CAT procedure we use the reinforcer the dog is already working for.  It is usually distance from the aversive stimuli.  In our treatment we provide the outcome he wants only when he behaves in safe, friendly ways."   As with the LAT method, there is an additional benefit that is not a result of procedures using corrections.  "But a funny thing happens in the treatment," she continues.  "He learns to like other people and dogs."

Local Orlando area help

If your dog is displaying aggressive behavior, you need to see a trainer/behaviorist who is both a practitioner of dog-friendly methods based in modern behavioral science and also experienced with aggression issues. 

If these issues aren't addressed, it could result in a human or other dog receiving a serious bite.  One of our local behaviorists is Belinda DeLaby, CBC, CPDT, the owner of Canine Action, Inc. in Oviedo.  Belinda has been training dogs for 15 years and has extensive experience dealing with aggression.  

What can you do?

Meanwhile there are several important things that you, the owner, should do if your dog is displaying aggressive behaviors towards a human or other dog:

  • Avoid contact with whatever it is your dog fears.  If you usually walk him in a heavily populated area and he's reactive to strange people, choose another more quiet place to walk him.  The more exposure he has without therapy, the worse his fears are likely to get.

  • If you suddenly come upon an aversive stimuli (something that makes your dog react aggressively), STAY CALM.  He will be taking his cues from you.  Keep breathing, keep your voice calm and cheerful, and take him out of the situation as quickly and nonchalantly as you can.  If possible, don't put any tension on his leash - that tension travels right through him.

  • Call your local experienced behaviorist as soon as possible and make an appointment for evaluation.

Lastly, don't assume that just because your dog is displaying aggressive behaviors, you have an aggressive dog.  He is not a bad dog, he is a dog with a problem that can very often be resolved with the right behavioral modification therapy.


The information contained in this document is the property of the author, Leah Roberts and is re-printed with permission.

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