Growling or grrrowling

2014-08-07 00:00

Commanding respect non-aggressively cements lead status

I RECEIVED the following via SMS (verbatim) this last Saturday afternoon from a woman residing in Johannesburg.

“Hi I found your details on the Internet. I really hope you can help me. I have a four-year-old German sheppard [sic]. He is very loveable, but has a lot of aggression with others and my other male. Yesterday he bit me due to me trying to take his food away. I feel he has issues with that. I don’t feel he meant to but he is like food struck. Is there hope of helping him. He is trained in commands, etc. just aggression with other dogs, people, protective nature, etc. Can you advise? M.”

This is fairly straight-forward problem to overcome, but unfortunately, due to her location, I was unable to assist.

Growling is a valuable and natural means of communication for any dog; something that dog owners should appreciate and respect, rather than punish. It is quite obvious that most of us are not comfortable, safe or accepting of this behaviour. We do not want our pets to growl at us, but neither do we want them to keep quiet, especially when there is a possible threat situation looming. It is also important that, as dog owners, we understand what messages are being emitted via various growling sounds. It may be for soliciting play, an expression of fear, territoriality, protectiveness, food-related, possessiveness, dominance posturing or a warning of even more aggressive behaviour. A play growl, for example, can be distinguished from a serious one. The former is usually high-pitched, short and frequently repeated, while the latter is low-pitched, prolonged and sometimes without a change in tone. Some growls may change in pitch and volume in response to the amount of attention the pup or dog receives from its actions.

It is quite common for pet owners to punish their dogs for growling. Unfortunately aggression breeds further aggression, or it may suppress the growl, thus neutralising the intended effect.

When a bite follows the growl immediately, then the relationship has reached a critical stage. In every instance, one should try to analyse the situation which elicited a growl. Was the pet being touched or groomed? Was it being restrained in a rough manner it does not understand or accept? Were people making eye contact and causing uneasiness? Was something important taken away? Were people making it do something strange? For instance, a thunderstorm, family tensions or a visit by strangers, may explain why. Such questions should be asked, identified and dealt with before the interaction escalates to a dangerous level. When people are traumatised, it may require third-party intervention, such as a behaviour specialist.

Most pups and dogs will relay survival needs in this manner of self-preservation. In the vast majority of circumstances, owners have behaved inappropriately during puppyhood e.g. badgering the pup’s face until it growls in self-defence, resulting in a smack on the nose for being “cheeky”. Stress causes aggression and stressors are cumulative. It is not just the immediate stimulus that elicits a growl, but a combination of all the contributing factors which the pet experienced in the days leading up to the change in behaviour.

The entire content of this topic can be prevented by meeting the mental requirements during critical imprinting. However, in teaching pups social skills, owners must be seen as pack leaders. Humans who behave dominantly in a non-threatening manner will achieve the respect accorded to higher-ranking dogs. A small minority of pets however, such as a certain strain of Rottweilers are, by nature, growling communicators. This means their growls are not precursors to biting, but the bottom line is that we need to know this.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his websiteat Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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