Thursday, January 8, 2015

Good Dogs Growl

My car has a dipstick that allows me to check the level of oil in the engine, it also has a light on the dashboard that can warn me that there is something wrong. This is very important, without these warning systems I wouldn't know something was wrong until my engine burst into flames. It's really nice to have a way to gauge the state of the engine so I can do whatever is necessary to prevent things from getting to the point of disaster.

Photo by Erin Koski
Dogs have a warning system sort of like that, but instead of bursting into flames, they bite. Some dogs need very little maintenance and can go a long, long way without needing intervention. Some dogs are the equivalent of a used Alfa Romeo and need constant management. Instead of dashboard lights and dipsticks and funny noises under the hood, a dog's warning system consists of body language and vocalizations.

One of the least subtle warnings a dog can give is a growl, an impossible to ignore message that something is very wrong and needs to change. A growl means "Careful, I'm about to reach my limit and I will bite you if you don't back off."

Unfortunately not everyone sees it that way. For some people, growling is a sign of disrespect. They take it as a threat, rather than a simple statement of fact. Lots of people punish dogs for growling. "How dare you do that to me!" They teach their dog that bad things happen when they growl, and then declare that he knows his place when he will tolerate all sorts of touching, hands in his food bowl, and any other sort of rude behavior on the part of the human.

The thing is, teaching a dog not to growl doesn't teach him respect, it just unplugs the dashboard lights and throws away the oil dipstick. It does absolutely nothing to change the point at which the dog will bite, it merely erases any warning that the limit may be approaching.

People who disconnect or just ignore dashboard warning lights, and refuse to check their oil, occasionally find their engine seizing or bursting into flames during rush hour traffic. A dog that has been taught not to growl or show teeth will sometimes bite seemingly out of nowhere. Taking away the early warning system did nothing to change the point at which very bad things happen.

Dogs have limits. They can only handle so much stress before they will try to defend themselves. We can change those limits by gradually teaching the dog to feel relaxed and happy, or at least less stressed by his triggers. Dogs aren't robots, mindless automatons, or minions. They are intelligent beings capable of communicating their state of mind. We owe it to them to listen to what they tell us.

I believe my foster dog Ulysses was punished for growling at some point in his life. This is what made him an extremely unsafe dog and ultimately resulted in his death. He was always a very nervous dog, but likely felt that it was unsafe to growl and warn me when he was reaching his stress limit. Instead, he silently became overwhelmed and then lashed out very suddenly. It was never his fault, he was a sweet, beautiful, wonderful dog. He was simply taught that communicating was unsafe.

When a dog growls, the correct response is to fix the situation. Back off and get some distance between the dog and his stressor. Find ways to help him develop positive associations with the things that make him growl. Fix the underlying fear or anxiety instead of hiding it.

Good dogs growl.

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