Let me set the stage for you. I had worked late and got home after dark. My husband was putting my 2 year old daughter to bed. My daughter’s room is at the end of the hallway. He had shut the door to her room. It was dark despite a light being on in the hallway. When I arrive home I’m usually greeted at the door with wags and prancing feet. Tonight Evey didn’t greet me. I also couldn’t hear my husband or daughter. So after settling in I went looking for them. I walked down the hallway past the light in the hallway. I noticed Evey sleeping outside my daughter’s door. So I stopped walking towards her and whispered her name, so I wouldn’t disrupt the bedtime routine. She picked up her head looked at me and emitted a low threatening rumble. I immediately turned sideways, away from her and called to her. Immediately she changed her whole attitude. Evey’s body loosened, her tail went up into a helicopter spin and she pranced her way toward me.
This was the first time Evey has ever growled at anyone, never mind me, her momma. I’ll be honest with you, it’s a little unsettling to be the recipient of that low rumbling threat. However, I’m so proud of her warning. She was in a really tough spot. It was dark, she was sleeping, and I was backlit so she couldn’t see me (although I suspect at 9 years old her vision is a bit blurry anyway). And all she did was growl! AMAZING!
Growling is a behavior that is meant to increase distance between a dog and a threat. Lots of people are very uncomfortable with growls and rightfully so. Growls are meant to make you feel uncomfortable so you’ll leave. However, it’s a popular misconception that you should ignore or punish a growl so your dog won’t growl again.
Punishing a growl can be extremely problematic. Most dogs growl because they are uncomfortable, afraid, or upset. When you punish a growl you may confirm that bad things happen in whatever situation your dog is in. For example, a dog who growls at children and is then yelled at for growling realizes that when children are present, his guardians yell at him. So children must be bad.
The second problem with punishing a growl is even scarier. By definition punishment (if effective) decreases a specific behavior, in this case growling. When you punish your dog for growling at children they may stop (or suppress) growling, which is what you wanted superficially. However, the underlying discomfort with children has not been addressed and your dog is no longer giving that safe warning sign. Now when a child gets too close to your, now non-growling, dog the only thing your dog can do to express his discomfort is to escalate and bite the child. This is often reported as “My dog is fine with children. I don’t know what happened. He bit the child ‘out of nowhere’.”
So when your dog growls, listen to them and do whatever you need to do to remove them from that situation. In my case, I had to tell Evey that I wasn’t a threat by letting her recognize me from a distance and not approaching her. If your dog growls often it’s time to contact a professional so that you can safely address his issues further. Never punish a growl.
My dog growled at me and I’m happy for it!