Growling is a good thing! Really!


4paws University created this poster. Click on it to go to their Facebook page, and the post related to this image.

 “Dogs don’t bite when a growl will do.”  (4Paws University

When it comes to dealing with canine aggression, truer words have never been spoken. I came across this poster and it’s associated article when it was shared by Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services on Facebook. I loved the graphic and the message and after I read the article, well, I now love 4Paws University too!

I tell people with dogs that growl, “I love that your dog does that.” Think of it as an early warning system, a way for your dog to tell you that the situation is becoming very uncomfortable, and could you please help! Immediate aid often takes the form of increasing the dog’s distance from whatever is causing him discomfort. This will help him to calm down and reduce the chance he will escalate his behavior to make his point. If you punish your dog for growling, he may decide that grumbling is not an effective means of communicating with you and he should move up the ladder of aggression to nipping or biting.  Nor does punishment address the underlying cause of your dogs distress. As 4Paws puts it,

Punishment will stop a dog from growling and other aggressive displays. But it won’t address the reason the dog is growling to begin with. It doesn’t change the dog’s discomfort when being pet, groomed, or handled by the vet. The dog still feels threatened.”

The American Veterinary Society of Veterinary Animal Behavior says this about punishment as a means to correct undesirable behavior:

Punishment also fails to tell the animal what it should be performing instead. Without an alternative appropriate behavior the animal may have no option but to perform the undesired behavior.”

So what do you do when your dog growls? You don’t want to punish it, but you don’t want to ignore it either.

This is the advice that 4Paws gives if your dog growls:

STOP. If your dog growled at you, stop what you’re doing. If your dog growled at someone else, remove him or her from that situation immediately.

EVALUATE. What was happening right before your dog growled? What indications of avoidance did your dog show before growling?  

CALL a qualified professional to teach you how to change your dog’s behavior using reward-based methods.  

In general, long term help involves working with a trainer or behaviorist who is experienced with aggressive dogs to:

  1. recognize what makes your dog upset,
  2. learn to spot other early warning signals that may precede growling,
  3. address the underlying problem, and
  4. teach him do something else instead.

Don’t punish, don’t ignore, but don’t despair! Helping your dog to overcome his fear or discomfort may take some time, patience, and professional help, but you can help your dog to become more comfortable and happy in his world. And remember:

A dog who growls is a good communicator. Punishment takes away their ability to communicate. A dog who can’t communicate is a dangerous dog. (4Paws University).


7/24/15: Nota bena: A really great article on developing bite inhibition in both your puppy and your adult dog is Teaching Bite Inhibition, by Pat Miller and can be found here: In this article there is a link to another Pat Miller article, The “Gift” of Growling, featured in the October 2005 Whole Dog Journal. If you want to access this article, you will need a paid subscription to WDJ.


Behavior or "What the heck?" Stress: signals, management, & warning signs2 comments

  1. Knock off Border Collie Mum says:

    It strikes me as a bit ridiculous when the parent of a human will come up to me at the dog park and say, “your dog just growled at my kid.” Yes, yes he did. It means he needs your kid to back off. How often do we tell our own children to use their words, but then we view vocalizations from an animal as something “wrong” or “inappropriate”? I say enough with our double standards, and good dog for following the rules!

    • Julie Smith says:

      Thank you for your comment. I agree that it is a good thing that your dog growled (rather than bit) to express his discomfort. You and I know that he is “using his words” to let people know he needs them to move away, but many people do not understand that. When someone makes a comment to me along those lines, I try to view it as an opportunity for education, and say something along the lines of, “Thank you for letting me know. I’m sorry if he frightened your child, but I am glad that my dog was able to make it clear that he was uncomfortable and your child listened and backed away.”

      If your dog is uncomfortable around small children, then perhaps you can consider pairing their presence with tasty treats so that for your dog, children begin to equal the good stuff! Let me know if you need some help trying this out and either I can work with you, or find you a positive reinforcement trainer in your area who has experience with this.

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