Sunday, February 3, 2008

Why growling is good

I know, two posts in one day. I am on a roll! I thought I would share an article I wrote awhile ago for Akita World magazine. I think it has some good info. Hopefully someone out there will find it useful.

My new akita puppy Jack was on his bed chewing a fresh bone. I sat down beside him to work on desensitizing him to having things taken away. There is little of higher value to a dog than a fresh bone. I asked him in a sing song voice “What have you got there?” and put my hand on the bone. His response was to clench the bone and give a low growl. My husband was watching this exchange and was flabbergasted when I calmly got up without saying a word to go get my training bag with treats in it. “Why didn’t you correct him?” was his question to me. “And why are you about to give him some treats?”
Dogs are a different species. I say that because it seems many people believe a dog should respond or be taught to respond to things the same way a human would. That is just unfair to the dog. Now some would have given the dog a correction and just taken the bone away. I’m sure I could have gotten the bone too as he was only a pup at the time. But what would that have taught the dog? It certainly would have made bones even higher on the value list, which in turn could have escalated the aggression in the future the next time someone tried to remove that item. They do remember from past experiences.
The other thing that would have done would be to teach the dog NOT to growl. You might be wondering why this is important. Remember that different species bit? Well dogs communicate differently than humans as well. Growling is actually a good thing! It is one way your dog is communicating with you. We need to start listening to their communication instead of repressing it. Why? Because to take away that communication can spell disaster in the future.
Dogs use a lot of body language in their communication. Not only do they growl but their body will tense up. Growling is almost always preceded with the stiffening of the body and what I call “the hairy eyeball”. Mothers know this look and use it often. (most commonly in a store or in public with their kids) It is a non-verbal warning. A dog would be able to see this subtle sign of warning from another dog. We humans are less perceptive (in general) and usually push it with the dog to the point of them needing to progress to a verbal or more noticeable cue. The stiffening and hairy eyeball is what I call step one in a warning.
Step two will be either a low growl or the showing of teeth with a raised lip. Now consider that the dog is TRYING to avoid an altercation. It is using everything in its’ bag of tricks to get the point across. What happens if we correct a dog at this point? Well depending on the dog, we either teach them NOT to give a warning, or we get bitten.
OK so say we keep pushing this dog and he has resorted to a serious bite. What happens next usually is step three, or a nip. It might also be an air snap. There is a progression to this in proper dog language. They will only use the amount of warning signals (what we generally label as aggression) needed to end the altercation. If the other dog doesn’t listen and respond to the warnings, you may end up with an all out fight IF the dog doing the warning doesn’t decide to give up the bone. (Let me point out I am talking about dogs that have learned proper dog communication with other dogs.) If that other dog is a person and either ignores the warnings, or wants to prove a point, they will probably get bitten. How serious the bite is depends on where the dog connects or how much force the person tries to use against the dog. (which results in the dog using more force back) A bite to the face usually causes more damage than a bite to the arm.
Many dog bites are in the face because when a dog goes to correct another dog they commonly bite on the muzzle of the other dog. (corrections and attacks are two separate events for the purpose of this article) Children are also on face level with an adult dog and so are more commonly bitten than adults. Staring into a dogs face can also cause a bite because it is perceived in dog language as a threat or a challenge. Unfortunately children do this a lot. Humans, lacking muzzles, damage much easier than another dog. We also receive a lot of damage because we tend to pull away during a bite which causes our more fragile (than dogs) skin to tear. I call step four a bite even though a nip is also a bite, just on a different, some would say less serious, level. By less serious I am speaking in tissue damage terms, not necessarily psychologically less damaging.
So what would happen in this same scenario if the dog had been taught not to growl? Someone would get bitten. The dog would have learned NOT to give a warning. Then you end up with a dog you cannot predict which can be very dangerous. Who would be to blame for that bite? The person that took away that dogs method to communicate of course. A dog can only respond like a dog.
OK so back to Jack and his bone. I sat down and played “trade the treat for the bone” game with him. I made sure to praise him for giving up the bone AND I always gave it back to him after the trade. This way he learns that he will get the item back and it is worth it to give it up to me in the first place. After a 15 minute session I stopped and let him chew his bone in peace. Of course I explained the process to my husband as I played with Jack. He looked skeptical at first. After a 20 minute rest I walked over and asked Jack for the bone which I got with no protest. That proved my point for hubby and Jack again got the bone back with praise. Ten minutes after that Missy, our French bulldog, had cleaned her bone of the marrow and decided she wanted Jacks to work on. Missy is the head dog in our house regardless of her smaller size. She slowly walked over and gave him “the look”. Jack looked back at her, huffed a sigh, got up and calmly walked away.
Tail wags,
Marie Finnegan
K-9 Solutions Dog Training Inc.


Riley said...

What a great article! I really enjoyed reading that. It makes perfect sense to me. I always wince when I hear of people punishing their dogs for growls. I have never had one of my dogs growl at me, thankfully, but Jenna still has an attitude with things being taken from her. She'll grab it and run if she sees me coming, or inhale it if possible.

I'm not sure if this is because she doesn't see me as alpha or because of her upbringing (eat fast, eat now, or don't eat at all, I'm assuming). I wish I could say I've made progress with it but she usually has no interest in the treats in my hand.

With Apollo, since he was little I've gone near his bowl and tossed something extra in it and then walked away while he was still eating. He'll wait to eat until I tell him to and he'll always, always give up stuff to me, even high value things, so at least I think I did something right there. :]

I'm curious, though: what is the proper response when dogs growl at each other in warning? I wish I had a clear alpha dog in my little duo but it's impossible to tell from their interactions. Sometimes Jenna gives up her position on the sofa to Apollo; sometimes she walks over and grabs whatever she wants that he was chewing on and he makes no move to stop her.

They have indeed gotten into altercations before, sometimes over something very minor (like who is closer to my empty yogurt cup sitting on the night stand) and I usually just clap my hands and shout and they stop it. I just worry that I'm doing the wrong thing by doing that when one or the other slicks back their ears and gives a warning growl? Very rarely is the growl obeyed when I've seen their interactions progress back to this point. Usually the dog getting growled at snaps at the other instead of backing down, and they get into a scuffle (no blood or anything, just a lot of noise and flashing of teeth).

I rambled, sorry! Just seeking your advice as always. :]

ellipsisknits said...

Well, I found it useful!

Actually I was wondering if you could go into more detail on exactly what you were doing with the dog. What I gathered was you touched the bone but didn't take it, then treated so they released to eat, you pick the bone up, then give it back. Is that right?

Does this change if you're 'rehabbing' an older dog who's already learned to take the treat and guard the bone at the same time?

Marie said...


Knowing who is the clear alpha between dogs is difficult because pack dynamics are fluid, they change depending on the moment. Maybe one dog prefers to steal all the toys, the other could care less. But the one who cares less about the toys resource guards the food bowls. It is about what each one values. Being individuals that varies between each dog. Some dogs could care less about status as well. Or only care depending on what is going on at any given moment. It is tricky! It also can change over time due to the age of the dogs involved or other influences like health or changes in repro status. (altering)

I don't always interfere between the dogs unless I believe not interupting them will cause a fight. They communicate very well using body langauge and you can learn alot about them during these displays of it between them. If Apollo gives up his bone to her then so be it. I think it is good to have one dog differ to the other, whichever one it is for whatever reason.

To you it seems like it isn't important but it is the dogs perception that matters here. (that yogurt cup isn't TOTALLY empty to a dogs tongue!)

I do always watch them closely when growling is involved though and try to redirect if I think a spat is brewing. Thankfully most spats are quick and dramatic looking but over quickly if it is just a spat and not a real fight also. But to many spats can escalate as well if one dog just won't back down. In general, the bitch will be the leader in a pack of two of opposite sexes. (I say in general because age also comes into play and all dogs are individuals.)

I usually tell both dogs to leave it if I see something of high enough value that might become an issue between them. In effect letting them know I am the leader and it belongs to ME, not them so there is no sence in them fighting for it. I control the resources and if they can't work it out safely between them, the item(s) gets taken away from everyone. Sometimes this method of management is the only option.

What I never do, and I only say this for all other readers out ther, is to punish just one dog for fighting. Because many times we don't realize which dog started it. A look is enough to start a fight between dogs and if you missed that look and punish the one defending itself, you are going to end up causing a whole host of other problems. This is yet another reason using corporal punishment with dogs is a bad idea.

(My "punishment" (for lack of a better term) is a time out, either in their own crate, or doing a down stay. Times outs need to be short, a minute or less, to be effective as a method of punishment. Also an extended time out after a fight is not a bad idea if it was a serious fight to let both parties cool off and get out of the reactive phase.)


I was teaching the puppy to give up a high value item so he didn't become a resource guarder in the future. I have children so this is an important lesson. I did take the bone away from him as he was taking the treat out of my other hand. (saying "Take it" for the treat and "Give" when he let go of the bone to eat the treat.

In the case of an older dog I might not take the bone for the first few sessions, but would use a high value food reward and just give it every time my hand came near the dog with the bone. I might even toss the treat down at first depending on how seriously the dog was guarding. I would also add treats by hand frequently during meal times at the food bowl. (if possible to do safely) Something like a meat jerky, cheese pieces or cooked chicken.

The dogs learns to make an association to the hand coming close to getting extra yummy good things. Then add getting the bone once he trusts you. Be non-confrontational and relaxed. Your body language is a big part of the interaction. Be SURE to give the bone back quickly at first too. It isn't about keeping the bone initially, it is about teaching the dog to give up an item they consider of high value.

If you have a resouce guarder, I highly recommend you get the book "Mine! A guide to resource guarding in dogs" by Jean Donaldson. Also remember that an older dog has practiced the behavior longer than a puppy has so it will take some time to change their behavior to the new.

I hope that clarifies. Good luck!

Riley said...

Thanks so much Marie. Sorry for putting you on the spot like that. I just think of questions I have for you whenever I come to your blog. :]

Marie said...


Not on the spot and no apology needed! That's one reason I built this blog, to help people with training questions. It is what I love to do. :-)

Hugs to Apollo and Jenna.

Fuzzy Logic said...

Awesome awesome awesome... I have three bullmastiffs at home and "Trade" is one of the first games we play... excellent article..

Julie said...

Hi Marie,

I ran across your blog when searching for some suggestions for handling my dog Cole's aggression with my 10 month old daughter. Cole is a very loving and generally obedient neutered 3.5 year old shepherd mutt we rescued almost 3 years ago. Just recently my daughter has started crawling, and as you can probably guess, this is where the problem began. As of right now he has just growled (no baring teeth, no snapping) at her a few times, but my concern is this escalating and getting worse, especially as she gets more and more mobile. In addition, I have also witnessed him growl at my nieces (3 and 9) on 2 separate occasions when they unintentionally crowded his space while he was napping and they were playing on our living room floor. Actually, the situations are all very similar in nature with me sitting on the floor playing with my daughter (or nieces) and he laying next to me, or within close proximity and one of the girls brushing up against him, sitting too close, or reaching out to touch him.
So far my solution to this issue has been to remove him from the room by firmly leading him by his collar and giving him a "time out" in the next room. As soon as I do this he bows his head as if he knows he's done wrong, but so far it has not seemed to deter him. However, after reading your article - which was fabulous, by the way - I'm understanding that maybe I should not be deterring his growling...?
What is your opinion on the best way to handle this? I really want to create a sound (and safe!) family unit, and would love for Cole and my daughter to be great friends as she grows up.

Please help!

Thank you,

Marie said...

Hi Julie,

It is hard for me to give much helpful advice though the blog. I would suggest finding a trainer versed in behavior to work with. (try searching here: )

The goal is to make a new and positive association to the presence of the kids with him around. We also need to be sure however that the dog isn't resource guarding you which changes how we do the behavior modification.

His body language is him being submissive (non-threatening) during you taking him to the time out but he isn't clearly understanding why he is being removed. If so the time outs would be working. If anything you are reinforceing that the kids being around gets him into trouble in his mind.

At this point the growling should be listened to as him saying he is uncomfortble with the situation or a signal to the kids for them to get away from him.

If he growls I would suggest everyone move away from him immediatly. I would also add a b-mod program to address making a positive assocation to the kids being near him OR the resource guarding of you if that is what is happening.

I hope that helps. Find a positive reinforcement method trainer to work with that knows how to do behavior modification that can assess him in person and start you on the right path.

Glad you found the blog. Good luck!

Todd Gowen said...

Glad to find your article when I Googled. I have an almost 2 yr old male Akita I got from an Akita Rescue 10 months ago. I previously had an Akita Husky male from a rescue too that was smaller but was a "red zone" around other dogs, which I didn't know when I got him. My old one I tried kinder gentler training and that didn't seem to work then I got a prong collar and eventually turned him from killing cats to walking off leash and wagging at stray cats. Back to my new guy. He is calmer but bigger. Tonight was the first time I can recall him ever growling at me. I spent all day making him a new door with a dog door in it and while I was doing that I was boiling some elk bones for him. I gave him one which he was shaking my hand for and loved it. A half hour later I went to the yard and he really protected it and when I tried to get it he gave me a little grumble. I took the bone after rolling him on his side and scorning him a bit. Then I came in the house and googled and found you. Great perspective and I will try your approach. It was scary though with him being about 125# and I'm 185, but that's the first time I felt my own dog might actually sense I was a bit scared. I was just disappointed, having spent all day for his benefit, not to mention I walk him more than 3x a day and his grumble really threw me off. Anyway, I love my big boy and it just scared me to think he might bite me. I will try your method and work on myself as a good alpha and trainer. Thanks - Todd & Kuma