From the book: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova — All Rights Reserved
Myth 41: ‘What? How dare you growl at me!’ A.k.a. If your dog snaps or growls at you, you should punish this severely.
If you have read this far, you now know that a threat signal is just the way a dog tells you she is feeling very worried and insecure about what you are planning to do. Her inner state is out of balance (too much adrenaline, too much fear or worry), and she wants to restore the balance. She is also worried about the equilibrium in the social landscape, because she doesn’t know whether you are planning to disturb this equilibrium by breaking the peace. A threat signal is, in essence, nothing more than a request to give the dog some space until she feels more secure that the other can be trusted. This means that a threat signal is, in fact, a request that you give off a calming signal, so the dog can feel reassured about your intentions. We have seen that it is the insecure dog who threatens the most. It is the socially secure dog, the one who is confident that social intercourse will follow the rules and thus be safe, and confident that her own calming signals will always work, who threatens the least. She is confident enough to be the first to use her calming signals. She is the one who, by her calming signals, takes control of the situation and leads it to safe equilibrium. She takes the other dog by the hand, as it were, and helps him past his anxiety. See also Myths 12, 13 and 28.
When a dog growls at you or even snaps at the air very near you, she is doubting whether you are trustworthy. She is worried that you might be violent or dangerous. She isn’t ‘dominating’ you, but asking you to stay out of her personal zone for the moment. If you make the mistake of punishing her for her insecurity, all you do is affirm that you (and perhaps humans in general) aren’t to be trusted.
Unfortunately, a lot of dog owners do punish their dogs for growling at them. What this leads to depends on how far the owner goes in punishing his dog’s insecurity. Some owners end up teaching the dog not to growl or indicate her worry. The dog ends up waiting until she is so scared that she feels she must deliver an inhibited bite, learning, in other words, to bite without warning first how she’ s feeling. Some owners punish this, too, and get themselves into a cycle of violence with their dogs. As this escalates, the dog ends up feeling she has to defend her very life and the owner ends up (eventually) severely bitten. Sometimes the dog’s owner accidentally gives her some other way out. For example, the owner stops when he’s beaten the dog so badly that she pees herself. These owners ascribe the fact that they haven’t been bitten to the punishment. They end up with a dog who is terrified of them, but who — by pure chance — hasn’t had to fight for her very survival… yet. Research has shown that these owners are not good at understanding the dog’s body language. They confuse her fear with ‘submissiveness’ and think they’ve arranged the dominance hierarchy just fine. They have no idea how miserable the dog is. The pattern is similar to the cycle of violence we find in the wife-beater in a domestic violence situation.
So what is the right thing to do if your dog growls or snaps at you? The behavioural therapy for a growling (or even snapping) dog always, but always, consists of a series of exercises that will gradually build trust with the dog. We gradually habituate the dog to various things the owner does, teaching the dog that the owner’s actions will have a pleasant ending for the dog. The dog is allowed to take her own time, while getting lots of rewards for relaxed behaviour, in learning to trust her owner’ s approach and touch. In other words, the dog gets to decide how fast the therapy progresses. Sometimes the dog has been tortured so long and so often that we have to use safety measures during the exercises — anxiety-inhibiting medicine, a muzzle, a trailing leash during the sessions. This trust building therapy is usually successful, if only the owner can follow the instructions, stop punishing the dog altogether, and learn to see and respect her as a living being.
Fact: Dogs run their relationships on the basis of trust, not dominance, violence and punishment. A threatening dog is a worried dog, who is asking for some space. Don’t blame the dog — rather, learn to be trustworthy. A dog who feels sure your behaviour is predictable, and who is confident that she can influence your behaviour with her calming signals, will start to feel at ease with you. After a while, after you have been willing to give enough proof that you are to be trusted, she will stop needing to ask you to stay out of her personal zone.
Fact: Trust is the key with dogs, and it has to be arrived at on their own terms.
Finding a good dog therapist
This is not a how-to book. If you are interested in trust building exercises with a growling, snapping dog, the best thing to do is find a good behaviour therapist in your area. Even if this were a how-to book, dealing with a dog who is so worried that s/he growls and snaps can be very distressing and even dangerous. It’s all too easy to make beginner’s mistakes that aggravate the problem. So it’s important to get the help of someone who can guide you as you work on it.
How do you know whether a behaviour therapist is competent? You can ask about membership in the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (the APDT) or the International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants (the IAABC), or some other organisation that does some kind of training and quality control before admitting members. Not all good therapists are members of a club, though — I am not. You can ask about the therapist’s education, whether the person has a college or higher degree in animal behaviour. But not all good therapists have degrees, either (I do). You can call your local Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals and ask for names. You can ask friends. You can ask at a dog school that rejects the choke chain for training dogs and uses treats and/or the clicker instead.
When you contact a therapist, you can present your case briefly and let the therapist start talking. Then…
One thing to watch out for is that the therapist doesn’t just have a standard, ready-made answer. A good therapist will ask you lots of questions about your dog and his/her history, how you brought the dog up, when the problem first started, when and where it occurs, and so on. The therapist will want to make a house visit and watch you with the dog. S/he might ask you to do various things with the dog, perhaps even asking you to do something that will make the dog show the growling or snapping behaviour. (A good therapist will not ask you to do this in a way that puts you or your dog or another dog at risk — neither physical risk, nor emotional and psychological risk.) A good therapist will take a thorough look at you and your dog as individuals and at your particular relationship. If the therapist already knows the answer before you even tell your story, it’s better to look for someone else.