Why Does My Dog Growl?

Why Does My Dog Growl?

“Why does my dog growl?” I get asked this question all the time.....if I’m lucky.

It means that an owner cares enough to want to know the answer to this question so that they can be better dog owners.

If I’m not lucky, then someone DOESN’T ask me.....because they don’t give a flying toss about their dog’s state of mind and just think that growling is a bad thing.

It isn’t.
It’s a very valid form of communication used by dogs who finally realize that humans are too bloody stupid half the time to read all the OTHER forms of communication they’ve already used ten times in an attempt to get the point across.

A growl is a way of saying "Please listen and understand what I’m trying to say to you. I don’t want to bite anyone, but someone needs to pay attention here".

Anyone who thinks that dogs shouldn’t growl, or that growling is a sign of aggression  is, quite simply, a dick.

I took on a new rehabilitation client here at the Desperate Dogs Ranch last week.

Cute little guy by the name of Red (names changed to protect the innocent..usual deal) this sweet little fella came to his adoptive family after being found on the side of the road, battered and nearly dead, huge cuts and lacerations, half his neck ripped out. He had clearly been attacked by another dog, or possibly dogs plural, and was very lucky to have been saved when he was.

His new mum, Katie, fell madly in love with this handsome young man and vowed instantly to save him; taking him home, tending to his cuts, getting him vetted and providing him an environment where he could heal emotionally as well as physically.

Day by day, week by week, this shy and scared young man, at first tentative, and then with more and more confidence, started to sense his safety. "At last", he thought "finally I can exhale. These people are my people, they have my back".

I met Katie for Red’s evaluation during which we discussed why she was here. He had bitten her son, nipped at a visitor and was now very territorial about his space. He started out great, she said, but then all of a sudden started acting very aggressively towards family members.

Nothing happens out of the blue, I told her, and I asked her to tell me about Red’s relationship history with the rest of the family. What was the singular traumatic event that caused the ‘worm to turn?’

And so Katie talked.

I listened, talked with her as I watched Red in multiple situations with my behavioral assistant Harry and our trigger dog Hoss for almost three hours, and was struck by how kind and nurturing she was, how patient and gentle. I remarked to her that Red was the luckiest guy on the planet.

In some ways.

Read on……

About two months after he arrived in their home, Red was doing something or other that Katie’s husband, Jack, didn’t like and so he instantly reached out to stop him with his hand.

Red responded by growling loudly at Jack, which didn’t go down well with this red blooded American male who’s home was HIS castle.

So, he quickly and roughly grabbed Red’s collar, held him down to the ground with a tight grip and didn’t let up until Red stopped wriggling.

Jesus, if you only knew how many times a week some tosser tells me they’ve done this to "show the dog who’s boss" and it’s all because they’ve seen some pompous little jackass ‘dog trainer’ on TV with a puffed up chest (hmmmm...who might that be?) talk about exerting force on the dog in order to get ‘calm submission’…….

Ugh, just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

To all you folks who think that Jack was spot on and can’t understand why I think his actions were wrong, let’s just unpack the situation.

Red was physically ill and very weak when he first came to Katie’s house. Dogs in that state either capitulate or fight until they can’t fight any more. He very sensibly capitulated, and this won the affections of Katie, who took him home and set about mending him.

Over time, his body started to heal and his confidence started to grow. As did his trust  of his new family. He started to venture out to play with the other family dog and even with the cat. 

However, injuries such as his would have still left enormous physical and emotional scars that were very much there, even though they weren’t as keenly visible. 

So, when Jack reached out to forcibly stop him that day, he would have instantly shouted "NO! I’m in pain, don’t touch me there, please understand that after all I’ve been through I’m afraid of touch and my body hurts like hell still."

The growl he emitted would have been because all of the other signs he had given to Jack in that brief moment before his hand made contact had been wholeheartedly ignored. 

There would have been a rounding of the eyes and the white of the eye shown. Pupils would have been dilated.

Red’s ears would have instantly gone back flat against his head.

His commissure  (the skin around his mouth) might have become taut and drawn.

His body would have appeared braced,  maybe even shrinking back, a common preparation for perceived assault, right?

All of these signs would have been visible to the eye, if only someone had bothered to read a few paragraphs on dog body language and behavior when they invited this dog, this other species, who spoke a very different language, into their home.

Why does nobody ever do that? We all read shit tons of books on bringing up a baby when we get knocked up; nine months of solid study that would put your average college student to shame, when babies are of our own flesh, speak the same language, don’t have teeth like daggers and can’t run 35 miles an hour!

But learn about what a dog is saying?

"Nah...I’ve been around dogs all my life. Dogs love me. There’s nothing you can tell me about dogs. You just gotta be the dominant one". 

Total shit.

Jack decided, through his own ignorance of dog behavior, to "show him who was boss".........instead of showing him how a true pack leader behaves.

A true pack leader listens, watches and then understands and does all he or she can to ensure the health, happiness and stability of the pack. 

Sometimes this does require discipline, sometimes just love, but always, always, always it requires empathy.

Imagine if we were talking instead about Jack and Katie’s child; let’s say they had a 16 year old daughter, and she had been smacked about by some random guy she met while out with friends, and turned up back at home bruised and looking like Mike Tyson’s punch bag.

After she had been hospitalized, had undergone therapy from a professional counselor, been treated with kid gloves for months and months, and was finally starting to heal, wouldn’t they be uber cautious about how they, even as a family member, handled her? 

Wouldn’t they tiptoe around anything requiring ANY kind of touch, letting her know it was necessary and apologizing if this frightened her? 

How physical would they be with her if she needed disciplining in some way, after that awful event in her life?

If she winced or cried because someone put a foot out of line, wouldn’t they be reassuring her that they understood, that this was perfectly normal and to be expected? 

Wouldn’t they instantly withdraw and find kinder, gentler ways to effect the required result?

Of course they would! And rightly so…..

But throw two more legs and a tail on a body and all of a sudden the one reacting in fear to the onslaught of unwelcome touch is an asshole?

A growl is a communication, nothing more. 

It’s the dog’s way of saying "Please leave me alone” or "This frightens me" or "Don’t come near me right now" or "I don’t trust this situation" or even "I never owned anything my whole life that I didn’t have to fight for, and I’m just really frightened I’ll lose this valuable thing if you come near me with that hand"........it could honestly be any one of a million reasons…..

But here’s the thing...they’re all valid.

And we need to listen. 

And then find other ways to deal with that situation that don’t threaten and put the dog in an impossible situation that no one, no one, can come back from. Once a dog feels threatened by you, you see, he will react very differently to you and those around him. 

And that’s why Red bit Katie’s son. 

He went from confident to fearful in one single action, and all of the trust that had been built over two months of care, went straight down the shitter the minute that man put his hand on that (badly injured) neck and forced that dog to the ground to "make him pay".

Simply for speaking up. 

Going forward, was he going to trust anyone that came near him with hands that wanted to touch? 


Hands were now to be classified under ‘weapons of mass destruction’. No matter who they belonged to.

Nice one Jack. Way to put your entire family at risk.

When we were kids in England we had a mantra that the local policeman used to come into the primary school classroom every month to drill into us......it was ‘STOP. LOOK. LISTEN’.

This was actually all about road safety, and how to cross the road safety so you didn’t get squashed by a truck. 

But oh my goodness how it applies to dealing with dogs, especially new four legged family members who might have no previous experience of living in a family.

Stop........Don’t just reach for the dog expecting him to be okay with whatever you’re doing, take a minute..... question as to whether your next course of action is appropriate. Remember they’re a different species, they don’t live by the same rules we do.

Look..........Check out his or her body language before your hand makes contact with that dog. Look for signs of distress, look for signs of pain and fear, carefully check his or her body language. All of the signs listed above in this article are clear warning signs, lit up in neon lights, that you shouldn’t touch the dog. If you do, and you get bit, it ain’t his fault. In fact, you deserve a damn good mauling.

Listen..........The growl is telling you everything you need to know. Respect and honor it in the way you would a humans vocalization of their feelings.

As I write this, I am sitting up at Frankie and Andy’s Place, our senior dog sanctuary. Snazzy just walked past me and I absentmindedly stroked her as she sashayed by my leg. She immediately grumbled a clear ‘F*** off’ to me, and so I was instantly contrite.

I apologized to her, whipped my hand away and instead smiled at her with all the warmth my eyes could muster.

Snazzy has dreadful arthritis in her shoulders, and didn’t want any pressure from my hands in that moment. I’ve known her for 4 years, adored her for three and a half of them and totally trust in her ability to communicate her feelings to me. 

I listen to her, because I knew she had something important to say to me.

Even if it was just to tell me to ‘F*ck off’…..
Cut The Crap
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