Aggressive Threats (Growling and snarling)

Owners of dogs that growl and snarl are often worried about having an aggressive dog. Growling isn't always serious. Dogs sometimes growl in play with each other, and may growl in play with humans. There are also conversational growls, like grumbling comments, such as 'do you really have to groom me?' which don't lead to anything. The dog isn't really spooked or angry, just grumbling. It's when dogs are spooked, very aroused, that growling tells you that there's a problem.

 Growling and snarling are ways that some spooked dogs try to create distance. They want the human or dog they're growling at to go away. An aroused, growling dog shows fear, as well as anger. He may be afraid of losing his dinner, or losing a comfy place on the sofa, or being sat on roughly handled to get him off the sofa, or being yanked out roughly from under a table. It's fear of losing something or having something done to him, or both. Sensitive dogs may also fear being shouted at, especially when they don't understand why. Growling here isn't just about fear, because a dog that's simply fearful will cringe, or urinate submissively. It's fear mixed with anger, a sign that the dog will defend possession of something, or himself. This growling says the dog doesn't want to pick a fight, but may bite if you push it. Towering over a growling dog, and trying to touch his collar is pushing it, asking him to bite you, as is putting your hand under the table to try to yank him out. It can be upsetting to have your dog growl at you, but it's a useful sign that you need to work on whatever issue is behind the growl.

Some dogs can go through their lives without ever growling at a human. Either they feel very relaxed and trusting with their owner, or they just show fear when they are spooked, rather than fear and anger. Other dogs may start growling in a threatening way at humans as young as three months, and if the issues are not worked on, this can carry on all their lives. They find it works, in that the owner then leaves them in their preferred spot, or doesn't try to take away what they want, or do anything uncomfortable to them. The owner doesn't tackle the problem, but just lives with it. This is better than making the problem worse by handling the dog roughly and clumsily, which could lead to serious panic biting, and if you shout at a dog for growling, that could just confirm his fears that there's a threat. However, there are ways of tackling the problem, and it's worth making an effort, especially in the case of pups.

Growling to defend food, objects, or a comfortable space

Growling to defend food and other objects, or a spot on the sofa is very common, and is called 'resource guarding'. Dogs that growl from a distance will often obey if you ignore the growl and just tell them to come to you, or get 'off' furniture, Recall can even work with a dog guarding food at a distance, especially if the dog thinks you're about to do something interesting, like go out. If you're close to a dog that growls from the sofa or the bed, and haven't yet taught an 'off' command, try tactfully pretending you haven't noticed the dog, and start doing something interesting, so that he comes off of his own accord. Try playing with a ball on your own, whatever is likely to attract his interest. This can also work to get spooked dogs out from under a table. Then, when he comes to see what's going on, you can give him a command that he will obey, even a simple 'sit', which puts you back in control. 

In the longer term, first, keep your bedroom door shut. It's safer to keep a dog that threatens you out of your sleeping space, and certainly sensible not to let him on the bed. If he growls from the sofa, first prevent access to it by putting something on it when you aren't in the room. Then teach him to obey commands to get on and off the sofa, until he does this with no hesitation. 'Up' and 'Off' are suitable words to use. He should only be allowed on it with your permission. (See 'Possessiveness' for more help with resource guarding)

Growling to defend pups

Bitches will naturally want to defend their pups when they're tiny, so check how relaxed a bitch is before you start handling one of her offspring. If she's edgy, it's best to leave her in peace until she feels more relaxed.

Dogs growling to defend themselves 

Dogs may growl and snap in self-defence, if you try to force them to go somewhere or do something which scares them. Generally, it's better to tackle the fear through training, rather than immediately forcing the dog to do what he's frightened of. If your dog hides in his cage or under the table and growls, teach him to go in the cage or under the table, and come out on command, at a time when he's relaxed - just by throwing a toy or a titbit there, coupled with 'cage'. You can't do this when he is spooked, because he is not in a frame of mind to learn anything. Dogs, like humans, have a 'fight or flight' response, and if you won't let him stay in a safe space, he may feel he has no option but to bite. When a dog sometimes hides, ask yourself why he might want a safe place. Might he want rest from noisy children? Is he asked to come out and be sociable when he wants a rest? Children especially can be very demanding with dogs, especially small dogs, which can get tired of being treated like cuddly toys. Small children and dogs need supervision for the safety of both. Kids also need to respect a dog's 'safe space'. You want to be able to trust your dog, and you want your dog to trust you, and that means giving him protection and rest when he needs it.

Dogs need to be learn to accept handling, and to be handled in a considerate way. If you're touching the dog and he growls, back off and ask whether it's simply that you need to get him more used to being handled, or whether there's an injury, and you're touching a painful area. Pain will make dogs tetchy, and dogs will often growl if you touch a sore spot. If he's handled by a lot of people, has he been roughly handled? Is he often picked up to be cuddled, just because he's cute, regardless of his feelings about the matter? Is he often cuddled and played with even when he wants a rest? Is he ever woken from a snooze by being pushed or pulled off a sleeping space? Has he been yanked roughly by a hand on his collar? Is his collar on too tight? If so maybe his is a legitimate grumble 'Look, there are limits to what I can put up with.'  (See 'Touching, Handling and Vet Phobias' for more help with this.)

Dogs are more likely to be growly and snappy if they're alternatively pampered and shouted at, especially if they're allowed to do something one day, and scolded for it the next. It's easy to make mistakes when we're tired, but if the rules aren't clear, that can make us seem scary and unpredictable to our dogs, who then growl in self-defence. Being consistent, making the rules clear, and staying even-tempered, help our dogs learn to trust us.

Threats against strangers

Barking dogs are often seen as aggressive when they're just barking out of excitement, because they want to play, or as an alarm call. Dogs may also bark and pull their owner's sleeve if they're worried the owner is doing something dangerous, a common reaction to vacuum cleaners. This is 'protecting' the owner, so you need to let him know you don't need protection at that time. Generally, barking is a way that a dog communicates with you, rather than a threat against you, however it may represent a threat against a strange human. 

Some dogs are especially wary of strangers, so much so that they may even bite them, and this includes dogs that are very trusting and well-behaved with people they live with. Some dogs have an inbuilt wariness of strangers, which can be partly offset through early training, through meeting a lot of people who are strangers to the dog, and either learning to ignore them, or receiving a reward from them. Dogs also take their cues from you. If you give a brief 'good morning', or 'good afternoon' to passing strangers, and walk on, this tells wary dogs the strangers are safe. However, the trait can become a serious problem if the dog is allowed loose in public and annoys people, who retaliate, thereby reinforcing the dog's view that strangers are dangerous. If your dog has ever growled at or bitten strangers, you need to think safety first, use a muzzle where necessary, always supervise the dog when strangers are around, and in particular, make sure he doesn't hang around loose on a public space 'guarding' your house. Protect delivery people and postmen, by making sure they don't come into contact with the dog. You need help from a very experienced trainer or a behaviourist if your dog has threatened strangers.

In general, if you have a dog that threatens you or others, try to avoid confrontations, and build up trust, which means working on two-way communication with the dog. Training games can be very helpful, because they involve the dog using self-control, and can relax both of you, so you learn to understand and trust each other better. They are a good way of motivating dogs, and teaching dogs to be more deferential. Obedience training also helps so long as you integrate it into everyday life with the dog. Keep a dog diary of your progress and setbacks, so you can see patterns better, and get help from a professional with a lot of experience, someone who both inspires confidence and helps you feel more confident.

Regular training classes with a very experienced trainer can help enormously. A trainer can develop a 'hands-on' programme, to teach your dog to accept being handled, if he's touchy about this. You can also see a behaviourist, and if so, you will have to go through your vet. If you see a trainer, get a vet check to ensure that there is no medical problem, such as a brain tumour, or thyroid problem, especially if the aggression is sudden and unexpected. Lastly, a dog with aggressive tendencies should not be bred from, even if the dog has won prizes in beauty contests.