Written by Sarah on January 4th, 2014
When a dog growls at you, it is instinctual to bristle, freeze, or even lash out verbally and physically to punish the dog for threatening you. It depends on your level of comfort and/or trust with the dog as to what you do. If it is a dog you know well, you may feel safe enough to berate the dog. If it is a dog you don’t know, you will more likely move away to de-escalate the issue. Why is it that we are more likely to hurt those that are closest to us? What if, instead of taking a growl personally, we backed off and thought about what our dog is saying to us? As Nicole Wilde points out, in this great article about growling, “…growling is a non-aggressive form of communication”. Basically, your dog is saying that he/she is uncomfortable with what is going on. That’s it. Your dog isn’t vying for head of the household (99% of the time), or declaring all out war with you.
Believe it or not, growling is exactly what we want our dogs to do when they are upset: communicate their discomfort to us in a non-aggressive way. What else will they do? Write a letter of complaint? When my kids bicker and start escalating things to shoves and crying, I always remind them “Use your words!”. Without clear communication, we don’t know what is wrong. Without the other party listening, there can be no resolution, just continued strife and possibly aggression.
Sadly, I know many people who have “punished the growl out of their dog”. When a dog is punished for a warning, after time, they decide not to give a warning, and instead escalate things to a point where they feel like they will be heard. This usually involves a snap or bite. You don’t want to teach your dog that physical aggression is necessary to resolve his discomfort, but that is exactly what they learn when they finally bite and they get relief from what was stressing them in the first place.
Noone wants to be growled at, but if it happens, make sure you stop and listen. Why is your dog growling? Move away and resolve to make your dog comfortable with that situation. Was the toddler pulling his tail? Train him to love it and keep your toddler under watchful eye. Was a puppy rudely jumping in her face? Train her to turn away, and protect your dog from other obnoxious youngsters. Do his hips hurt because of arthritis? Make sure you use an anti-inflammatory, and warn people to touch him gently there. Our dogs only have us to listen to them and advocate for them. Let’s make sure we listen before we leap.
The article that I quoted was written by Nicole Wilde, a respected canine behaviorist who has worked extensively with wolves and wolf hybrids. She also just happens to be a really great person and very down to earth when it comes to training and technique.
Written by Sarah on August 18th, 2013
We just got a new puppy and I’m so excited to take her outside! But my Vet told me to keep the puppy inside until it has its rabies shot. I’m so bummed. Do I really have to wait 6 weeks before I can let my puppy explore the outdoors??
This is, unfortunately, common advice from Veterinarians who have not kept up to date with the latest advice from Veterinary Behaviorists, the AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior), and trainers all over the world. Puppies desperately need to be exposed to the world in general and other people and dogs in particular during their first 3 months of life. This is a crucial “socialization period”, which is unique to this time period of their life, where they are accepting of new and novel experiences. After this time period, puppies often enter fear periods where they tend to be more suspicious and/or fearful of new things. This is hardly new information, but some vets still have not assimilated it into their practices. It has been well proven that your puppy is more likely to be euthanized due to behavior issue stemming from lack of socialization than he is to die of a contagious disease that he could be vaccinated against. In their very informative handout, the AVSAB says,
“…the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.”
Now this doesn’t mean that you should expose your pup to unnecessary risk either. There are plenty of safe ways to socialize your puppy. Only allow her to play with dogs you know are healthy, up to date on their vaccines, and behaviorally stable. Make sure your pup meets all your friends during this socialization window, and that they all get to give her treats and coo over her! If you have a party, the simple act of having people remove their shoes will almost eliminate any possibility of contamination from outside. You can also carry your puppy EVERYWHERE outside, since the primary risk of contagion is other dogs and their feces. If you put your pup down outside (and I highly suggest you do!), choose an area that has not been frequented by other dogs. A backyard, friends yard, or out of the way park is perfect. To read more on this topic, see the complete AVSAB handout here.
Get your pup out early and often to experience the world she will need to be comfortable with as an adult. Most importantly, enjoy this time with your new little one!!
Written by Sarah on January 18th, 2013
This Interview with Bo Obama’s trainer was great. I found myself nodding in agreement with most of her statements. It’s worth a read, and it can also give you a good idea of my methodologies. I was impressed by how her answers were so similar to what I would have said.
“I don’t like to use labels because once you put a label on a dog, people emphasize the negative for some reason. It’s the way we were raised: “How can I fix this problem.” I don’t think it’s a matter of correcting it; it’s a matter of replacing it with something else incompatible with what they want to do—something desirable. People get focused on what the dog is doing wrong rather than paying attention to what they want the dog to do instead.”