We've all likely heard a dog growl. Possibly it's been your own dog growling while chewing a favourite toy as then someone gets a bit too close, or maybe at another dog who is hanging around just a little too close for comfort, at a person who has entered the house or a noise they've heard on the other side of a fence. The temptation of most dog owners upon hearing their dog growl is to yell, 'No!' and then possibly follow up with another sort of reprimand. Despite this being the instinct of most humans, it is one of the worst things you can do in that situation.
The canine ladder of aggression was developed by Dr. Kendall Shepherd and explains the progression of signs that we may see a dog go through leading up to bite due to fear. The bottom of the ladder begins with the smallest signs of displayed aggression that are often missed by unobservant or uneducated owners. These include yawning, blinking, lip-licking, turning head away, turning body away, sitting and pawing. As a dog’s fear increases, the signs become more overt: walking away, creeping with ears back, standing crunched up, tail tucked under, lying down with legs up, stiffening, staring, growling. If nothing is done to intervene at any of these stages, the result will be a snap and then bite. Even though it sometimes seems that a dog’s behaviour ‘comes out of nowhere’, there are often many subtle signs that came before and if we can recognize them early enough and know how to help a dog calm down, we can prevent them reaching the top of the ladder of aggression (which is important as we do not want them to rehearse inappropriate behaviour). Dogs can progress up the ladder within seconds if their anxiety level is high enough, if the trigger is severe and sudden and/or if they feel trapped.
They can also skip over some of the lower level stages if they have learned that their appeasement behaviours given at those levels did not work in the past. Owners of dogs with anxiety need to be vigilant and present when with their dogs so that they can intervene at the earliest signs in order to prevent behaviours from getting worse. If the dog finds themselves in a position where they are unable to run away from the threat (or perceived threat) due to being on a lead, or being confined in some way, they may also skip that step and progress to a higher level one. Punishing a dog for exhibiting behaviours on the lower ladder rungs will lead to them learning that there is no use in trying that behaviour as the outcome is negative. There may also be issues relating to breeding or cosmetic alterations that prevent a dog from physically being able to display some of the appeasement behaviours at the lower rungs, and so they would therefor choose a different behaviour.
A growl is a dog’s way of communicating that it is uncomfortable in a situation, and it is likely happening because all the other behaviours below it on the ladder of aggression have failed to get the point across. Owner’s who hear a growl, think their dog is misbehaving and then reprimand them risk pushing their dog to choose higher level behaviours, such as snapping and biting, the next time they are in a similar situation. A verbal reprimand may stop a dog from growling in the current situation, but it will not do anything to make the dog feel better about the same situation in the future.
If we learn to understand the underlying reasons as to what is causing our dog to feel that the need to even get to the growl step, we can implement strategies to help them feel more comfortable and prevent more severe problems in the future. If you'd like to learn more about understanding your dog's communication attempts, check out the online workshop below.