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Help - My dog growls!

Many dog owners would probably agree that their dog suddenly growling can make you feel uncertain. Is my dog dangerous? Will it start biting? Growling is a way for the dog to express its feelings. By listening to your dog and handling the situation correctly, you can prevent the dog from developing any further behaviours.

Why do dogs growl?

Why your dog growls will depend on the situation. It may be because your dog wants to be in peace. It could be that it's guarding something it sees as a resource, for example food, toys, a place, the car, the sofa or perhaps a person. A dog may growl because it feels bad, that it is suffering from an illness or pain. Another reason could be that it has had bad experiences with a certain situation where it felt insecure, scared or crowded.

What do you do if your dog suddenly growls?

As a dog owner, it can be a bit surprising or make you feel unsure if your dog suddenly growls, especially if it seems a new behaviour. It is not uncommon for it to arouse strong emotions and you may be scared.

Often your dog will have communicated that it is insecure before growling, often the signs are subtle and can be very quick. The next step in the dog's language is to speak in larger letters and it does this by growling.

It is a way for the dog to communicate that it is uncomfortable in the situation and that it wants distance. So, it is important that it gets just that. If you get angry in this situation and reprimand your dog, there is a big risk that you will instead reinforce the behaviour. It is therefore important that you take the situation seriously and train in the right way.

When your dog growls often – at strangers or children

If you have a dog that growls often and at strangers or children, you need to train to change the behaviour. Here it is very important that you think about safety and read your dog so that you don't go too fast.

In order to deal with the problem, you need to constantly take appropriate steps, and it's your dog who decides what is appropriate. Before starting training, it is important to think about why the dog growls at strangers or children in particular; could it be because the dog has been involved in an event where it became uncomfortable? Sometimes it can difficult to find a clear connection.

Safety

When training a growling dog, it is important to think about safety, especially when it comes to children. The best thing is to train outdoors where you can adjust the distance. If you need to exercise indoors or live a life where it is difficult to completely avoid situations where the dog can growl, it is important to screen off with gates. this way, your dog has its own place where it can be undisturbed during the training period and during the moments in everyday life when you cannot train or fully supervise.

Change the dog's feeling

In order to effectively train your dog not to growl, you need to create a different feeling in the situations where the dog growls. The idea is to change the feeling from insecurity to the dog feeling safe and comfortable. It takes a different amount of time and the results of the training vary depending on the individual and life situation. The positive thing is that you can get very far with training. Remember that it's the dog that determines the pace.

If you have a dog that likes food and treats, these are a good option for training. You can also reward your dog with a fun toy, or affection - it depends what they will respond best to. The idea is to use what the dog likes a lot and give it to the dog in those situations where it usually becomes insecure.

In the long term, you then have the opportunity to create a new positive association. It is important to really adjust the distance so that you do not try to train too close or start directly in the situation where the dog tends to growl. Your dog must have the right conditions to succeed and keep it easy for them. This is especially important if you have a dog that tends to growl because it defends food or toys.

Beware of luring the dog

If you have a dog that shows insecurity and can growl around strangers, it may seem like a good idea to let the stranger give the dog a treat to show that the person is kind. If you have a food-loving dog, it can lead to the dog going forward because it wants the treat, but doesn't really dare. It ends up in too difficult a situation and you don't affect the dog's feelings positively.

A better alternative is to roll the treat away from the person or thing your dog is uncertain of. Your dog then gets a break, it is not lured forward to take the treats and above all, your dog can choose wants to make contact. By giving your dog the option to choose, you create security.

When your dog growls at a family member

When a dog growls at a family member, it can feel tough, especially for the person the dog growls at. It can lead to conflicts within the family and sometimes you can disagree on how to handle it. The first step is to think about which situations the dog tends to growl. Has something special happened that could have started the behaviour?

Once you have identified the situations in which your dog growls, it is good to review whether you can prevent them from occurring. It is often difficult to train when the dog has already gotten into a feeling, so to get a good result it is therefore wise to start training in other situations first. For example, if your dog growls at a specific family member when the dog is lying on the sofa, a first step is to ask your dog to lie down and rest in another place. Then you have the opportunity to break the behaviour by starting a new routine. In combination with changing routines and preventing situations where the dog can growl, it is important to work on the relationship between the dog and the family member.

Building relationships can be done in several ways. Something that is good to think about is to take it easy and let the dog approach at its own pace and respect if it doesn't want to at that moment.

Activities that strengthen the relationship

  • Go for a lovely forest walk - let the dog choose the way
  • Rest together - take a quiet and pleasant moment together
  • Lost object - take a small toy or an object that belongs to you out on the walk. When your dog isn't looking, drop the object and then continue forward a small distance. Then ask the dog to help you search. Shower them with praise when they find it, they'll be so proud.
  • Share something good - pack something good for your dog to enjoy when you're out. Sit down in a lovely clearing or on a bench and eat together. Ask the dog to wait for "go ahead" before getting his bite. Eating together creates community and closeness.
  • Play together – our dogs are often quite good at taking the initiative to play. Dare to be the one to start the game sometimes, your dog will love it! Lure with a fun fighting rag, suddenly roll a ball or use your body.

Rule out illness or pain

If your dog suddenly starts to growl in various situations, it is important to make an appointment with a veterinarian to rule out illness or pain.

Get help

It can be difficult to deal with the problem yourself and it is important that you train in the right way so that the problem does not get worse. It is therefore wise to seek the help of a dog psychologist who can design a training program, guide and support. 

Prevention – start when the dog is young

By actively training your dog and giving it as many positive experiences as possible at a young age, you can prevent it from becoming insecure or afraid. It is important to think about giving the dog space if it asks for it, make sure that it has its own place at home where it can rest undisturbed, that food is eaten in peace and quiet and that it is allowed to chew chewing bones in peace. Also think about the situations you put your dog in. Prevent by setting up situations where competition could possibly arise or the dog feels crowded.

By gathering knowledge, taking courses and learning more about the dog's language, it becomes easier to communicate with your dog. It strengthens your relationship, the dog becomes safer when it notices that you understand and listen to what it says.

A big good luck!

About the Author

The article is written by Fanny Modig who is an instructor, dog psychologist and communicator. In recent years, she has held courses in everyday obedience, puppy training, stimulation and worked investigating problems. On her blog 'Living with Dogs', she writes about her own experiences and gives concrete tips about dog training. She has also recorded the podcast Hundpodden with Kicki & Fanny for five seasons. Fanny trained as an instructor and dog psychologist at Hundens Hus in Stockholm and she has a degree in Work Life Communication from Stockholm University.

More articles from Fanny Modig

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