Why A Growl Is Good

My new Akita puppy Jack was on his bed chewing a fresh bone. I sat down beside him to work on desensitizing him to having things taken away. There is little of higher value to a dog than a fresh bone. I asked him in a singsong voice “What have you got there?” and put my hand on the bone. His response was to clench the bone and give a low growl. My husband was watching this exchange and was flabbergasted when I calmly got up without saying a word to go get my training bag with treats in it. “Why didn’t you correct him?” was his question to me. “And why are you about to give him some treats?”
Dogs are a different species. I say that because it seems many people believe a dog should respond or be taught to respond to things the same way a human would. That is just unfair to the dog. Now some would have given the dog a correction and just taken the bone away. I’m sure I could have gotten the bone too as he was only a pup at the time. But what would that have taught the dog? It certainly would have made bones even higher on the value list, which in turn could have escalated the aggression in the future the next time someone tried to remove that item. They do remember from past experiences.
The other thing that would have done would be to teach the dog NOT to growl. You might be wondering why this is important. Remember that different species bit? Well dogs communicate differently than humans as well. Growling is actually a good thing! It is one way your dog is communicating with you. We need to start listening to their communication instead of repressing it. Why? Because to take away that communication can spell disaster in the future.
Dogs use a lot of body language in their communication. Not only do they growl but their body will tense up. Growling is almost always preceded with the stiffening of the body and what I call “the hairy eyeball”. Mothers know this look and use it often. (most commonly in a store or in public with their kids) It is a non-verbal warning. A dog would be able to see this subtle sign of warning from another dog. We humans are less perceptive (in general) and usually push it with the dog to the point of them needing to progress to a verbal or more noticeable cue. The stiffening and hairy eyeball is what I call step one in a warning.
Step two will be either a low growl or the showing of teeth with a raised lip. Now consider that the dog is TRYING to avoid an altercation. It is using everything in its’ bag of tricks to get the point across. What happens if we correct a dog at this point? Well depending on the dog, we either teach them NOT to give a warning, or we get bit because the dog clearly considers itself a leader or equal to you because a leader or equal is allowed to give corrections to others. Leaders are also in charge of food and high value items. Remember we are talking about the dog’s perception of the incident and it’s role within the pack, not our perception. Even if there are no other dogs in your pack, YOU are part of the dogs pack in its’ mind.
OK so say we keep pushing this dog. What happens next usually is step three, or a nip. It might also be an air snap. There is a progression to this in proper dog language. They will only use the amount of warning signals (what we generally label as aggression) needed to end the altercation. If the other dog doesn’t listen and respond to the warnings, you may end up with an all out fight IF the dog doing the warning doesn’t decide to give up the bone. (Let me point out I am talking about dogs that have learned proper dog communication with other dogs.) If that other dog is a person and either ignores the warnings, or wants to prove a point, they will probably get bitten. How serious the bite is depends on where the dog connects or how much force the person tries to use against the dog. (which results in the dog using more force back) A bite to the face usually causes more damage than a bite to the arm.
Many dog bites are in the face because when a dog goes to correct another dog they commonly bite on the muzzle of the other dog. (corrections and attacks are two separate events for the purpose of this article) Children are also on face level with an adult dog and so are more commonly bitten than adults. Staring into a dogs face can also cause a bite because it is perceived in dog language as a threat or a challenge. Unfortunately children do this a lot. Humans, lacking muzzles, damage much easier than another dog. We also receive a lot of damage because we tend to pull away during a bite, which causes our more fragile (than dogs) skin to tear. I call step four a bite even though a nip is also a bite, just on a different, some would say less serious, level. By less serious I am speaking in tissue damage terms, not necessarily psychologically less damaging.
So what would happen in this same scenario if the dog had been taught not to growl? Someone would get bitten. The dog would have learned NOT to give a warning. Then you end up with a dog you cannot predict which can be very dangerous. Who would be to blame for that bite? The person that took away that dogs method to communicate of course. A dog can only respond like a dog.
OK so back to Jack and his bone. I sat down and played “trade the treat for the bone” game with him. I made sure to praise him for giving up the bone AND I always gave it back to him after the trade. This way he learns that he will get the item back and it is worth it to give it up to me in the first place. After a 15 minutes session I stopped and let him chew his bone in peace. Of course I explained the process to my husband as I played with Jack. He looked skeptical at first. After a 20 minute rest I walked over and asked Jack for the bone which I got with no protest. That proved my point for hubby and Jack again got the bone back with praise. Ten minutes after that Missy, our French bulldog, had cleaned her bone of the marrow and decided she wanted Jacks to work on. Missy is the head dog in our house regardless of her smaller size. She slowly walked over and gave him “the look”. Jack looked back at her, huffed a sigh, got up and calmly walked away.
Tail wags,
Marie Finnegan
K-9 Solutions Dog Training Inc.


Someone passed this article to my coworker, and we were both so pleased with the content for the first several paragraphs. Then, suddenly, the discussion turned from rational advice about the utility of audible warnings by dogs, to a claim that to "correct" the dog in that case could have led to a bite because the dog "clearly considers itself a leader or equal to you" and so can't permit you to issue a correction.

The dog clearly considers himself to be eating a bone, and there is plenty of good research to show that a canid, whatever its rank, will protect its food, or it will have a very short life as a canid. In a naturally constituted pack, such as a wolf family, the leaders, who are the parents, are not in charge of food, etc., and if they were in the absolute way described here, they would soon be, not pack members, but freelancers, as the other members of the family would be debilitated or dead. The author wisely says, "the dog can only respond like a dog". How true. Why, then, do people continue to overinterpret that lack of behavioral plasticity, and in this case, mistake an attempt to retain a resource for a assertion of rank? Dogs can only behave like dogs. That fact should not lead people to believe that they see us as dogs, as in "if that other dog is a person".

I don't know that "corrections and attacks" are the best ways to think of the behaviors the author is describing; I prefer defensive aggression myself. Correction in particular is a very human concept, with its baggage of moral rectitude. I have a whole houseful of dogs, and I see lots of agonistic behavior, but it usually looks like a simple, "hey, knock that off", a stop signal; not a "correction". Last, I suspect that humans often get bitten in the face because, in our primate way, we present our faces to everything, and in particular, get down and hug, kiss, or admonish dogs; children get bitten in the face because their faces are usually right in front of the dog because of their shorter stature. And last; I don't know any reason to think a dog's skin is more impervious than ours, but they do have something we lack: a hair coat.


A very well written and thoughtful response! I would go a step further and throw out the word pack completely when talking about domestic dogs. What wolves do with each other is neither here nor there when we're discussing resource guarding in our pet dogs and how we respond.

I appreciate both your response and Marie's post, as both are clearly stating that the current emphasis on confrontational training in our society is not the best way to do things.

I explain resource guarding to my clients as a very natural, normal thing for ANY animal to do, even humans. Most of us lock our doors, keep our PIN numbers secret and a few of us (me) might consider poking someone with a fork if they tried to take a bite of our coveted cheesecake. It's natrual to defend property that we value, and it's natural for dogs to "talk" to us in their language...the growl.

The point, in my opinion, is not to teach the dog that I am the boss and I can take away anything they love. Rather, it is to teach the dog that I am not a threat, I don't wish to ruin their enjoyment of a bone, I can be trusted. By following the protocol Marie has described (trading and giving back) I can relay this message.

The extra verbage having to do with pack theory and why dogs bite might not be in line with my understanding of dog behavior, but the method gets a thumbs up from me.

Cindy Bruckart

I will try to reply intelligently to this. Replies aren't my strong suit so bear with me.

Perhaps I used some wrong wording. Correction in the article refers to the dog being physically assulted by the owner for growling in the first place. Unfortunatly this is all to common. And the part to which you refer, the dog seeing itself as an equal, I said the reaction depends on the dog involved. Not all dogs give a rats patootie about status as it relates to the human members of their pack, but some clearly do. I have lived and worked with akitas for 16 years and I have seen it in action. You are right that not all resource guarding is about rank however. Most is only about the high value item in question.

Is how our dogs act towards us related to pack rank at all? Maybe not. I certainly don't know everything. But can we say for sure it isn't? I don't think they see us as dogs at all, but I do think they sometimes treat us the same way they do other dogs. Like for instance when puppies play with us using their teeth like they do other puppies. Or when they hump people as a dominance display. Why wouldn't other behaviors also cross the species line between us?

Our dogs aren't wolves so the guarding behavior is no longer needed for survival. Unfortunatly dogs will fight until one of them is dead, unlike the same situation in a wolf pack.

People saying Knock it off as a stop signal in regards to resource guarding only serves to teach the dog not to give a warning. It doesn't stop the dog from guarding the prized item or feeling differently about guarding the item.

Dogs giving each other the knock it off look is entirely different in my book. Because the communication between them is much more precise than from us and translates clearly. However if the dog saying knock it off isn't listened to, a decision then gets made. Someone needs to decide to back down or there could be a fight.

I hope that makes the articles intention more clear.

Tail wags,
Marie Finnegan
K-9 Solutions Dog Training Inc.

Cindy, you are preaching to a choir girl here when you say throw out pack altogether. When we tell our clients that dogs are not pack animals, their mouths drop open. A group of dogs in a domestic situation is not a pack in any ethologically sound sense (I tell people I'm running a group home for wayward dogs at my house). The notion that dogs exist in packs and the extension of that idea to assert that dogs believe people in their household are members of a pack is what disturbs me. You're right; trading is good. If the approach of the owner makes the dog look forward to a bonus, resource guarding will be minimized. In fact, so will what we refer to at work as "an atmosphere of plenty". This is certainly not true of all dogs, but many will be less concerned about high value food or toys if these things are not rare.

Marie, I haven't lived and worked with akitas, that is for sure. But I have lived with quite a few dogs who were surrendered for behavior problems, and I have never identified anything that I would characterize as conflicts over status with humans. I'm wondering what you have seen. I don't think any resource guarding is about rank, because I don't think that rank in a hierarchy is something that exists in groups of dogs. I don't think that people need to be leaders to train dogs, so I was disturbed by the statement that leaders control resources. When we are trying to get our clients to use learning principles to train their dogs, bringing up the need to be a leader just muddies the waters.

I think we can say for sure that the way our dogs act toward us is not related to pack rank at all for the reasons above; they are not pack animals. Again, they treat us the same way they do other dogs because they can only behave like dogs. Puppies use their teeth because mouths are the things dogs use most for grasping; they grasp each other and they grasp us; they don't have any other tool to do that. Humping is not a dominance display, though, it's an anxious behavior. One look at a dog in a dog park "air humping" another dog, and you realize that the humping dog is the most anxious one in the group. You often see dogs hump in social situations with people that clearly make them nervous. So I don't see either of those behaviors in the same light as you do.

You are right: I meant dogs "saying" knock it off to each other, saying "stop that", not people saying knock it off to dogs. I meant this as a general comment on the concept of correction; the word and its connotations are inaccurate, I think, and troubling. If my clients think of dogs correcting each other, they will conceive of this as a natural canine behavior, and proceed to correct their dogs, so I want that concept out of there. Again, I think my dogs indicate to each other that they want a behavior to stop, not that they correct each other, and those two things are not the same. The stop signal can be a look, a growl, a snarl or a snap. Certainly if the other dog doesn't stop, there can be a fight, though I'm not sure that there is a lot of decision-making in an emotionally charged interaction.

It sounds like your puppy turned out to be a great dog, though, and that's wonderful.

My information about dogs as pack animals comes from reading Dr. Patricia McConnell's book "The other end of the leash" and her other writting. For the record she is an etholoist as well as a trainer and behaviorist. So we may need to agree to disagree on the pack debate.

Could it also be that perhaps some dogs are pack animals and some aren't? Based on early socialization experiences or environment? Not all dogs evolved from the same animals. (wolves, pariah dogs, etc.) Hence the different charactaristics and temperments within the species.

The pack debate is a non-issue to some degree anyhow. I do not believe we need to dominate our dogs nor do I think that we need to figure out who is who within the pack. Since pack dynamics are fluid, we may be wrong. Like I said before not all dogs care about status.

It is an interesting discussion. Who knows, we could both be right. :-)

Just my opinion.

Tail wags,
Marie Finnegan
K-9 Solutions Dog Training Inc.


I'm with you on the non-issue status of the pack debate. I think that these constructs are far more important to people than they are to dogs. It seems that pack structure and dominance theory make it easier for people to understand dogs, even if their understanding is skewed because of it.

In the end, even if it turns out that we're right or wrong it doesn't change what the behavior IS and what we need to do about it.

You know, I've watched a lot of shows about the prison system and I often think that prison populations are a much clearer example of pack dynamics than any group of dogs I've ever observed. Another example is any high school! Maybe humans are the true pack animals and we are having trouble seeing through any other lens.

In any case, whatever the dog is thinking, I'm grateful for the growl! Nothing is scarier than a dog who keeps quiet about his true intentions.

Cindy Bruckart

Well, a few thoughts: sorry that this has got so far from the subject of the growl, but it is interesting.
It's been said that what you call things influences how you think about them (and how you treat them). I have seen time and time again that if clients think their dogs are trying to rise in a pack that includes the humans and other dogs in the household, or to control the humans and dogs in the household, it is much more difficult to get them to work appropriately with their dogs' behavior problems. If I take a few minutes to explain that there is no good evidence to support that view of their dogs' social behavior, they are usually much more receptive to the idea that we are going to try to lower the pet's stress and then use the pet's ability to learn to improve the situation. It is certainly a relief to people who thought they had acquired a pet, rather than an adversary, to learn that they don't have to concern themselves with defending rank from that pet.

Cindy has a great point. When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail, as they say, and humans are very hierarchical. Look at any human organization, large or small, and you have the picture; prisons offer an extreme example of how destructive humans can be to each other with their hierarchical behavior. I had a great primatology professor who used to say that field ethologists need to be exquisitely careful not to project human social sensibilities onto the animals they are studying, and that it's terribly easy to make that mistake. I remember his talking about a very aggressive male chimpanzee who would come roaring into a new community and stir up all sorts of trouble. Problem was that he was shunned by each new group, and ended by moving from one to another over a distance of many miles. This was so disadvantageous for him because he was using a tremendous amount of energy with all that aggressive display, but he had no support system at all, but until he parsed that for the students, many thought the chimp was an "alpha male" and on top of the world. There were a lot of good lessons in that class that apply to all sorts of discussions of dominance. Another reason why I'm so persistent about this is contained in Cindy's sentence: "even if their understanding is skewed because of it". That skewed understanding causes a lot of difficulty for a lot of dogs, and it also makes possible the public's fascination with trainers who use force and invoke the concept of dominance and pack behavior to excuse that use of force. This is currently a bigger issue in dog training in this country than it has been for at least 10 years.

There is also some great new information on the evolution of dogs, now that the dog genome has been sequenced, and the evidence now is that all dogs are descended from wolves. I can't attach the articles to this post, but if you google some of the principle authors, e.g. Sutter or Ostrander, you should find some of them. The one Marie would probably be most interested in is the one that estimates the age of various breeds. The akita is quite ancient, apparently.

Here is a link to some info from a really interesting study that relates to the social dynamics of dogs. This discussion made me think of it.


Tail wags,
Marie Finnegan
K-9 Solutions Dog Training Inc.


Interesting comments. I wonder, though, in situations where there are no discernible warnings/cues, what does one do? I speak of a situation at a show where many people witnessed an attack by one of the dogs on a nearby participant. According to witnesses and the handler of the nearby victim, the attacker gave NO visible or audible clues that he was about to attack. He just lunged and latched onto his neighbor. I have witnessed this dog's behavior firsthand and he does not give any clues that he is about to lunge at neighboring dogs.

Perhaps this does not relate to the subject at hand, but it's certainly one that many can relate to, especially at conformation shows: dogs that give NO warning via body language or audible warnings.

Thanks for the insight. I agree, A Growl is Good!

It makes you wonder how the dog who attacks at shows was trained, doesn't it? Certainly there are show handlers who deal pretty severely with their charges; we just saw a dog who had been treated harshly in show training. He was just flat; it was sad to see.

The information about Dr. Beach is interesting, but my understanding of his work was that it was principally involved with reproductive endocrinology and behavior of beagles, as well as other animals. He did some of the seminal modern work in that field; I took a neuroendocrinology course in which his work was presented as having changed the scientific view of the effects of sex steriods on brain and behavior. I wish I did know more about the work looking at non-reproductive social interactions, and if there are references, I'd appreciate them. I have read descriptions of some of the work; I don't know how accurate they were, but they were sort of "take two beagles, add one bone". There must have been more to it than that.

I have one of Dr. Beach's papers from a relatively popular journal, American Psychologist, titled "Locks and Beagles"; it is about reproductive behavior. It has photos of the field station at the University of California at Berkeley where Dr. Beach did his later work. The dog facility in the photos is an enclosed yard with kennels around the side. I imagine there may have been other parts of the dog facility that were not shown, but the photos bring up a concern of mine. This is a very depauperate environment, and there is not much for these dogs to do, not much opportunity for increasing social distance, no apparent enrichment for them. I have no idea how many dogs were kept there, but with all the mating that was going on, I guess there was either a lot of euthanizing or a lot of rehoming, because the facility doesn't seem very big. I don't know whether the non-reproductive studies were done at the facility in the photos, but if they were, I think the husbandry alone could be a confound. Wolf parks with only a few acres and dog facilities like the one in the photos can cause what I think of as the refugee camp effect. One should be cautious about believing that the fact that a behavior can be elicited in extreme conditions, means that it is a norm for a species studied. The other problem, sort of a gladiator effect, is a product of the "two beagles one bone" experimental design, which people seem to find very compelling as a way to elucidate social hierarchies: the hypothesis is that the winner of the resource is dominant to the other animal.

In the article I have Dr. Beach says something to the effect that it would be good for science if all papers were written in ink that disappeared after 10 years, so that newer work could find its proper place. I wonder how he would approach his purely social experiments today, in the light of all the new information about learning and social behavior in many species.

The discussion that is going on here is why this is one of my favorite dog websites. I'm going back to the original post here: as I read it, I kept thinking of how our llamas used to interact when we had a llama ranch some years back. Here's a bit I wrote then about two of the llamas at that time:

"The two males communicated through slight changes in ear position. In one exchange, Levi's ears were back a little as Tumbleweed approached where Levi was eating. Levi's ears lowered an inch. Tumbleweed didn't leave. Levi lowered his ears further and raised his neck. Tumbleweed left.

"Through signals such as these, the two of them worked out their living arrangements. Their system seemed to have some advantage over human ways of handling the same issues. I began indicating my mood by placing my hands at the side of my head in the appropriate position."

The growling in the article above is even more like the pre-spitting sequence the llamas used, far more often than they ever progressed to an actual spitting incident.

Rosana Hart

HI Marie:

Your post of Feb. 15th discusses why growling is a good thing and suggests a way to deal with resource guarding. How do you deal with growling during restraint such as when the dog doesn't want to be picked up and growls.

Robert Cline
Akita Owner

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