The Gift of the Growl

I make no pretenses about it, I am obsessed with my fearful dog Sunny. Not only do I think about him, I am always looking for ways to help him, and other scared dogs. Leafing through an old issue of Newsweek I read a quote attributed to Tibet’s Karmapa Lama and of course, thought of scared dogs. 

“For any living being, when you feel the force of being cornered time and again, more and more, the time comes when you have nothing else left except to explode.” 

He is not speaking directly about dogs, but of the Tibetan people, yet sadly for both humans and dogs, too often when we protest about our situation we are either ignored or punished. In either case we may feel compelled to escalate our response. 

Pay attention to how dogs are treated when they attempt to make their feeling known, often they are reprimanded, “Bad dog!”, No!”. Their intentions are misinterpreted, instead of people understanding, “Please leave me alone!” they are told by some trainers that their dog is trying to be dominant or challenging them. Punish a dog that has asked, in one of the few ways that dogs can, ‘leave me alone’ and you can end up with a dog that may become even more frightened. Punish a behavior and you may stop that behavior, but you don’t necessarily stop the emotion that causes that behavior. Prevent a dog from communicating with a growl and they may resort to a bite. 

Wouldn’t it be great if those people who considered themselves the leader of the pack, whether it was a pack of dogs or a country, were willing to hear what those they were controlling were asking for? What most of us want is just to be able to live our lives free from fear and oppression. Don’t put your dog in situations in which it feels the need to growl or protect itself and you are on your way to not only changing how your dog feels but you are also preventing your dog from practicing a behavior you also want to change.

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16 comments so far

  1. Sam on

    I’m printing this and hanging it on my fridge. Really.

  2. Debbie Jacobs on

    Be sure to put it down low so the dog knows you read it 😉

    But seriously, thanks for posting this. We have lived with dogs for thousands of years and have such limited understanding in popular knowledge, of their attempts to communicate with us that it’s mind boggling. We are expecting dogs of to be something that no being can ever be (except perhaps manatees, I understand that they are totally non-aggressive, even if food, territory or mates are concerned).

    The whole alpha dog, pack leader focus is dangerous because it interprets these attempts to communicate as challenges. What is so terribly wrong with a dog saying, please leave me alone or don’t do that? If we need to be with them or do something we have a choice and it has become very clear that the choice to change their minds is a far more effective option, than bullying or forcing. It’s a no brainer as far as I’m concerned, unless you have unrealistic expectations for how relationships work.

    We have anointed dogs with the title of noble beast, living to please us, attuned to our energy, yet when they deem to express themselves, in the only ways available to them, they get punished, tsssked, poked, yanked, yelled at, rolled over. Only makes sense if you believe you have the right to get what you want from someone, anyway you can.

  3. Janet Finlay on

    THANK YOU for this. I try to emphasise this in all my TTouch work – growling is communication – and when it happens we have usually already missed a whole stack of “quieter” statements of discomfort. If we don’t learn to listen and respond appropriately (by relieving the pressure that makes the dog feel the need to growl) we leave dogs no choice but to “shout louder” – and sadly it is then they who suffer the consequences. We need to learn to hear the more subtle messages of discomfort that precede the growl – the body language, the calming signals – not punish them for our own deafness!

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are most welcome. I think that shelters are full of dogs that are shouting one thing or another at us.

  4. Kevin Myers on

    Well said. We are the ones bringing them into our world. Yet we refuse to learn their language. A growl is a magnificent thing. It communicates so much and is the dog’s native language. We all have our own personal space around us. When that personal space is violated, we feel uncomfortable and maybe a wee bit threatened. Why do we think that a dog should be any different, or that they should relinquish that space without being shown that the person within it means no harm?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you for your comment. I would never play poker with a dog, they are just so good at reading us.

      I understand being afraid of a growling dog and wanting it to stop, perhaps the arrogance of many handlers stems from fear.

  5. Karen Wild on

    This is absolutely spot on!

  6. Donna on

    I talk about this in all of my group classes every level on class #1 and class #4.

    Properly presented, People find it empowering to know that their dogs are trying to communicate with them and that by listening to what the dog is trying to say, the human CAN control the situation.

    My line to my clients is “if your dog growls or gives a warning sign, use your outside voice and say ‘Thank You’ to the dog”. Then move the dog out of the situation.

    Thank you for your post, it will help many.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment Donna. I think that people are frightened by growling dogs and we do what we often do with things that scare us, try to stop them rather than understand them. Practicing saying ‘thank you’ is a great idea!

  7. […] One of the most serious and prevalent misuderstandings of dog behaviour relates to growling – NEVER tell a dog off for growling.  Read this super article from fearfuldogs.com: The Gift of a Growl […]

  8. Carol on

    My male GSD became a bit growly as he aged, usually in the evenings. I would assume a “big” posture and say “That’s enough of that” and change the scenario. He would contritely leave his position, returning friendly again.

    • fearfuldogs on

      While this technique can work with some dogs, in some situations, recommending it to others is dicey. Any dog that has a change in behavior may be having some physical changes associated with it. An older dog may be experiencing diminished eyesight and hearing. Many of us are not at our best at the end of the day. There may be other medical concerns or issues of dementia.

      It’s great that this worked for you and your dog, however I still encourage people to listen to a dog that is growling, not just try to stop it.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  9. Carol on

    Quite right. My boy was on Metacam for arthritis and an injured leg. The moods would come in the late evening when it was time to move for last call or to his bed. He would have been aching.
    The first couple of times I backed off to contemplate. It was not big nasty growls but low warnings. I corrected in a fun voice, no challenge other than posture. I discovered this dealt with it well and was relieved. I saw it as a gentle correction that matched the tone of his growl. Eventually I picked up on the change in his eyes and avoided the last stage of unwanted noise.
    One needs to know their dog well to read and understand their expressions of displeasure. And how to respond.
    I knew he was saying he didn’t want to be pushed into further action.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks for adding that Carol. There’s often more going on with our dogs than the simplistic definitions that many of us come up with.

      It’s scary to be growled at by a dog and that combined with the mistaken belief that a growling dog is trying to dominate us, can lead to people doing nasty things to their pets.

      I think the key is, as you share in your comment, knowing what your dog is asking for and doing what you can to give it to them.

  10. Vivien on

    Your videos are a great learning tool for all of us with fearful dogs. Debbie says “Wouldn’t it be great if those people who considered themselves the leader of the pack, whether it was a pack of dogs or a country, were willing to hear what those they were controlling were asking for?”
    Love this Debbie!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks so much for taking the time to watch the videos, read the blog and comment Vivien, I really appreciate it!


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