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