Monday, July 11, 2011

When Your Dog Growls, Say Thank You

Say what? Yep, you read that correctly. Most people are probably asking, But why would you say thank you for showing aggression?

First, it’s not necessarily aggression that your dog is expressing. Second, he’s telling you he’s either stressed, anxious, or just uncomfortable. Lastly, he doesn’t want to bite; otherwise, he’d do just that and not give you the warning signals.

Dogs communicate beautifully, we just don’t understand or usually see the first 10 signals they give us. Then they are left with no choice but to bite because we’ve ignored these very important cues earlier in the interaction.

It’s very rare for a dog not to give warning signals prior to the bite or fight. I’ve seen it happen and believe me you want your dog to growl, air snap, stiffen and all the other signs that he’s stressed. It gives you time to react. There was no history of the first year of this dog’s life. So, somewhere along the way he was either 1) reprimanded/punished for the growls and snapping, 2) it didn’t work and he was forced to fight anyways, or 3) he just didn’t learn it from lack of socialization as a puppy. I had literally less than 2 seconds to respond before he attacked another dog. Luckily we had already muzzled him because of previous encounters.

Now, I’m not saying let your dog growl to no end. My point is if he growls, calmly remove him from the situation. Find out what it was that caused the stress and work towards building positive reactions under threshold. Then slowly (VERY slowly!) build up his confidence to handle the situation without stress.

Growling is somewhere in the middle of warning signals (sometimes called calming signals because that’s what the dog is really trying to do). Beforehand, he would have given much subtler cues, such as his eyes may have widened and thus seeing the whites. After the growl is the air snapping. Again, this is meant to say I don’t want to bite, but push me further and I might do just that. The air snaps might be followed by a bite, but barely contacting the skin (another warning). Or, it might be followed by complete quiet and stiffening of the body. This is the dangerous one, if you don’t act by removing your dog quickly from this situation, he will definitely bite. 

OK, so they're not exactly fighting (don't have any photos of that). The middle dog is having the time of his life being picked on by his older sisters.

Yelling can be the worst thing you could do in this circumstance. Yelling is like barking to dog and it just makes the situation more intense and stressful. You want to redirect your dog to something positive and regain his front brain thinking.

I call it happy talk, but see if you can redirect by high-pitched chatter. Something along the lines of Who wants a treat? Oh, look there’s the cookie jar. Use words that your dog will recognize and will cause him to think and thus, react differently.

A couple of times a year there’s a little tension between our 2 females. I can tell from experience that if someone yelled, there was a 100% chance it would escalate to a fight. If someone got up suddenly and talked in a high-pitched voice, WooHoo! Who wants a treat? Then clapped and said Yeah! All of the sudden the girls would be running to the treat jar. We would make them do something (e.g., sit, down, shake) and then give a treat. Whew, fight was diverted.

So, if your dog is communicating that he’s stressed, remove him from the environment or make the environment less stressful. Then you can work towards building his confidence for later encounters.

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