An otherwise well-socialized dog may growl when approached. A long and protracted growl is not necessarily sign of an impending attack, rather the dog is warning us that he feels decidedly uneasy. When his personal space is violated, the dog has two options — to retreat, or, to convince the intruder to retreat. In many situations however, the dog’s retreat is prevented, for example, when on leash, when restrained during a veterinary examination, or when playfully cornered by a child and so, the dog can only growl as a signal that he is feeling uneasy and to warn people to stay away. The growl is not necessarily an indication of an irreparably flawed temperament but rather, the growl is simply an advertisement of the dog's discomfort at having been forced into a threatening situation for which he has been given insufficient preparation, i.e., the owner is trying to push the dog too far too fast. And if owners continue to push the dogs, many growling dogs will eventually bite.

Such behavior problems may be adequately resolved using progressive desensitization techniques but of course, they are much more easily prevented during puppyhood via routine proofing and confidence building exercises. In effect, all we have to teach the dog is that other dogs and people — especially strangers and children — are no threat and then, the dog has no reason to growl. The owner must first deal with the underlying confidence problem and then, train the dog not to growl.

The relative ease of prevention and treatment should not seduce one to adopt a cavalier attitude. The problem is extremely serious and a delinquent response on behalf of the owner spells disaster for the dog and danger for strangers and children. Until the problem is resolved, common sense dictates that the dog be appropriately controlled and/or confined at all times and should never be allowed on public property, or around strangers and children. Without appropriate treatment, the dog's confidence and behavior will worsen with each exposure to threatening situations (e.g., crowded places, or veterinary clinics).

Dogs growl because they are insecure and anxious in social situations. If the underlying insecurity is not resolved, the growls will become warnings of escalating aggression.  Aside from obvious safety concerns, we must also address the dog’s peace of mind. It is decidedly not pleasant to feel anxious yet be forced to face your biggest fears on a daily basis. If a dog feels anxious around people, it is simply unfair, cruel even, to force the dog to frequent places where there are lots of people. Regardless of the reasons for the dog’s fear, there is a huge urgency to resolve the problem — to rebuild the dog’s confidence — so that your dog can get his life back.

The “Solution” Becomes The Problem

If an owner is nervous or reactive, the dog will likely become nervous and reactive. As the dog starts “acting up”, the handler becomes more apprehensive. As the dog senses the rising tension, he becomes increasingly “on edge”. A vicious circle quickly develops as the dog's uneasiness fuels the owner's anxiety and vice versa. The approach of a stranger may be the last straw that prompts the dog to growl and maybe bite.

Limiting treatment to punishing the dog for growling usually makes matters worse. The dog is growling because he feels uptight in specific situations, for example, when approached by a stranger. If the dog is punished, he now has two reasons to be uptight — the initial reason — lack of confidence and now, the prospect of correction, or punishment, which further destroys his confidence.

In many cases, punishment causes the growling to increase in frequency. This is not a learning paradox but rather, physical punishment is a common cause for growling. Any punishment in a stressful situation will only make the dog more on edge.  Another vicious circle develops, whereby the more the dog is punished, the more he has reason to growl and hence, the more he is punished etc. The “attack” by the handler  — the dog's only immediate ally — tends to make dogs especially nervous and “spooky”. It must be extremely unsettling for a dog to have his best friend suddenly turn against him in times of need. At first the dog may be puzzled by the handler's unpredictable outbursts. Soon, however, the dog learns that the handler's uneasiness is contingent upon the specific situation, e.g., approach by another dog, or a stranger. As such, the stranger's approach now becomes a signal that forewarns the dog that punishment is imminent. Most dogs do not like it when their owners become anxious, apprehensive, or agitated and so, the dog now has a third reason to growl — to keep the stranger at bay, in order to prevent the owner from becoming uneasy.  It as if the dog is trying to communicate to the approaching dog or stranger, “Keep back! My owner is untrustworthy around other people and dogs.”

Characteristically, the dog develops a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type personality. Owners often report that their dog is perfectly fine off-leash but that he invariably becomes reactive on-leash (i.e., with his owner close) and when other dogs and strangers approach.  Ironically, the dog probably has the same view about the owner. “My owner is just wonderful most of the time. She comes from exceptional breeding stock and she is perfect when off-leash but … she simply cannot be trusted on-leash around other people or dogs.”

Even more dangerous are cases wherein punishment successfully inhibits growling yet does nothing to resolve, or even exacerbates, the underlying problem. The dog still feels uptight, but no longer gives warning. The dog still doesn’t like strangers and wants to growl, but dare not. This is akin to a smoke alarm with no batteries, or a time-bomb with no tick. The dog's temperament is still extremely unstable but on the surface, all appears to be well. When dogs are agitated, the very last thing to do is stop them from growling. I mean that literally. Of course, the dog should be trained to stop growling, but only once the underlying confidence problem has been resolved.


Temperament training involves two-stage progressive desensitization, whereby the dog learns not only to tolerate the proximity and contact of strangers but also, to thoroughly enjoy their company and actions (even including mildly aversive handling). Progressive desensitization basically comprises shaping the classical conditioning process. Once the dog eagerly welcomes strangers and is no longer intimidated by their actions, and hence has no reason to act defensively, he may be taught to "Shush!" on command, as described in Malamute Memories.

Various desensitization and classical conditioning techniques have been descried in other articles, e.g., Retreat ‘n Treat and specific “ouch-tests”, “grab-tests” and other confidence building exercises are illustrated in the SIRIUS® Puppy Training DVDs. In fact, lure-reward (non-contact) training techniques (illustrated in the DVDs) are the techniques de rigueur for working with fearful and/or aggressive dogs. It is important for strangers not to reach for, or touch, fearful dogs during training, because proximity and contact by strangers is often the trigger. Similarly, merely contacting, let alone correcting an aggressive dog may precipitate aggressive behavior. The idea is to alleviate the problem, not make it worse.

The prime directive in rehabilitation is that no stranger be allowed to approach, let alone touch, the dog, until the dog has both the confidence and the inclination to approach and contact the stranger. A fearful or aggressive dog should never be “flooded” by a social stimulus. The social stimulus, e.g., person or another dog, should never be allowed to approach. Instead the dog must be given ample time and opportunity to retreat, or approach when ready.

Therapy hinges on getting the dog to approach a stranger voluntarily. Enticing the dog to approach for the first time is the most time consuming aspect of treatment, thereafter training proceeds quickly and smoothly. Training is facilitated using both counterconditioning and troubleshooting techniques. Rather than antagonizing the dog's condition, by subjecting him to infrequent and scary hugging or examination by strangers often followed by correction and punishment, the goal is to progressively build the dog's confidence via several hundred gentle approaches and brief examinations, each with pleasant consequences. It is important not to push the dog too far too fast. The dog must always have the option of retreating.


Before involving a stranger, the owner should teach the dog how he is expected to act around people. Knowing acceptable protocol, i.e., knowing “what to do”, often reduces anxiety when under stress. For example, for people who are nervous when speaking in public, reading from cue cards is less nerve-racking than giving an extemporaneous address in front of two thousand people. It is easier for the dog to be in a controlled position when being examined, but let's forget the stand for examination until the dog has completely overcome his fear of strangers. The stand-stay is the most unstable of the four basic stays and most probably, instructing the dog to stand already has unpleasant associations. To continue to force the dog to stand for examination will destroy the dog's stand-stay in short order.  Instead, once the dog voluntarily approaches each person, we will teach him to first sit for examination and later to lie down, or roll over, when being examined. The stand-stay will be reintroduced once the dog is no longer afraid of people.

To expedite desensitization, it is advisable to subject the dog to a couple of hundred sit for examinations, involving half a dozen or so strangers, in a single session. Multiple approaches are essential for success, since the first approach is always the most frightening and time consuming. Thereafter, the dog builds confidence with each examination.

Whether performed as a preventive exercise for puppies and good natured adult dogs, or as a therapeutic exercise for growly adult dogs, the following procedure may be applied to a single dog at home or in a private consultation, or in a class format as described below.

Confidence Building Classes
One or more six-week classes may be required to rehabilitate adult fearful dogs. However, the lengthy procedure explained below may be, and should be, conducted during a Puppy Class as a preventive exercise, in just a fraction of the time.

Each dog attends class with his owner and a friend. In Week 1 the owner teaches the dog the routine described below, with the friend holding the leash and then, the friend works the dog while the owner holds the leash. Once owner and friend have each approached the dog twenty- or thirty-times, the friends continue to restrain the dogs on leash while the owners work as strangers with the next dog in line. The entire process is repeated with at least twice as many trials, before the owners move on to work with the next dog in the line, and so forth.

To encourage the dogs to approach strangers, work with hungry dogs and plenty of tasty food treats. Remember that strangers cannot use the rewards that they would normally use when training their own dogs — praise and petting. A stranger’s voice, approach and hand-contact are the very triggers that precipitate fearfulness and aggression.  During rehabilitation, ONLY feed dogs from the hand. Any time you feed a dog from a food bowl is a terrible waste of potential rewards in training that otherwise could have helped the dog overcome his fears.  Feeding a dog from a food bowl hijacks training.

Because the dogs will receive a whole bunch of treats in a single session, do not use junk-food treats, or else the dogs will end up with livers like geese.  Instead, use the dog's regular dry kibble garnished with a little freeze-dried liver. Each day, weigh out the dogs daily ration of kibble, put it in a plastic bag with a pinch of freeze-dried liver powder, shake well and use as directed. Tonight the dog will eat dinner, handfed by strangers. Obviously, if any dog has a history of lunging, snapping, or nipping, muzzle the dog. Wearing an open-ended muzzle, a dog may safely take treats from the open hand.  If the dog has any history of biting (puncturing the skin), the following procedure should be conducted as a private consultation and not in a public class.

1. Even though your dog quickly learned to approach you and your friend, it is highly unlikely he will run straight up to take a treat from the first stranger. However, it is usually possible to entice the dog to approach at least part of the way. See Retreat ‘n Treat. If the stranger stands at a distance where the dog feels comfortable, tosses a treat and then steps back, characteristically, the dog will tentatively approach to grab the treat before bidding a hasty retreat. Characteristically, fearful dogs vacillate between approach and avoidance as they build confidence. If they are allowed to retreat and approach in their own good time, the vacillation gradually disappears, especially if the stranger retreats each time the dog approaches. After a number of trials, the dog will approach and take food from the stranger’s hand. Repeat this a number of times, with the stranger always stepping back as the dog takes the food, thus encouraging the dog to approach once more. Each approach builds confidence.

2. Once the dog approaches readily, use a lure-hand signal to entice the dog to sit before receiving the food reward. Again, lure-reward techniques are absolutely essential when training fearful dogs to approach and sit. The stranger must never approach, reach for, or touch the dog until he eagerly and enthusiastically approaches and sits.

3. Once the dog has approached and sat to take treats several times in a row, rather than giving the treat, instruct the dog to sit-stay and step back a couple of paces (with the dog restrained on leash). The dog has become accustomed to receiving a treat immediately upon sitting and hence, will exclaim the canine equivalent of: "Yo! Get back here with my treat". The stranger may now safely approach to offer the treat since the dog is no longer afraid. (Only seconds previously, he had voluntarily approached and nuzzled the stranger's hand.) The dog is now kept in a sit-stay while the stranger alternately retreats and approaches (and treats) the dog several times in succession, progressively increasing the speed and varying the manner with each approach.

4. Once the dog is accustomed to any manner, or speed, of approach, the stranger may stand in front of the dog and periodically offer treats while the dog remains in a sit-stay. When the dog is thoroughly at ease with the stranger’s presence (and presents), the handler may slowly reach for the dog and briefly scratch him behind his ear with one hand, while offering a treat with the other hand. This is repeated many times over, progressively increasing the scratching-time with each treat until substantial petting (examination) is possible. The speed of hand movement and the vigorousness of contact are gradually increased with each trial. After sufficient repetitions, the stranger will be able to quickly grab the dog's scruff and hold on firmly and the dog will say, "Where's my treat good buddy? Go on, grab me again!"

If ever the dog appears to be apprehensive, baulks, or lowers his head when touched, immediately back-pedal and happily call the dog, i.e., go back to square one and start again — the dog was being pushed too far too fast. It is important to proceed slowly. A single mistake — just a little impatience — will cause an enormous retrograde step.

5. Once the dog feels comfortable with approach and contact, it is time to combine the two exercises. With the dog in a sit-stay, back-up, approach, instruct the dog to sit, reach for his collar and offer the treat. Repeat this many times over, varying both the speed and nature of the approach and contact.

The above routine is repeated in Week 2 with the same people, each carrying something, e.g., walking stick, umbrella, clip board, etc.  Weeks 3 & 4 are similar to Weeks 1 & 2, but employing a down for examination instead of the sit, and in Week 4 everybody wears something a little out of the ordinary, e.g., floppy hats, sunglasses, false beards, sou'wester and Wellies, Mickey Mouse masks, frogman's flippers, etc. Week 5 introduces the stand for examination and Week 6 the rollover for examination. However, by now, the dogs are no longer afraid of people and so their approach will not untowardly affect the dogs’ stays.  Additionally in Week 6, everybody wears a costume, walks silly and talks silly. At this stage, the many strangers (now, all good buddies) may run and shout and grab the dog, which happily and confidently remains to be handled.

If necessary the six-week course may be repeated with a new selection of strangers but additionally, the above procedure should be repeated with every person who comes in contact with the dog as part of routine canine husbandry. Temperament training never stops.

The dog no longer growls when the stranger approaches, because he is no longer afraid of strangers, so now it is time to teach the dog to "Shush!" on cue. Should the dog ever growl at anyone in the future, instruct the dog to shush (so as not to frighten people) and immediately remove the dog from the stressful situation (because he is still frightened). And then it is time for MUCH more classical conditioning and desensitization. You stopped training because you thought the dog was better. Remember, behavior never remains the same. If you continue to train your dog, his behavior will continue to improve. But as soon as you stop training, your dog’s behavior will begin to drift downhill. And so, keep training.

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This article is based on Dr. Dunbar's Behavior column in the June 1989 issue of the American Kennel Gazette. Reprinted with permission of the author and the American Kennel Club.

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