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Don't Punish the Growl

It's Dog Bite Prevention Week! Here is an excellent article by trainer and dog behavior specialist Lisa Mullinax, ACDBC. You can find her on Facebook at 4Paws University.

DOG BITE PREVENTION TIP: Many dog owners have been told that growling is a sign that the dog is seeking total world domination, and the only way to maintain one's dominance is to fight back. Fast forward to the modern world of dog behavior. We now know that aggressive displays are a normal, natural, non-violent form of communication. Once a person stops whatever behavior triggered the growling, the dog will stop growling. A healthy dog will not escalate once the threatening interaction ends. They don't need to. Dogs don't bite when a growl will do. As a dog trainer who specializes in fearful and aggressive behavior, I am always appreciative of dogs who communicate so clearly, letting me know that I screwed up and missed the signs of the dog's growing discomfort. Because the dog who bites once without warning is far more dangerous than the dog who growls 100 times without ever biting. On Monday, I shared Mac's story. There were a number of people who protested when I stated that aversive equipment was one of many factors that contributed to his bite incident. Here's why:

1. Mac had a history of growling at people without biting. 2. I was instructed to punish him for growling. 3. When faced with a situation where he felt threatened, he skipped growling, which had previously resulted in punishment, and used the only form of self-defense he had left. Punishment will stop a dog from growling and other aggressive displays. But it won't address the reason the dog is growling to begin with. It doesn't change the dog's discomfort when being pet, groomed, or handled by the vet. The dog still feels threatened. Claiming that punishment fixes aggression is like claiming that Nyquil cures colds. In both cases, the symptoms are suppressed, but the problem hasn't been cured. Here's another way of looking at it: Let's say you're sitting in your car, waiting for a friend to return from the bank. A person walking by sees you, approaches your car, and sits on the hood. You roll down your window and say, "Hey, get off my car!" The person responds by pulling you from the car, screaming obscenities in your face. Now, do you respect that person as your leader? Do you find their behavior totally rational? Will you refrain from telling people to get off your car in the future? If you answered "no" to all of the above, ask yourself how you appear to your dog by punishing them for their clear communication. "WAIT, SO I JUST HAVE TO LIVE WITH IT???" Of course not! Your choices are not limited to punishment or ignore the problem. The best solution is to determine what caused your dog to growl, then work to decrease their stress and increase their tolerance to that scenario. If your dog growls: STOP. If your dog growled at you, stop what you're doing. If your dog growled at someone else, remove him or her from that situation immediately. EVALUATE. What was happening right before your dog growled? What indications of avoidance did your dog show before growling? CALL a qualified professional to teach you how to change your dog's behavior using reward-based methods.

Visit and to find certified behavior consultants in your area. No one near you? Find the closest trainer listed and ask them for a referral. Trainers know who the good and bad pros are in their surrounding area and are happy to help you find someone who can help. A dog who growls is a good communicator. Punishment takes away their ability to communicate. A dog who can't communicate is a dangerous dog. But don't just take my word for it, download this statement from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior:

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