Today we know that dominance theory, AKA the alpha myth, is based on flawed science and has been debunked even by the very scientist who came up with it. Briefly, the theory came out of a study of captive non-related wolves housed together who fought for dominant positions in their artificial pack. In reality, wild wolves live in family groups and prominent positions in the pack are held by parents who are given deference by offspring much like in a human family. (For an expanded explanation of why dominance theory is wrong, read this article from the Whole Dog Journal.)
Yup, its that simple. Growling is a vocal expression of a dog’s discomfort which generally follows visual cues that have been ignored or unnoticed by the humans.
Dominance is a social relationship, not a personality trait. In the dog world, dominant behavior is conspecific (meaning it occurs only between members of the same species) and situational. It occurs when two dogs both want access to a resource of equal value, like a comfy bed or bone, and aggression to secure the resource is used as a last resort.
Only if all of these visual warning signs are ignored, will a dog resort to growling. If the growling goes unheeded, she may snap at the air which is her last resort before biting. You can see from this progression that if you teach a dog that growling results in punishment, she may feel forced to go from licking her lips to biting. This is why you often here people say a dog “bit out of nowhere,” the dog did give warnings, they just weren’t understood by the humans.
When a dog feels uncomfortable for whatever reason, she will show you with her facial expressions and body postures before escalating to growling. Much like humans, a stressed dog will hold her jaw tighter, wrinkle her eyebrows together, she may lick her lips or yawn which are called appeasement gestures in an effort to show she is not a threat and does not want to fight. She may lift one paw off the ground or tuck her tail between her legs.
Don’t push your dog over his tolerance threshold. Whatever you’re doing, just stop.
If your dog’s growl threshold is near his bite threshold – that is, if there’s not much time between his growl and his bite, get safe. If his growl doesn’t mean a bite is imminent, stop what you’re doing but stay where you are. Wait until he relaxes, then move away, so you’re rewarding the relaxed behavior rather than the growl.
Explore ways to get your dog to do something that does not elicit aggressive communication.
Try to get your dog to behave without eliciting a growl. Lure him rather than physically pushing or pulling him. Have someone else feed him treats or use a Licki Mat while you touch, groom, or restrain him. If you don’t have to do whatever it was that elicited the growl, don’t – until you can convince him that the activity in question is a good thing rather than a bad thing.
I change methods after getting growled at.
You love your dog to pieces, but are considering putting him up for rehoming. Unfortunately, the dog recently growled when you tried to remove his food bowl. You have children, and its just not acceptable to have an unreliable dog in the house.
A friend advised you to make a point of removing the food bowl and to smack the dog if he growls. The friend said something about teaching the dog whos boss, but in all honesty, youre too scared of the dog to try this. What if it backfired? You could get badly bitten. Common sense tells you that its best to respect the message the dog is sending out, rather than challenge him.
Happily, you spoke to a knowledgeable trainer who uses reward-based training methods. They were horrified by the idea of removing the dogs bowl as a sort of test. Instead, they explained the complexity of why dogs growl and what to do about it, so that the flashpoint of food can be avoided and the dog can continue to live with you.
Superficially, training a dog to stop growling is easy. But methods involving a punishment each time the dog growls are definitely NOT the way to go. Inhibiting the growling creates a more serious problem–a dog that bites without warning.
Instead, its essential to analyze why the dog is growling (is he in pain, stressed, possessive, or territorial?) and then correct the underlying problem. In the short term, how you react to the growling makes a big difference, so its important to know what to do (and not to do) when faced with a growling dog.
This is unlikely to be a quick fix, so be prepared to put time and effort into consistently retraining the dog, improving his co-operation, and helping him overcome deep-seated anxieties.
Teaching a dog to stop growling isnt so much to do with special equipment, but represents a mental challenge. You need to think through why the dog is distressed (growling is, after all, a sign of inner conflict or tension) and diffuse the situation.
A growling dog is a short step away from biting. If your dog growls at you, then its important to know what to do next, so that accidents dont trigger an attack.
Stop in your tracks. Avoid making direct eye contact with the dog. Wait until he relaxes slightly, then slowly back away (so that you are rewarding his relaxed behavior.)
Now analyze what happened and what you were doing that made the dog growl. For example, where you about to remove his food bowl, move him from the couch, or put his lead on? This can give you valuable clues about the motivation for his behavior.