My teenage border collie Merlin and I were at a morning practice session at my agility club. We’d been working for a long time, and Merlin, getting bored, decided that he’d rather go hang out with the other dogs. He took off after the nearest dog and got in her way. “Come play with me!”
The other dog (let’s call her Sierra) did not appreciate my obnoxious pup’s invitation and gave a sharp growl. No big deal, just her way of saying “get out of my face, punk. I have an agility course to run.”
After apologizing to Sierra’s handler, I took Merlin back to our corner of the training field for a break. Aside from me being slightly annoyed that my normally perfect dog *cough* had acted like a brat, it wasn’t a big deal so we moved on.
A while later, I heard Sierra’s owner and another handler discussing the e-collar (shock collar) Sierra was wearing. Sierra’s owner mentioned that she had “buzzed” Sierra when she growled at my dog.
It’s unfortunate, but such thinking is all too common. It’s this idea that growling is a terrible behavior that must always, always be punished.
The truth is, growling itself really isn’t a bad thing. Growling is not aggression; it is a dog’s way of avoiding aggression. A growl is a warning. It’s the canine equivelent of saying “knock it off” or “something’s not right.”
Sierra had not overreacted to Merlin. In fact, she had also given other warnings (stiffened posture, ears going up and back), which Merlin ignored, before using a growl. My pup was being rude and Sierra was well within her rights to tell him to get lost.
But people tend to react with horror when a dog (particularly their own dog) growls. By the way some people react to a growl, you’d think that the dog had just gnawed someone’s arm off. They want their dog to never, ever growl or give any unpleasant communications. They expect their dogs to go through their life always saying either happy things or nothing at all. Of course, most humans are unable to live up to that standard themselves.
That is not to say that a growl should be disregarded. When your dog growls, you need to assess the situation, determine the underlying cause, and address it. If he growls when you touch a certain area on his body, for example, it may be that he’s hurt and he’s telling you to be careful.
If he growls at a child, that’s your cue to get him away from them immediately and then work on training a better response to kids, before the dog’s fear and anxiety escalates and he does do damage.
Never punish a dog for growling. Be thankful for it. Punishing the growl does not address whatever problem caused it. All it teaches him is a) that you, his owner/friend/leader can’t be trusted to help him when he needs it and b) not to give warnings. The last thing you want is a dog who stays silent when he’s angry or afraid, never giving a warning, and goes straight to biting.