A dog growling when they’re being disciplined is a red flag in the dog training world and it happens more than you may think. Unfortunately, many pet parents aren’t equipped to deal with this problem.
So, imagine this – you’re trying to teach your canine companion right from wrong, and suddenly, you hear a low, menacing growl. It’s not the response you were hoping for when you were just trying to instill some manners in your beloved pup. But before you get frustrated or worried, let’s dive into the world of canine communication and behavior to unravel why your dog might be growling during discipline.
Further, we need to look at what discipline really means, how to do it effectively and safely, and build to de-escalate the situation before growling turns into a bite.
So, Why Is My Dog Growling When I Try To Discipline Them?
If your dog is growling when you try to correct their behavior, it’s a sign that they feel threatened, uncomfortable, afraid, or their “fight” survival mode has been activated. This usually means that the method of discipline is a problem and is forcing them into a defensive position. A situation like this needs urgent attention as it can escalate rabidly.
To really get into this topic we need to break down the key concepts in this question. For example, what does growling actually mean for dogs? What does it tell us when we try to teach our dogs something, or create a boundary, or make them do them something? Also, what does it actually mean to discipline a dog?
Popular misconceptions and misinformation about growling and about discipling dogs are usually at the root of why you get snarling and snapping when you try to correct unwanted behavior. So let’s break it down.
So, What is Your Dog Trying To Tell You By Growling?
When your dog growls during discipline, it’s essential to understand what’s going on in their mind and that it is usually not a sign of “dominance.” First off, growling is a “distance-increasing behavior,” which means your dog is trying to create some space between themselves and whatever’s bothering them. In this case, it means they want distance between themselves and whoever is “disciplining” them.
And I put the word “discipline” here in quotation marks, because if a dog is growling while being disciplined, it is a huge red flag about the discipline tactic being used, rather than the dog. But I will get deeper into the issue of how to safely discipline a dog below.
So when a dog feels stressed, fearful, or threatened, they typically start by giving small signals in their body language that they want distance. This starts with subtle signs that your dog is feeling stressed or uncomfortable. They might:
- Lick their nose or lips;
- Show the whites of their eyes, or quickly lick your face and then look away (called the “kiss and dismiss);
- Pin their ears to the back of their head; and
- Tighten their mouth, close it, and pull the lips back in a tense line.
This behavior is like a polite way of saying, “Hey, I’m not so sure about this.” It’s their way of asking for a little break or distance. Sadly, we often don’t pick up on these early signals.
If these early warnings are ignored, your dog might start to escalate their signals. When a dog is escalating their request for space, their body language will show:
- The tail may become stiff (it can be held low, be tucked, or raised high. If the tail is wagging at this point, it is usually a very stiff wag at the tip of the tail. This is the dog equivalent of a nervous laugh);
- Their body typically goes very still, stiff, and tense;
- Their hackles or fur might rise on the back of their neck;
- The ears will definitely be pinned back; and
- Then you may hear the “low growl” start.
Eventually, they’ll lift their lips, showing their teeth, which is when the growl becomes a snarl. This growl is a clear message that they’re really not okay with what’s happening and they need you to back off.
Here’s where it’s crucial to pay attention. If you keep doing what you’re doing after your dog starts growling, things can get worse. Your dog might progress to nipping, snapping, or even biting.
In the picture below, you can clearly see all the signs of a dog warning someone to step away. You may not hear the growl, but you can see the snarl, body stiffness, whites of the ye, ear position and so forth.
But here’s the good news: if your dog is growling, it’s like they’re giving you a warning sign, saying, “I’m uncomfortable, please stop.” This gives you a chance to back off and address the situation before it escalates.
Misconceptions about growling
It’s essential to debunk some common misconceptions here. Growling is not about dominance, and punishing a dog for growling is a big mistake. If you punish your dog for growling, you might stop them from growling, but you won’t address their discomfort or fear. This could lead to them skipping the growl next time and going straight to a bite because they feel pushed into a corner.
So, when your dog growls, listen, and take it as a signal that they need some space and understanding.
What Does Discipline Really Mean In Dog Training?
So, we’ve discussed how growling is a way for dogs to communicate their discomfort and desire for space. Now, let’s delve into why “discipline” can sometimes trigger that growling response. Firstly, studies clearly show that fear-motivated aggression that causes dogs to growl at owners is more common than we think.
We also know that Dr. Gal Ziv reviewed all the research on aversive training methods (specifically punishment and negative reinforcement) can often lead to worse and even dangerous issues, such as escape behavior, “shutting down” or apathy, and aggression.
So, when we talk about discipline, it’s essential to clarify what it means to dogs. Discipline, in the canine world, isn’t about punishment when your dog does something you don’t like. It’s about establishing consistent habits to reinforce good behavior.
It’s not about making your dog feel threatened or fearful; it’s about teaching them the right way to behave, primarily through consistent positive reinforcement. By consistently rewarding good behavior you build a positive association between the dog and the behavior you want while reinforcing your bond with your pup.
Read this article for guidance on how to discipline dogs without force or punishment.
When Punishing A Dog Leads To Aggression
Here’s where the problem arises: if your dog is growling during discipline, it suggests that they’re being punished, and it’s likely physical punishment. This can be a significant issue. When physical force or intimidation is used on a dog, especially during discipline, it can trigger a “fight” survival response in the dog. This means the dog feels cornered and is reacting out of fear and self-defense, and growling is a part of that response.
For instance, some trainers may try to establish “dominance” by using physical force, like choking a dog with a leash or pushing them to the ground. The result is usually predictable: the dog may escalate into a full-blown fight or flight mode, struggling on the leash, attempting to run, or even trying to bite the trainer.
In these situations, the dog’s stress levels skyrocket due to restricted airflow, flooding their brain with stress hormones like cortisol. This extreme stress can lead to the dog entering a “freeze” response, shutting down emotionally and not learning anything constructive. This isn’t effective training; it’s not discipline—it can arguably be classified as abuse.
True discipline, in the context of dog training, should never be so stressful that it causes aggression or growling in an attempt to create distance. It should revolve around teaching and reinforcing good behaviors through positive and non-threatening methods. So, if your dog is growling during what you think is discipline, it’s time to reassess your approach and consider more humane and effective training methods that focus on building a strong bond of trust and understanding between you and your furry companion.
But let’s get a deeper understanding by looking at some videos of dogs acting aggressively while being disciplined.
Breaking Down A Classic Example Of A Dogs Growling While Being “Disciplined”
The video below shows a dog attacking the owner. Let’s have a look and break down what happened.
The dog in the video has resource guarding problems. This means they have anxiety about somebody taking their food, and they communicate this by growling when the owner stands over the dog while they are eating. Standing over a dog can be a pretty invasive move for dogs, especially when they are feeling uncomfortable.
The owner then “corrects” or disciplines the dog for growling by snapping the leash. Note that this does not de-escalate the situation. It increases the dog’s stress over the situation. Still, the exact trigger is when she reaches over the dog to pet their head.
In dog language, “gaining height” over another dog is what a dog typically does to another dog right before a fight. Dogs will put their heads, paws, or body over the other dog. You will often see this about two seconds before a fight starts in the dog park. By putting herself over the dog, she triggers his fight impulse and he lunges for her.
It’s important to note in this case, the dog was not showing true aggression. The dog was showing stress about being crowded around the food bowl. The “discipline” increased the stress, rather than defused it. After that, the owner made a mistake and made a gesture that the dog registered as aggressive, and they responded with a lunge. Note how quickly the dog realized they made a mistake and laid down.
The owner made a simple but common mistake by misreading the growl as something that needed correction. When dealing with something like resource guarding, the best approach is to reduce the dog’s anxiety around having you near their food. Punishing or correcting the dog for their natural attempt to communicate their discomfort only increased the dog’s anxiety in the situation.
What to Do When Your Dog Growls During Discipline
If your dog is growling during discipline, it’s essential to take the right steps to address the issue and ensure the safety and well-being of both you and your furry companion. Here’s a step-by-step guide:
Seek Professional Assessment
The first and most crucial step is to get a professional dog trainer or behaviorist involved. They can assess your dog’s growling and identify the triggers or underlying causes. It’s essential to understand what’s driving this behavior. Sometimes, dogs may start to become aggressive due to an underlying health problem. Older dogs may growl at you due to doggy dementia. Other conditions like hypothyroidism can also cause a dog to start behaving more aggressively.
Is your dog resource guarding their food or toys? If so, there is a specific way to deal with resource guarding, and punishment always makes it worse. Are they fearful or insecure? Is there an environmental factor that’s making them reactive and anxious? Without this understanding, you won’t be able to develop an effective behavioral modification plan.
Reevaluate Your Approach To Discipline
Next, take a close look at how you’re disciplining your dog. Corrections have a place in balanced dog training, but they must be specialized and not excessive. Never use force, and never discipline your dog in anger. Remember that if you’re reactive and emotional, your dog will struggle to learn from you. Corrections should never push your dog into a fight or flight response or flood them with stress that could lead to more growling.
Identify Thresholds and Remove Stressors
Recognize your dog’s thresholds — the point at which they become reactive. For example, if your dog reacts aggressively when seeing a strange dog on a leash, it’s crucial to remove them from that situation promptly instead of focusing on discipline. Always train your dog within their comfort zone, where they are calm, and gradually introduce triggers over time.
Build a Positive Relationship
Invest time and effort in building a positive relationship with your dog. Increase exercise and playtime to help them release excess energy and instincts. Research by Dr. Andrew Luescher highlights the importance of a good relationship with your dog. Avoid anthropomorphizing (treating them like a human) your dog excessively, as this can lead to inconsistent and unpredictable interactions, causing stress, anxiety, conflict, and aggression.
Never Ignore Growling
Lastly, never ignore growling, as it’s a significant warning sign. Growling is your dog’s way of saying they’re uncomfortable or distressed. If it’s happening during discipline, it’s your responsibility as the owner to change your understanding of effective discipline and prioritize your dog’s well-being.
In summary, addressing growling during discipline involves seeking professional guidance, reevaluating your discipline methods, recognizing and managing your dog’s thresholds, building a positive relationship, and never ignoring growling as a warning sign. By taking these steps, you can create a safer and happier environment for both you and your furry friend.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Should I discipline my dog when he growls?
No, you should not discipline your dog when he growls. Growling is your dog’s way of communicating that he’s uncomfortable or unhappy with the current situation. Disciplining a growling dog can backfire, making the dog more anxious or fearful and potentially escalating the behavior. Instead, it’s crucial to understand why your dog is growling and address the underlying issue or trigger. Seek professional guidance if needed to modify behavior positively.
Why does my dog growl when he gets in trouble?
Your dog may growl when you’re disciplining him because he perceives the situation as a threat or is trying to communicate his discomfort. He might not understand why he’s in trouble, which can make him anxious or fearful, leading to growling. It’s essential to assess the situation, your disciplinary methods, and your dog’s behavior triggers. Make sure your discipline is not causing undue stress or fear in your dog, and consider a more positive approach to address behavioral issues.
Should I ignore my dog if he growls at me?
Ignoring your dog’s growling is not advisable. Growling is a clear signal that your dog is unhappy or uncomfortable, and it’s essential to address the issue rather than ignoring it. Ignoring growling may lead to further behavioral problems or even aggression. Instead, try to understand what’s causing the growling and seek professional help if necessary to modify your dog’s behavior positively.
What to do if your dog growls and snaps at you?
If your dog growls and snaps at you, it’s crucial to prioritize safety. Do not punish or scold your dog in the heat of the moment, as it can escalate the aggression. Instead, calmly remove yourself from the situation to prevent any further aggression. Seek professional assistance from a dog trainer or behaviorist to address the underlying causes of this behavior and work on a behavior modification plan. Safety should always come first when dealing with aggressive behavior in dogs.
Understanding your dog’s growling is essential for a healthy relationship. Seek professional help, use positive training methods, and prioritize your dog’s well-being to ensure a happy, growl-free bond.
Meet Your Experts
Tamsin De La Harpe
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.