Growling & Aggression
Growling and aggression is still miss understood and miss handled by so many. It is important to recognise that aggression in dogs is almost always driven by fear. Not by dominance.
Growling is the dog communicating that it is uncomfortable and wants distance between it and what is stressing it out. It is simply a behaviour that is meant to create distance between themselves and a perceived threat or something that it deems stressful at the time by warning them to stop coming closer or to move away. It is not an attempt to assert themselves over anyone or anything and should not be reprimanded. We should acknowledge that our dog is stressed and make it feel comfortable again.
When a dog feels stressed or fearful they have one goal and that is self-preservation. Growling can be a learnt way of communicating feelings of stress or fear and that distance is needed to feel comfortable again. It is not an attempt to assert their dominance over you or others. The further away from what is deemed stressful the dog is, the less of an impact it has on the dog. Likewise, the slower it moves and the more predictable it behaves the less stressful it is. Physical aggression is either an attempt to create distance between itself and the stressor by barking and lunging, to stop, or to eliminate the perceived threat.
Dogs are animals and we must remember that they will treat that that they are not familiar with as a threat until they can be sure otherwise. We can become complacent in thinking that our dogs will understand the human world and everything in it but we must remember that things such as motor vehicles, and fast moving objects are foreign to them, and that the individuals we introduce them to are strangers to them until they know for sure. What stresses the dog out is up to the dog, it is irrelevant if we deem it stressful or whether it ‘should’ stress our dog out or not. If the dog has been exposed to something or has built a negative association, or an individual continues to not listen to them, it can make the dog feel uncomfortable, a dog will communicated this with fiddle behaviours. This usually starts with subtle stress signals such as lip licking, yawning and avoiding but if these are not being listened to, dogs will begin to panic and the fight/flight centre will activate. If they cannot remove themselves or feel that they cannot, they will resort to their version of shouting, which is growling, teeth bearing and aggression. If over time, the subtle communication patterns are not listened to, but the shouting (snapping and biting) does work in keeping the stressor away, a dog will learn to shout every time.
Every time a dog is compromised and forced to growl or act aggressively, it practices this behaviour and ultimately gets better at it. We must remember that a dogs goal when stressed is self preservation, and so a behaviours such as aggression that helps it achieved this goal, has worked for the dog. A dog that has learned to growl or act aggressively under stress is likely to be confident that this behaviour will work in their goal of self-preservation. But ultimately this behaviour is driven by stress fear or anxiety and if given the choice, the dog would not be in this position and forced to act this way at all. It is a last resort, their primary goal in life is to stay alive and acting aggressively and getting into physical conflict is something puts that at risk. They are not aware of how the conflict will end, they do not know that we can take them to a vet and repair them. For a dog to act aggressively, it has panicked and has reached the point of stress that the fight response activated which as we went through in the the dogs mind is not a voluntary response. (There are other forms of aggression such as prey drive and dogs with medical issues that this is not applicable to) We must be preventative as much as possible when handling these issues, if we do compromise the dog and it is forced to growl, we must act appropriately. We certainly must not flood the dog and punish it for acting this way.
When we hear a growl, our go to response and thought process should be “thank you for letting us know” and aim to reduce the stress put on the dog. We should never a reprimand a growl. Remember that dogs are only ever communicating that how they feel, not trying to influence the emotions of others. So, a growl is them saying they are stressed and need distance and we cannot treat stress with stress. A dog that learns that it cannot communicate for fear of being reprimanded will learn not to communicate, but it will compound the negative association of the situation and cause further stress next time, only next time it will not give a growl as a warning. The most dangerous dogs are those that do not warn and resort straight to biting and aggression. Likewise, if we do not listen to the growl, by slowing down, removing the stressor or our dog from the stressor, the dog will feel unheard and may be forced to shout, escalating its behaviour to physical aggression.
When handling growling or aggression, our goal when training aggression cases are to build tolerance of and positive associations of the trigger that the dog previously found stressful. And to teach socially appropriate behaviours to help it cope with the trigger, such as looking to us for direction, walking away and communicating using subtle fiddle responses rather than aggression. We must train the dog at its pace, listening to the early stress signals of the dog and taking the time to use positive reinforcement and an appropriate distance to gradually de-sensitise and counter condition the dog. The dogs tolerance is likely to be low, and so we must not flood the dog and cause further stress and trauma. When the dogs body reacts in a fight or flight response, adrenaline and cortisol release into the body and this can take 72 hours to a week for this to balance back out to a healthy level, if the dog does not receive any more stress during that time. We often suggest giving the dog a break from stressful situations before we begin counter conditioning, to allow the it to recover and refresh. Bringing it into the best possible frame of mind for learning. Over exposing a dog that is already stressed to something it has previously learned to be negative is setting the dog up to fail.
It is a common misconception that you cannot comfort a dog that is stressed. That this will encourage the dog to want to feel stressed, fearful or anxious were you to comfort the dog at this time. Feeling this way is a reflex, and reflex is not choice. It is physically impossible to reinforce a negative emotional state. In thee moments, the dogs are having panic attacks. Using positive reinforcement to comfort the dog, allows its adrenaline levels to come down, the amygdala to switch off and the thinking side of its mind to reactivate. It is the equivalent to giving someone a brown paper bag when hyper ventilating. it will not ever make anyone want to hyper ventilate again and it will only help them.
It is important to remember that behaviour is not guaranteed, it is not something that can simply be fixed or cured. It is something that we must manage, take responsibility of the situations and individuals that we place our dogs in and allow the dog to communicate. Dogs do not get to choose their emotions any more than we do and life is full of variables. What we must learn is our dogs tolerance levels, their early communication patterns and how to respond appropriately.