What should I do if my dog growls at me?
“I told my neighbor what happened and he said his dog growled at him, ONCE. Should I do what my neighbor did?”
First, step away from the dog. Step back from the edge. Don’t do anything. Take a deep, deep breath and enjoy a long steady exhale. To paraphrase Steve Martin in “Father of the Bride” in the scene when he was confronted while snooping around his prospective in-laws' house by their two snarling Dobermans, and desperately searching for the right words to extricate himself from the jam: “Relax, Release, Renew, Repent.” In other words, don’t do anything until the right words become available to properly define the situation.
Second, understand that there’s nothing wrong with your dog and there’s nothing wrong with you. If you choose to, you can now take Step One to healing. Input is becoming output. In other words, there’s something in your dog (fear) that’s trying to get out. You can choose to add more fear to the equation and drive it down deeper; or choose to turn fear back into the desire from whence it came. Fear can never be satisfied, it can only get stronger, only desire can be consummated.
Let’s begin by asking: why does a dog growl? When I began as a dog trainer I would have answered that it was contextual. In one context it could be an expression of dominance or territoriality or guarding a possession or a person, what behavioral scientists call “resources,” and then there were of course those situations where it’s an expression of fear, possibly even of pain. But I no longer make such distinctions because I believe that growling is always an expression of fear no matter the context or the situation. The dog is attracted to something but is feeling blocked at the same time. This state of emotional paralysis builds up force and for the dog this emotional surge triggers the physical memory of the worst thing that has ever happened to it. So it “attributes” this build up of force to the object of its attraction and is therefore afraid of what it’s attracted to.
In this understanding, growling is an adaptive physiological response to radiate energy out of the system, to dump energy SO THAT THE DOG DOESN’T HAVE TO ACT. The dog’s emotional center-of-gravity is “stuck” in its muzzle, just like there’s a cork in the stopper of a flask of a gas that's being heated. The dog is trying to hold back the force that’s building behind this block and as the fear intensifies some is leaking out in order to keep the dog from exploding. This is not a signal per se but it is a communication of energy nonetheless because the vibrating sounds of the growling triggers a corresponding vibration in the emotional battery of the observer, and which unsettles it in turn and so the object of attraction be it a dog or a person is “informed” to keep away. However by the same token, when dealing with another dog that has the exact same charge the growling can actually draw the other dog in so that the two dogs end up in a fight. Then, because fighting led to a relief from pressure this fighting behavior takes on a life of its own so that such dogs seek out other such like-charged dogs in order to get these periodic purges. Of course, the relief they find is short lived since they haven’t achieved a high level of synchronicity to turn the underlying fear back into its underlying desire, and so we merely end up with confirmed dog fighters that become more and more sensitized to the stuck charges in other dogs.
Another way of looking at growling is that this behavior represents a dog pushing energy out of its muzzle in order to keep a bubble OF CONNECTION between itself and the person or dog it’s attracted to, AS A BUFFER. Every behavior is a function of attraction, but if one is attracted to something one is afraid of, then one settles into a safe distance, either physically or emotionally, in order to feel a satisfying degree of connection relative to the fear of collapse were the gap to be closed. So when a dog growls at its owner, this means that in this context there is more energy in the connection between them, and yet not enough distance between them relative to that degree of pressure. The more heat added to the system, then the more volume is needed to keep the pressure at the level associated with comfort. Too much heat and the flask will explode.
Finally, another way of saying this, and which is especially relevant to how one should solve this issue; is that your dog is attracted to you with more energy than the connection between you and your dog can channel. The dog doesn’t perceive you as a ground for its deepest energy; it sees you as a block. It’s attracted to you with an energy that simultaneously makes it feel blocked.
I’ve never experienced this with a dog I’ve raised from a puppy, however back in the eighties when I was in what I would call my super-positive phase (but I’m not saying I was practicing positive OC training so no critique intended), I had been raising and training a client’s dog in terms of its prey instinct and doing everything in as positive a manner as I could. One day after a game of fetch with this young shepherd, it was time to put him away and he followed me indoors and ran into its crate with the stick still in its mouth. I locked him in but then debated the wisdom of leaving him with his beloved stick since he was surely going to chew it to splinters and I had just dealt with a dog with an abscess from a sliver of wood embedded in its gum. So seeing the end of the stick at the front of the crate I opened the gate and reached in to get it. I was shocked when the shepherd with which I had just been playing, and which was overjoyed with joy every time he saw me, growled in a profoundly menacing tone. No question if I touched that stick he was going to bite me. I’m sorry to say but my hard-wired dog training instincts filled me with a high-octane anger: “How dare this dog growl at me after all the positive training and gratification of its prey instinct I have been doing all this time. That’s it. Boy is he going to get it.”
However I was also teaching myself during this period a new way of looking at behavior in terms of energy and most especially the idea of the emotional battery. And so I decided to step back from the situation and try to put what was happening into this frame of reference. Like Steve Martin in “Father of the Bride” I was scanning the menu for the right thing to say or do. “Relax, Release, Relent, Repent.” And then I got it.
In my mind I had been being super positive, I was the nicest, greatest and bestest dog trainer I could hope to be, and yet that still doesn’t mean that I had attracted all the energy in the dog's emotional system. Obviously something was being left in the tank and maybe this was the source of its intense displays of personality which I was misinterpreting as “friendliness.” Maybe only now was he showing me energy he normally hid.
So I had a choice. I could say that I was doing everything wrong just like the learning theorists as well as the dominance proponents would be quick to tell me, or, I could take my emerging energy model to the next logical step and say, “Aha, the dog is feeling more energy of attraction toward me than he can give me.” The connection between us is like a pipe but apparently I hadn’t been developing it big enough to accommodate all the stress that the dog had in its system, and that perhaps I was even causing by playing stick with him. Maybe I was mousing with the dog when I should have been Moosing. Maybe the dog was now just becoming mature enough to express what it had been internalizing up until that point. Not only that, but for the first time the dog was showing me energy he normally hides from me. This was my choice; I could see it as a problem, or as an opportunity.
So the actual reason why the dog growled didn’t matter, all that mattered was that the dog was now showing me energy that he otherwise didn’t feel safe to express. Once in his crate with the prey between his paws, the dog held all the cards making him feel free to show his fear of me, to me. The dog was showing me energy I had never attracted and therefore had never to this point been available for training. The key is not to take it personally.
The simple truth was that the dog is afraid of me and so I shouldn’t respond to the dog’s fear with my fear. I went back to the kennel kitchen, got a food treat, opened the gate to his crate and said to the dog as I looked him in the eye and his muzzle began to pursed up into an emerging growl, “Goooood boy, what a goood bootiful boy, yea, get that bad stick” at which point the dog came out of the crate took the cookie and then I guided him back into the crate and repeated my pointing toward the stick and telling him how much I appreciated him giving me his fear. (Today I would have increased the degree of softening by doing push-for-food over stick in crate.) Soon he relaxed and would let me reach in over the stick and give him a good rub-a-dub on his body as he gobbled up a handful of food. From then on everyday we practiced going in and out of crate with the stick and giving-stick-to-handler when handler reaches into crate. I eventually broadened it to include juicy marrow bones. The dog lived to a ripe old age and got along famously with everyone. He only growled at me ONCE.