Help! My Dog is GROWLING AT ME!

help for people who's dogs growl at them

I received an email from a dog owner by the name of Freddy who’s asking for help for his dog Brody’s new-found growling behavior. It sounds to me like Brody has some pretty serious issues going on and Freddy sounds pretty desperate . Having had my share (and more!) of worrisome dog shenanigans to deal with, I definitely know how this kind of desperation feels!

I’d like to share Freddy’s letter with you all in the hopes that between what I say and what our readers say, that Freddy and his dog Brody will find some help here that will give them what they need to to overcome Brody’s growling issues.

Except for some typo corrections I made, the letter below is directly from the email Freddy sent and is complete as he wrote it. Nothing else has been altered. I felt it’s important for our readers to hear the problem as it is, in Freddy’s words.

Freddy’s Letter

I bought Brody about a year ago, and in the last few weeks I will give him a command or pet him while he is eating his food. Now I hand fed him ’till he was 12 weeks old and have never had a problem out of him EVER. Here lately he has become a little aggressive to friends and some family and when I tell him no, he will growl all the way to his cage even though I haven’t used his cage for him in months. When he is in his cage it’s twice as worse. I don’t understand it …. it just started happening. He has NEVER GROWLED AT ME.

Could someone please tell me if I am doing wrong or what he is going through. I paid quite a bit of money for him and do not want him to keep getting so aggressive I have to get rid of him. Help me please!!!!

Freddy
Freddy

Sounds pretty bad to me! Freddy, before I get into this more I’d like to say “Thank you for looking for help with this rather than just opting to “get rid of” your dog.” There are way to many people who go the route of re-homing their dogs … or worse … they go straight to euthanasia without taking the time and making the effort to correct the problem.

One of the biggest problems I find in the pet owner world is that people just don’t get it. Humans simply expect a dog to instinctively behave according to human rules — period. It doesn’t always work that way and when a dog fails to just automatically follow our human “good dog” standards — the dog can be doomed. Unless you find a dog behavior savvy new owner, re-homing can have the affect of simply making a dog someone else’s problem — especially if the dog’s issues aren’t disclosed to the new owner(s)!

Dogs are NOT PRE-PROGRAMMED in Good Behavior

Babies aren’t born pre-programmed in how to behave in this world. Why some people think dogs are is way beyond my level of comprehension. Why anyone would understand that a child needs to learn rules, boundaries and other good behavior lessons but on the other hand believe that a dog knows all this without being taught is just absolutely ludicrous! Honest to goodness folks, there really are people out there that believe this! I’m in no way saying that Freddy is a member of the “dogs should just know how to behave” crowd.

What’s This HAND FEEDING Thing All About?

One of the things recommended to help dogs learn good behavior is the hand feeding method that Freddy mentioned. It’s believed by many that hand feeding promotes the dog’s understanding that the person holding the dog’s meal in their hand is the boss. Why? Because a dog has basic built-in survival instincts and their person holds in their hand one of the major keys to a dog’s survival … food. Think of it this way, when the dog was a puppy he got all his food from his mother and we all know that Mom’s the boss! Hand feeding is thought to be a way to extend this dog’s initial survival lesson to their person being the boss.

Freddy’s letter pretty much proves that hand feeding alone isn’t a magic wand and I doubt that Freddy thinks it should be. It’s probably just one of the (many?) good things he’s tried to do with Brody. I’ve occasionally hand-fed our furkids, but because it’s not an everyday practice in our house, I can’t guarantee 100% this method works. It sure can’t hurt to try it and you may have good results if you practice this. Hand feeding also gives you an opportunity to teach your dog to take food (and other things) gently from your hand which will help make your dog safer around people, especially children.

Now, let’s give our attention directly to Freddy and Brody …

Brody’s Growling is TELLING FREDDY SOMETHING

One of the ways dogs talk to us is by growling. They’re trying to tell us something and it’s our job to figure out what this something is. Should we take it as a warning? Definitely! If you don’t heed the dog’s warning and instead continue to push the dog’s buttons you could literally be asking the dog to bite you.

If you have the word Stupid stamped on your forehead you will then blame the dog for biting you. If Really Stupid is stamped on your forehead you will then (a) drive the dog a long way from home and dump it in a field somewhere, (b) beat the dog for biting you, (c) take the dog out behind the barn and shoot it or (d) have the dog euthanized. Remember, when a dog bites — the victim is 99.99% of the time asking for it so don’t blame the dog when it bites!

DO NOT IGNORE Growling Behavior!

So, we’ve determined the dog is trying to communicate with us when they growl. When a dog growls at you, a smart person backs away in order to avoid a bite. The flip side to this is that although backing off from a growling dog is the safe thing to do — our behavior at that moment then tells the dog “I win! I made them go away!” which in turn reinforces the growling behavior because the dog gets what he wants (to keep someone away) and he’s then likely to repeat the behavior. What you’ve got then is a no-win situation that will recycle itself any time the dog feels it’s necessary to keep someone away — and that someone may not always be the burglar breaking into your house.

Not all dogs give an audible warning growl before they bite but all dogs do give a pre-bite-warning. The problem with this is that unless you’re educated in the silent alternative warning signals a dog displays with their body language it’s real easy to miss these signs. You can learn more about a dog’s silent communication signals from books such as On Talking Terms With Dogs by Turid Rugaas (links to her website) and other good books on dog behavior.

If you don’t want to buy book(s) — you can Google for this information. I just got a Kindle Fire and am finding it to be a super-handy tool for reading and storing books so they don’t collect dust and take up room in my house. I can also highlight and make Kindle notes for any passages in books that I want to quickly refer to later. Kindle books are a few dollars cheaper than book-books and I don’t need to be at a computer to buy or read Kindle books! It may not be Google but the Kindle also has a great  web browser that you can use for your research. A Kindle is a convenient inexpensive tool for educating yourself on just about anything.

Make a Visit to Your VET

The first thing I would do with a dog who’s growling on more than infrequent but visually understandable occasions (stranger in the yard for example) … in other words excessively growling without any apparent reason … is to take them to a vet for a complete check-up including a blood test for hypothyroidism. Our country’s expert in the field of hypothyroidism is Dr. Jean Dodds who heads Hemopet.

If you have a dog breed that’s prone to certain illnesses or physical issues such as hip dysplasia I would put emphasis and if necessary pressure on my vet to test for whatever ailments my dog breed is prone to.

Some dogs will growl at any given moment if they’re in pain. If your vet finds a physical reason the dog may be growling, your vet may be able to alleviate the pain and if it’s pain-growling removing the pain will make the growling will go away.

In a recent issue of Dog Fancy magazine there is an article on Vitamin B deficiencies and the problems this may cause — which could contribute to some of the behaviors you’ve mentioned. After reading the article I put my two furkids on a good vitamin supplement and I’d say about 6 weeks later there was a slight improvement in Riley’s reactivity level. Unless it’s the mailman (translation alien from Mars who must be eaten before he can destroy us) — he also comes down off his reactivity bursts just a little easier and quicker than before. I think it would be a good idea for you to read this article, too, Freddy.

FIND Brody’s TRIGGERS

If Brody is found to be completely healthy, an essential next step to curing his problems would be to monitor his behaviors very closely. It’s imperative for you to determine what Brody’s triggers are. This won’t be easy but you absolutely need to find his triggers so you can pursue the correct counter-conditioning method for each of the things that send him into growl-mode. If you don’t know what sets him off you can’t possibly do anything constructive to help modify his behavior.

RESOURCE GUARDING May be the Issue

Again, if he’s diagnosed as totally healthy then my suspicions are that he’s displaying resource guarding behavior. Resource guarding has been around forever, but it’s still rather new to me because I’ve not had a reason to look into it until recently. The probability of Riley being a resource guarder has been mentioned to me by more than one person (including a professional animal behaviorist) over the past few months and so I’ve just recently started to research it for myself.

In a way it’s kind of ironic that Freddy would write to me at this point in time because this is currently an important issue in our home as well. Maybe a little bit of ESP going on here, hey?

Very simply put, resource guarding is when a dog believes something belongs to them. This can be their toys, their food bowls, a favorite couch or bed, just about anything  … including their person or people. The last one is the scariest one. Resource guarding can be mild or severe enough to be dangerous. You can of course, Google for more information and The Dog Trainer: Resource Guarding — What It Is, How to Prevent It is one link to get you started.

It was more than a bit depressing to learn that what we all thought was Riley being overly-protective of me is probably not protectiveness but possessiveness. I’m his resource and he’s guarding me. Ugh.  I don’t like overly-protective one single bit. I would be ecstatic with a healthy protective attitude but he takes this behavior way to seriously. My dog should not own me and I should not be so valuable to him as to have him think he needs to keep everyone away from me. When my kids or grandkids come over I have to either crate him, shag him out to the yard or put him on the other side of the gate in order to hug them. Don’t get me wrong, he loves them all and he would give his life for any of them but sadly there is no such thing as spontaneous hugging or tickle sessions in this house, we have to plan our hug-sessions which is not nearly as fun as having your grandkid grab you and plant one on ya out of the blue!  I would much prefer it if Riley felt it was only necessary to be pro-active if some bad guy wanted to do me harm.

Since I’m still new to it myself, I really don’t feel educated enough (yet) in the topic of resource guarding, I won’t say to much about it other than from what I’ve learned so far, Brody is (in my opinion) definitely showing signs of it. I hope Freddy will take a serious look at this as a potential source of Brody’s unwanted and potentially dangerous behavior. It is a behavior that can be modified through counter-conditioning. If your dog is a resource guarder it doesn’t mean his life with you or his life (period) has to come to an end.

Until you get a handle on Brody’s issues, for safety reasons I hope you will consider crating him, locking him in a bedroom or even muzzling him when people come over. Putting him in situations that you know make him reactive is not fair to him and not safe for your family or friends. Help him keep his emotional/anxiety levels low-key — don’t give him a chance to escalate but instead try to keep him calm. Any kind of excitement could lead to or already be a trigger to his reactive behavior.

Two places to start learning more about resource guarding would be to read Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs written by Jean Donaldson. Additionally, it’s a good idea to consult with and hire a good dog behaviorist in your area — one that is skilled in counter-conditioning methods. Remember dog training and a dog behavior are two very different things. Make sure you consult and/or hire someone with dog behavior experience and qualifications.

Would anyone else like to share your thoughts or experiences on Brody’s issues? Do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said? Do you have any suggestions for Freddy?

5 responses on “Help! My Dog is GROWLING AT ME!

  1. Marla Burton says:

    My dog will growl at us for no reason. and it’s getting worse. i don’t know what to do!

    I can’t make him go to a crate because he will growl more and i surely cant put him in there because im afraid he will bite me.

    it’s so bad that i’m about to the point of popping him in face but we know that’s not right, but it’s that bad!! Please Help!!
    Marla

    • Mom says:

      Hi Marla,

      I won’t argue that this is a scary behavior. I was alarmed by your comment about popping him in the face. Although you know it’s not right and hopefully would never follow through, you may not know that it could also be the trigger that results in a bite. Startling a dog or inflicting pain on them, especially one that is already growly, might be what pushes your dog over the edge. If you get bitten because you’ve smacked your dog, you would have no one to blame but yourself because at that moment, your dog is protecting himself. You would not blame a person for protecting themselves, you can’t blame your dog for this either.

      Dogs don’t normally growl without a reason. It may not be a reason that a human sees or makes human-sense of, but somewhere behind his growl is a reason. To top it off, it sounds like your dog has learned that growling gets him what he wants. Example of a possible “dog thought process”: “Mom wants me to go in my crate. I don’t want to go in my crate. If I growl at Mom she’s not going to make me go in my crate.” The dog wins by growling.

      Dogs cannot speak, they can’t tell us what’s bothering them, it’s up to us to figure it out which is not always a quick’n’easy task.

      I would venture to say that this behavior didn’t start recently, it’s something that’s been building for awhile — perhaps even years. You didn’t mention your dog’s age or breed and didn’t elaborate on times when your dog growls other than the crate issue. Because so many things can be involved there is no one answer. For all I know this behavior started when your dog was a puppy and your family thought a growling puppy was cute, ie: “Oh look! He thinks he’s a tough guy! Isn’t that the cutest thing you ever saw?” and so in some way your family inadvertently rewarded your dog’s growling (or didn’t properly correct it using a positive method) and so your dog learned (from your family) that this is acceptable behavior.

      I’m not saying this is what’s going on, I’m just mentioning how far back the possibilities go. I would go back in time, making notes in a journal to help me figure out when this behavior started and also note what your family did about it each time and also make notes of what currently seems to trigger the growly behavior. Somewhere in there, you should find a pattern and from that you can begin working forward to correct things in a positive fashion. I seriously do not believe there is a quick fix for this so be prepared to spend some considerable and consistent time on it. You need to be diligent! Do not let one episode go or your dog will take that and run with it which then puts you at “two steps backwards for every one step forward” which will likely frustrate you no end.

      I see part of the problem as your dog is sensing your fear and this is making things worse as well. Dogs will growl and even bite when they sense fear. Somewhere inside of you, you (and all family members!) need to muster courage and authority and treat your dog in a consistent fashion for everything, growly behavior or otherwise.

      I would take my dog to the vet for a thorough health check-up including checking for thyroid issues. Ensuring a dog isn’t suffering from a health issue is always the first step in dealing with behavior issues because so often a health problem is or at least is part of the trigger.

      I suggest you read my article above which deals with some growling issues and also read my article on understanding dog bites including all the comments that follow. Even though up to now there hasn’t been a bite, growling is often a pre-bite warning and could escalate to a bite.

      I would also enlist the help of a reputable dog behaviorist to help you zone in on what is triggering your dog’s growly behavior. Before you can change it, you need to know what causes it so that you can correct it in proper positive ways.

      Thank you for taking the time to try to find answers for your dog’s unacceptable behavior! I hope this helps and we look forward to you posting updates!

  2. Anna says:

    This is my dads german shepard, at one point he was going to be mine but he only listens to my dad. The dog thinks he can growl at me when I tell him he has done something wrong. Let’s say he gets into the garbage. I tell him NO and he will growl. I put him in his cage and he chewed a shoe, I said NO to that and he was growling and barking at me. What do I do about this? I’m scared of this behavior! P.S. He is a sweet dog so I don’t know why he would do this? I need help!

    • Mom says:

      Hi Anna,

      The first thing you need to REALLY accept and understand is that German Shepherds are TRULY one person dogs. That means that although the entire family may be accepted, loved and protected by the dog, the dog will still have his favorite person even in a multi-person home. At our house Riley and Nissa’s favorite is me, Gracie’s is my husband even though he only sees her a day or two all week long and I’m the one providing 90% of her care and time with her. I have no problem whatsoever with that and that’s how it needs to be. This dog has been your dad’s for how ever long he dog’s lived with him and to the dog, your dad is “his guy.” All that doesn’t mean he can’t become fond of you but know, understand and unconditionally accept that he will probably always favor dad. If there has been any transfer of one home to another, this dog is under tremendous stress and confusion!

      Moving a dog from one home that he’s lived in and loved to another that isn’t “his” is just a very difficult transition for a dog to go through. If someone plucked you out of your home and plunked you down in another without your permission … how would you feel? This dog had no choice in the matter, humans did this to him. He doesn’t know what to do, how to act and he’s missing dad terribly!

      You didn’t give a lot of info, I don’t know if you live with your dad or elsewhere, if the dog will remain in the same house or move to yours so I’m limited on what I can comment on but I’ll try to give you a few suggestions.

      First of all, being afraid of the dog isn’t going to work. I’m not saying I don’t understand your fear, you have reason to fear him considering how he behaves with you. But you do need to work on yourself and with the dog to eliminate the fear or you’re always going to have problems.

      In the situations you briefly described, simply telling a dog no or that he’s “done something wrong” is probably not going to solve the problems. On a side note, our Gracie growls a lot! But we’ve learned it’s her way of communicating. She’s not shown one instance of aggression no matter how much she growls. Determining if a dog’s growl is a pre-bite warning or their way of communicating would be important. Know that most dogs don’t growl before biting, they just simply bite. A dog that gives a warning growl is the exceptional dog.

      Perhaps Dad would be open to helping you transition the dog to being more fond of you by transferring things like the care and feeding of the dog to you for starters. You feed the dog, you let the dog out, you walk the dog etc. It sounds like he needs to spend time with you and that you need to be more assertive with your behaviors and attitude. Assertive does NOT equal physical violence, I refer only to attitudes and mannerisms. Instead of telling the dog no, learn to redirect the negative behaviors. For example, if the dog’s got something he’s not supposed to have (shoe?) tell the dog no while trading the shoe for a toy he can have.

      Go out in the yard and play ball with him or some other favorite activity of his, show him you’re a fun person! Take him on car rides even if it’s just to drive around for 15-20 minutes. Dogs usually love car rides and while you’re out there give it a purpose. Take him somewhere to get a treat (small plain hamburger without the bun and preferably not the slop from McDonald’s!) so that he learns to expect good things happen when you take him in the car. Put the garbage out of temptation’s way. Pretty much every dog is going to go dumpster diving if the dumpster is in plain view! There’s fooooooood in there! Why put something he shouldn’t have where he can readily get at it? Put the shoes in the closet, take away from view anything he’s not supposed to have. Replace these things with great toys, if he loves balls put some balls out. If he loves squeaky toys put squeaky toys out and play with him with his favorites.

      Give the dog a reason to love you and feel secure. It sounds like he doesn’t feel secure around you which means you need to literally morph yourself into a strong, assertive, secure person. NO faking it, find a way to make it really happen. That doesn’t mean yelling at him, hitting him or mistreating him in any way. If he’s going to have a new life, he needs time to adjust and reasons to want to adjust and get happy again.

      Even though his behavior strikes me as simply behavior issues, I would still visit the vet (YOU take him not dad) get him checked over real good and include a blood test for thyroid levels. He’s a German Shepherd prone to diseases like hypothyroidism which can cause aggressive behaviors.

      Good luck! Work at this positively and you have a good chance of succeeding. Just do not expect this dog to transfer his total loyalty to you because in his mind that belongs to your dad.

  3. Me says:

    This is sick it use to be people on;y thought about euthanizing a dog if he actually bit someone…it just shows how sick and backwards people are these days

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>