A few days ago I was cleaning the house and wanted to move some furniture. Nishi, my boxer, was sleeping on the floor and blocking the furniture. I tried asking her to move. But she was feeling lazy. So I decided to move her. She hated it and growled at me. I quickly jumped back. My husband looked at me and asked: "You are going to apologise to her, are you not?" It is customary in our house to apologise to the dogs when they growl. So, I did. "Sorry Nishi," I said."I won't do that again darling."
When I talk to my clients, I often find that it is instinctive to show indignation by yelling or punishing when the pet growls. This is natural if a growl is looked at as a show of dominance or a threat. When viewed in that light, it is common for pet parents to feel a sense of indignation that their beloved pet, whom they loved and cared for so much, demonstrated dominance over them. It leads to hurt, disappointment and anger too. Given all these emotions, the reaction is understandable.
Now, let's look at what a growl really means. It is categorised under 'distance creating signals'. Lunging, snarling, showing of teeth and lying down are other examples of these. With these signals a dog is trying all the tools at his disposal to express that he wants more distance from the object of stress, which could be another dog, person or an inanimate object that arouses fear in the dog. In all cases, the message is the same — "I'm nervous. I need more space. PLEASE!"
When their last effort at pleading for space fails, they may resort to the only other tool at their disposal — bite. In most cases, a dog bites only when he does not find or see another option to deal with the stress factor. Opening up other choices to our dog, sooner than later, always help defuse the situation. When Nishi growled, stepping away from her and taking a calm tone was my way of defusing the situation. I was able to do that because I saw that her growl was not a way to threaten me. Being moved when sleeping is a very scary thing for dogs. Hence the saying Let sleeping dogs lie.
However, when a dog growls far more frequently than most other dogs, it's a sign of the dog being at elevated levels of stress. So even when something small stresses him, he is unable to 'see' options to deal with it. This happens to us too. Sometimes when things get too overwhelming we are unable to find our way out of difficult situations. Obviously, adding to stress by yelling or punishing does not help the cause at all.
By growling, your dog is telling you that something is stressing him out a lot. It is better he express that, than bottle it up. If he bottles it up, it might have an undesired outcome. Hence growling is best encouraged. We want the dog to tell us before it's too late.
When a dog is expressing far too frequently that he is stressed, we take a two-fold action. Firstly, we look at all those things that are making him growl and avoid those situations all together. If he is growling around his food bowl then feed him in an isolated place where no one to disturbs him. If he is growling at other dogs, try to walk during odd hours to avoid other dogs. If he is growling when being petted, then pet him only for five seconds and then vocalise your affections.
Next, identify what is causing the elevated stress levels. You may have to seek the advice of a veterinarian to rule out any health issues. Then you could seek the help of a behaviourist to identify other factors that are arising from your lifestyle. It is a long-term project. But having a calm dog is well worth the time and effort invested. It is not only good for the dog and his heart, but also for your canine family.