How to Train Your Dog to Stop Growling

Hard
4-12 Weeks
Behavior

Introduction

You love your dog to pieces, but are considering putting him up for rehoming. Unfortunately, the dog recently growled when you tried to remove his food bowl. You have children, and it's just not acceptable to have an unreliable dog in the house. 

A friend advised you to make a point of removing the food bowl and to smack the dog if he growls. The friend said something about teaching the dog who's boss, but in all honesty, you're too scared of the dog to try this. What if it backfired?  You could get badly bitten.  Common sense tells you that it's best to respect the message the dog is sending out, rather than challenge him. 

Happily, you spoke to a knowledgeable trainer who uses reward-based training methods. They were horrified by the idea of removing the dog's bowl as a sort of test. Instead, they explained the complexity of why dogs growl and what to do about it, so that the flashpoint of food can be avoided and the dog can continue to live with you. 

Defining Tasks

Superficially, training a dog to stop growling is easy. But methods involving a punishment each time the dog growls are definitely NOT the way to go. Inhibiting the growling creates a more serious problem--a dog that bites without warning. 

Instead, it's essential to analyze why the dog is growling (is he in pain, stressed, possessive, or territorial?) and then correct the underlying problem. In the short term, how you react to the growling makes a big difference, so it's important to know what to do (and not to do) when faced with a growling dog. 

This is unlikely to be a quick fix, so be prepared to put time and effort into consistently retraining the dog, improving his co-operation, and helping him overcome deep-seated anxieties. 

Getting Started

Teaching a dog to stop growling isn't so much to do with special equipment, but represents a mental challenge. You need to think through why the dog is distressed (growling is, after all, a sign of inner conflict or tension) and diffuse the situation. 

Helpful items to have include: 

  • A muzzle
  • A longline
  • Treats
  • An understanding of why dogs growl. 
  • Patience
  • The help of an expert

The Understand why Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
A growling dog, in his own way, is communicating something to you. Simply preventing a dog from making a physical growling noise does not address the underlying emotion that is driving the growl. The ideal scenario is to work out the cause of the dog's ruffled emotions and work on reversing his distress. Once the dog feels comfortable with the situation, his need to growl evaporates.
Step
2
Determine the cause: resources
A dog's resources such his food, toys, or bed are precious to him. If he feels these are under threat, he may become protective. As a first aid measure, avoid flash points by never trying to forcibly remove his toys or food. In a multi-dog household, make sure each dog has their own resources so these are not threatened by the others. In the longer term, work on obedience training with commands such as 'give', and retraining the dog to tolerate people near his food bowl.
Step
3
Determine the cause: pain
Problems such as a toothache, earache, or arthritis are painful. A dog may growl to warn a person off from approaching as he fears they will touch the painful area. If your dog is usually placid but starts to become short-tempered then ask yourself if he could be in pain. If you suspect the answer is yes, then get a vet checkup.
Step
4
Determine the cause: fear
A fearful dog has limited ways of protecting himself. One option is to flee but if he is prevented from running, such as when on the leash, then instinct tells him to protect himself. Do your best to avoid situations stressful to the dog, while he undergoes behavioral retraining. A slow, low-key exposure to the feared situation, where you reward his clam behavior, is a good way ahead. Be prepared to seek the help of a qualified behaviorist to do this.
Step
5
Determine the cause: territorial
The dog that growls at visitors may be afraid of them or he may be defending his territory. The same can happen when the dog is defending a favorite sleeping spot on the couch. This is potentially dangerous behavior so don't challenge the dog. If necessary, train the dog to wear a muzzle and seek the help of a behaviorist.
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The What NOT to Do Method

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Step
1
Never punish a dog for growling
This sounds counterintuitive, after all the dog is doing a bad thing (growling) and should, therefore, be corrected. However, this is a dangerous route to take. Punishing a dog may inhibit the dog from growling because he is fearful of you, but it won't soothe his feelings of frustration. You now have an agitated dog who has learned not to growl, in effect removing an early warning sign that you are in danger. This is exactly how dogs get a reputation for biting without warning and should be avoided.
Step
2
Don't ignore the dog's warning
A growling dog is warning you he is outside his comfort zone. If pushed further, his next line of defense is to bite. Do not ignore the warning growl and continue to approach or force the dog to do something against his will. Instead, try to diffuse the situation by backing away, avoiding eye contact, and making appeasement signals such as yawning.
Step
3
Never leave children unsupervised with a dog
Children are poor at reading dog body language and often fail to respect warning signs such as growling. Many times, an anxious dog will feel threatened by the erratic movements of a child. If the dog growls and the child keep approaching, the dog is liable to feeling increasingly anxious, with the end result being a defensive bite. Adult supervision is essential in order to protect the child from the dog and vice versa.
Step
4
Never force a growling dog to face his fears
If a dog is growling because he is afraid, never force him to face those fears. This is known as 'flooding' and can do great psychological harm to the dog.
Step
5
Never confront a growling dog
Never try to intimidate a growling dog into backing down. This will end badly in one of two ways. Either the dog will feel forced to attack and bite, or the dog may back down but be even more conflicted internally and make him unpredictable.
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The First Aid Method

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Step
1
Have a plan prepared
A growling dog is a short step away from biting. If your dog growls at you then it's important to know what to do next, so that accidents don't trigger an attack.
Step
2
Stop what you're doing
Stop in your tracks. Avoid making direct eye contact with the dog. Wait until he relaxes slightly, then slowly back away (so that you are rewarding his relaxed behavior.)
Step
3
Think about triggers
Now analyze what happened and what you were doing that made the dog growl. For example, where you about to remove his food bowl, move him from the couch, or put his lead on? This can give you valuable clues about the motivation for his behavior.
Step
4
Accomplish the task in another way
Rather than confront the dog, try to accomplish a task that can't be postponed by doing it differently. For example, if you need the dog to get off the sofa, try tossing a tasty treat on the floor so that he has to jump down to get it.
Step
5
Minimize threats and stress
If the sofa is a flash point, then think ahead about how to avoid a confrontation. Perhaps don't allow the dog in that room, or have him wear a longline in the house so that you can remove him from a distance.
Step
6
Call in the experts
Consult with a registered animal psychologist and behaviorist. They will watch your dog's behavior and put a plan in place to retrain the dog and remove triggers.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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