What do animals do when they’re unhappy about something that they’re experiencing? Consider a cat that hisses and scratches before running away. Envision a horse rearing and screaming before running away. Both species vocalize, use their body as defensively as they can, and then remove themselves from the situation. Even humans when confronted with something unpleasant or frightening will vocalize and remove themselves from the situation.
Now think about a dog. In my last column I wrote about what to do when your dog growls—and what not to do. “Don’ts” include yelling, hitting, punishing or otherwise remonstrating with your dog for growling. Would it be helpful to yell at a cat for hissing and scratching? Would you smack a child for yelling and running away from “stranger danger?” Or holler at a horse who rears and whinnies when he sees a snake?
The point is that punishing an animal for reacting to something the animal dislikes or is frightened of is not just useless, it’s counterproductive. Think of your dog’s comfort level as traffic lights — green equals “Everything is OK,” amber is “Slow down, be careful,” and red is “Stop!”
When your dog is comfortable, the light is green. The dog is calm and at ease in the environment or situation. For example, a child the dog is comfortable with is petting him. The dog’s tail might wag happily, his body and face are relaxed. If this changes, the dog might become less comfortable. Let’s say, rather than petting him gently, the child hugs the dog around the neck.
Dogs don’t love being hugged, so for many dogs, being hugged is like approaching an intersection when the light turns amber. The dog will communicate his discomfort with observable signals such as yawning, lip licking and turning away from the object of their discomfort. He might stiffen and become absolutely still. If these “early warning” signals are ignored, the dog might increase his request to “Please save me from this!” That might be communicated with a growl — the dog’s way of saying, “I’m really uncomfortable. Please could someone do something to help me out here.”
What if, rather than telling the child to let go of the dog’s neck (or helping to extricate the dog from the uncomfortable situation), you focus on the dog’s growl and holler at him. What message does this send to the dog? He is likely learning two things — one is that he cannot rely on help to extricate him from unpleasant situations. The second lesson the dog learns is that growling is frowned upon. So if growling doesn’t result in help, and it’s punished, growling gains nothing. So the dog might actually stop growling.
This might sound like a positive result, but it really isn’t. Whatever is causing the dog to feel the need to growl is still happening. But since growling gained no help, the dog takes it upon himself to try to change the situation. You’ve effectively eliminated the amber light, and the dog might jump from green directly to the red light.
What is red light territory? When the yellow light signals didn’t have any effect on the situation, the dog does what dogs do — he might snarl, nip or bite. Yes, you’ve eliminated growling. But you haven’t listened to the dog. One of the ways a dog might try to get out of a bad situation is to snap and leave. Consider what happens to the dog once he has bitten — especially if he’s bitten a child who is hugging him. What is the likely end for that dog?
The bottom line — rather than punish your dog for growling, examine the reason for the vocalization and “listen” to your dog. If you cannot figure out what is causing your dog’s discomfort, consult with a behavioral trainer for help. Your dog’s life might depend on it.