Growling is a normal behavior, how do you handle it?

By Jennifer Broome, QK Owner

Over the past year it has come to my attention that many dog owners just do not understand why dogs growl, and these owners are quick to react with fear, anger, or by removing the dog from the situation. Unfortunately, these human reactions often can exacerbate things and what was a clear sign of canine communication can snowball into behavioral issues.

Growling is NORMAL for dogs. Growling depends on the circumstance, why they growled, and what happens next. Growling is often a great way for dogs to communicate with each other, and puppies will most often growl at new owners since it comes from a form of play that was successful with their littermates.

Let’s explore further. Growling is a clear form of communication. Dogs growl in play, fear, others in challenge, some with warning that they are about to lash out. When is growling ok and when is it NOT ok?

As an AKC Breeder of Merit for Labrador Retrievers and German Shorthaired Pointers, I have raised my fair share of litters. These pups are born in my home and I observe their interactions daily. Early puppy growls come as form of play as soon as the pup’s eyes open and they begin to interact and frolic with each other. There is a lot of growling that happens and even mini fights that are all part of the pack socialization and developmental process. They are developing a pecking order. The next growls are often heard by Mom at about 4 to 5 weeks when puppy’s teeth are emerging and she begins to wean them. When they try to nurse, she growls first, then will follow with a quick attack meant mostly to scare them, even grabbing them in her entire mouth. For a second the pups think that they might die, and they take the growl as a serious form of communication and they respect it. It is a life and death experience for the pups. It is also their first lesson in respect, and a very important one!

When people bring 7 or 8 week old pups into their homes, the pups will either learn to respect their owners (like their Mom) or they will challenge the family members with puppy play to include biting, rough housing, AND growling. Unfortunately, this is the first failure in dog parenting for most dog owners. They see the puppy as a cute can-do-no-wrong little furry baby and they coddle, play, chase, antagonize and often allow littermate type playing with the humans. This instantly sets the stage that the humans are litter mates of equal status therefore the pup will challenge. Good luck training that puppy!

Experienced dog people become that Momma dog right away and correct these behaviors so that they never develop into dog to human challenges which become hand biting, jumping, disrespecting space, resource guarding, not listening to commands and sadly can lead to human aggression.

What about other forms of growling to include adolescent pups as well as older dogs? As a professional dog trainer, dog lover and someone who lives their life with a pack of dogs and is often surrounded by many other dogs, I hear growling on a daily basis. I got the idea for this article because just before I wrote it, my 2 year old male GSP growled at his sister. There was a free-for-all pile of cow hooves on the floor that I had just put down for their evening enjoyment. Timber growled at his pushy, often steal-the-toys sister who was too close to him when he had his hoof. He was simply saying to her, hey sis, back off, this is MY hoof! Because I live with these dogs and I ALWAYS want to remind and reinforce that I am the leader, I gave him a verbal warning to knock it off, just so that it did not escalate into a fight (it never has) AND to remind him that I am here and I can and will take anyone’s toy or bone anytime. To be honest, his toy hog sister deserved his warning!  My quick follow-up to quit it simply reminded them both that I am TOP DOG here. And it was done, back to chewing. I think that it is important to let these forms of communication happen so that they can establish a pecking order. Why should he have to allow his bratty sister to come steal his toys?

The 4 dogs that I have with me in Florida are toughies. The 2 GSP pups rough house hard and love to fence run and chase the farm poodles who antagonize them. Little do the poodles have a clue that my working dogs are serious and they would find it a fun sport to lay into these obnoxious fence challenges. Add their 12 year old Mom into the mix and the three of them pack up ready for a GOOD dog fight. It starts with growls! Because I know that this is a daily occurrence (these antagonizing fence running barking poodles egging my dogs on) I am never far. I wait for the opportunity where I see my dog’s agitation level rise to the point they not only growl, they bark, attack the fence and this ‘Red Zone’ behavior can instantly be turned onto each other in the heat of the moment and they could tussle. I step in and make my pack stand down by instructing them to lie down. I cannot blame my dogs for wanting to go after the poodles who truly do not have good dog social skills, but I use this as a great training opportunity to control my dog’s emotions. I DO NOT take them away, beat them, or scream at them nonstop with no follow through…. I do much more than that, I make them face the emotional challenge, shut off the assertive behavior and be obedient to me. Their job is to listen, relax and be respectful. This is especially important when it comes to most working dogs. They are going to assert their dominance! The growl was the warning, and typically I am on them instantly at the growl and make them lie down.

Another growl happened two days ago when I brought a very obnoxious young 6 month-old lab into my pack for a week of training. This pup is truly a hyper, crazy spaz that jumps on everything and is just annoying. She has no clue about boundaries or respect of space. She was raised in a kennel. When I let her loose she ran up so hard to my 12 year old Shorthair, got in her face and was instantly bit. I call this great lesson the “Not enough to go to the vet, as it was a quick puncture and was a great warning, NEVER do that again!” My matriarch older bitches are wonderful at teaching boundaries to puppies. This pup never even got a warning growl because the pup was so obnoxious and disrespectful.  Interesting how she now gives this dog a wide berth and steers clear… lesson learned! I let this same pup into my play yard with the 3 GSPs (two 2 year-olds, their 12 yo Mom) and my 9 year old Lab. I know that a fight could easily happen, but more importantly, I knew that a great lesson would more than likely happen with my guidance for my dogs and for the newcomer. I was right there with a Wonderlead rope with its leather knob on the end to break up any fights. The lab pup raced into the yard with way too much energy and the 2 GSP adolescents charged with stiff bodies and growls. The lab pup was scared, scruff up and trying to be submissive suddenly. Good for her! BUT, my two pups carried on with bullyish behavior, so I stepped in with a swift butt whack on the male and calmly took over their dominance by taking their space and making them move away from me. This set the stage that this pack of 5 dogs was obviously led by one leader, ME! What happened next was great to observe. The 3 youngsters began to play and the two older girls just hung out. They bellowed low growls if the crazy pups got too close, and they were respected with a wide berth of space.

So, growling may seem scary to many humans and be taken as aggressive behavior, but it is truly much more than that in dog language. Unfortunately, I learn about too many people over reacting at the growl, separating dogs instantly, not understanding the growl and what the dog is saying with the growl. Our job at QK is to help people be better dog owners by understanding dog communication and learning how to react by observing their dogs. We let packs of dogs play together every day. Not all growls are bad, and we know when to step in and deflate the growl if the meaning behind it is going to escalate into aggression.