What to do when your dog growls at you or the kids
I recently came across a post by a large welfare organisation promoting advice on dog behaviour, specifically what to do if your dog growls at you or your kids. The heading read:
“Never tell off a dog for growling. A dog won’t bite if a growl will do.”
It went on to say that if you tell a dog off for growling, you will create a dog that bites with no warning. Apparently, a quote from a recent Dog-Bite Prevention conference was “If you take the growl out of the dog it is just like taking the batteries out of a fire alarm.”
As a dog trainer, I was utterly shocked. Not only does this limited thinking show considerable lack of understanding of dog behaviour and psychology, it is potentially very dangerous advice to be giving to the public, especially where children are concerned. I am in no way meaning my disagreement as a personal attack on whoever gave this advice. I do believe it was written with good intentions and I know that most dog trainers really do love dogs which to me means we should be and generally are ‘on the same side’. However, I do feel compelled to share my own thoughts (based on considerable experience in dog training) in the hope it gives some clarity and some balance.
This was my response.
“This advice is very good for some situations but in my opinion isn’t sound across the board. While I agree that yes in many cases a growl is an attempt to create space or let a child know they’ve “had enough” there are many times when a dog growls when you need to tell them it is unacceptable behaviour. This positive only stuff frustrates me no end. I know people mean well but it’s not natural to be so unbalanced. Anyone who says never tell your dog off has not worked SUCCESSFULLY with a wide enough range of behaviours and temperaments. How about don’t ever tell your kids off for being rude or answering back? I’d love to live in a world where it’s all sunshine and rainbows but it’s not realistic. Sometimes you need to say no and provide loving discipline BECAUSE you love them. I see case after case of unbalanced dogs whose owners have been disempowered and misinformed by the positive only crowd and think they have to put up with behaviours that are causing everyone stress – mostly the poor dog! I agree with “as positive as possible” but for us to decide that we as humans know how to communicate with dogs better than dogs themselves is arrogant and dangerous”.
I’m all for agreeing that many dog bites occur due to human error and misunderstanding and that we need to provide our dogs with what they need to be fulfilled and free of stress. And yes, this includes allowing your dog enough space and the ability to ‘get away’ when they feel overwhelmed. If your dog is growling in confusion or desperation then, of course, they shouldn’t be punished. It should be seen as a major alarm bell that the environment and management need to change. Kids do need to be supervised around dogs, just the same as when they are around pools and fires! I have no doubt that we’re on the same page here.
However, what about the other times a dog growls?
It astounds and scares me that blanket statements such as the above are misinforming people to never tell their dog off even if it growls at them to challenge them!! Can you imagine if a child started getting possessive of the sofa or of the cookies and refusing to allow their parents near them and the parents said “everyone back away! Give him space”.
Backing away or ‘allowing’ a dog to growl at you or your children is called SUBMISSION. The one to leave or back down is the weaker one. This is universal. Unless you’re submitting to avoid the immediate danger of being bitten, this is a futile approach. It will confuse your dog into thinking they can successfully challenge you again and the problem will almost always escalate. Your dog needs to back away, not you. Stay calm and firm and hold your ground. Communicate that this is not acceptable behaviour, it won’t intimidate you and that they need to solve their problem in a different way. As long as you are assertive, not aggressive, your dog will never be offended. Standing up for yourself and having personal boundaries is never inappropriate.
If you feel you and your dog would benefit from in-home dog training, Get in touch with SitDropStay in your area.
It is important to note that this behaviour doesn’t mean that your dog has an aggressive temperament, a mean streak, a genetic problem or that the behaviour will necessarily continue. In rare cases this may be true, but for the majority of cases, it should be seen as a normal and healthy behaviour that needs shaping. Just as kids need to learn to share, you must teach your dog that this is unacceptable behaviour in our human world. If your child started to bite the other kids at kindy, it doesn’t mean your child is defective or mean spirited! It just means you need to work out what’s happening and deal with it. Pulling them out of kindy and never letting them near other kids again isn’t the answer, nor is hoping they’ll grow out if it and doing nothing. Take control of the situation and be proactive. Make it clear that it is not ok (in my experience, to be taken seriously you will need to give some kind of consequence) and when they have accepted it, move on.
If your dog continues to challenge you and you’re struggling, get professional help in the form of a dog behaviourist or in-home dog training as soon as possible.