Grumble and Growl Zones

Today’s important topic is brought to you by myself and one of my favorite resources for families with dogs and kids, Family Paws Parent Education. As a licensed Family Paws Parent Educator, I love sharing Family Paws information when I am working with clients, especially when there are young children residing or visiting the home where dogs also live. One of my very favorite resources from Family Paws is what they refer to as Grumble and Growl Zones. I love this topic so much and believe it is such an important one, that I wanted to take a deep dive with you into what Grumble and Growl Zones are, why you should care about them, how to recognize one, and what to do if you have identified them in your home or the home of a loved one with dogs. 


Grumble, Grumble, Grumble

Let’s focus on what a Grumble Zone is first. Family Paws identifies a Grumble Zone as “crowded spaces with escape routes.” These are spaces where dogs and children might be forced into closer proximity than the dog might be comfortable with. Even though there is what appears to be an escape route available to the dog, the dog might not recognize it as such. There might also be the possibility that the dog is feeling conflicted about leaving. 

Many folks are confused about this. If the dog is uncomfortable with the proximity to a child in a space and there is a way for the dog to move away, why don’t they just move away? I hope the following example can help illuminate some possible explanations for why this might occur. Let me describe a scenario that I see quite often in my clients’ homes. 

Parents or caregivers are hanging in the family room, sitting on the couch and their 11-month-old is cruising around the coffee table that is directly in front of the couch. The table is arranged so that the parents have room to slightly stretch out their legs and also reach for the drink and snacks that are nestled on the table but it is close enough to the couch so that the baby can easily navigate between couch and table safely. The pup sits directly between the couch and the coffee table even though there is a comfy dog bed across the room. Why? There could be so many different reasons. Maybe the dog is sitting nearby hoping that someone will drop a piece of popcorn. Maybe the pup wants to sit super close to their humans; the pup is, after all, their first baby. Maybe the baby was making a lot of noise the way all babies do, and the dog was feeling uncertain and was looking for comfort from their beloved people. Maybe the baby was crawling across the floor just seconds before and the dog was looking to get away. I could go on and on about all the different reasons why the dog might be parked in such a tight space. 

But that’s not really the most important focus of this scenario. The most important thing is that we have a situation where a dog is in a tight space and even though there is an escape route available to the dog, they might not choose it or they might not have the skills to navigate it. In our example, the dog probably doesn’t have enough space to turn completely around, and backing up several steps might be difficult. The dog suddenly feels “stuck” or doesn’t really want to move. Of course, the baby doesn’t know that. The baby is just doing what they do best, babying (is that a thing? If not, it should be.) And because the baby is babying and the dog is dogging, we have the potential for conflict if the baby gets too close and the dog feels threatened by the proximity. Maybe the dog starts to communicate their discomfort by licking their lips, or yawning, or looking away with their ears way back and their tail starting to droop. The parents’ focus is on the cute antics of the baby and they don’t notice these subtle, silent signals. And then they hear a low grumble come out of their sweet dog’s mouth. The parents are dismayed that their dog doesn’t “like the baby” and they are understandably worried. Could this have been prevented? I think with some good, solid management, a change in the furniture arrangement, and a deeper understanding of dog body language, it most likely could have been. 


Growl, Growl, Growl 

A Growl Zone is similar to a Grumble Zone with just a few differences. While a Grumble Zone has an escape route available to the dog, a Growl Zone is when “the dog lacks a clear escape route AND/OR a resource is near. If approached while in a Growl Zone, the dog may growl, snap, or even bite.” Resources that a dog might have that change a Grumble Zone to a Growl Zone can be anything from their food bowl, a toy, a bone or chew, their bed, or even access to their favorite person. Even if there is a convenient, easily accessible escape route available to the dog, when a valued resource is present, all bets are off and the dog may not want to move away even if a child starts to encroach upon their space. Even if the dog is horribly uncomfortable. 

It is incredibly important for all parents and caregivers to recognize the danger that exists when babies and children are in close proximity to a dog with a resource. Even if the dog is comfortable with the parents or caregivers being in close proximity to them when they have a resource, they might feel very differently if a baby crawls towards them or a toddler toddles over to them while the dog has a bone. Babies and toddlers do everything differently. They move differently, they sound differently, they smell differently. They stare at, move erratically, grab, poke and prod. All of which is species-typical behavior for a developing human child. But your dog surely doesn’t know that, right? And once again, we have a situation where the dog uses their own species-typical behavior to communicate that they are uncomfortable but we as humans are stricken when the dog growls at, snaps at, or bites our child. Which is completely understandable because as caregivers, the ones charged with the safety of our little ones, we could never imagine that the family dog, who wouldn’t harm a fly, could be capable of such actions. 


An Ounce of Prevention

I think in the case of both Grumble Zones or Growl Zones an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Meaning, that if we can accurately recognize where some typical Grumble and/or Growl Zones exist within our own homes, we can prevent plenty of undesired experiences between our beloved dogs and our beloved children. With that in mind, here are some common Grumble Zones in homes: foyers, hallways, thresholds of doorways, stairwells or landings, places where furniture is closely arranged, dog beds up against walls, human beds, and couches. Here are some common Growl Zones: under tables, under pianos, in the dog’s crate, under a bed, or any Grumble Zone when the dog also has a valued resource. Here is a great infographic from Family Paws that illustrates the concept of Grumble and Growl Zones brilliantly: Grumble and Growl Zones

Being aware of the potential fallout of Grumble and Growl Zones is the first step to being a more informed, better prepared, more equipped caregiver that will hopefully give you the necessary tools to help keep both your kids and your dogs safe. 


Now What? 

Here are some actionable steps you can take to help you navigate a household with dogs and kids: 

  1. Identify where in your home you see the potential for a Grumble or Growl Zone to exist. 
  2. After you have identified areas that need improvement, troubleshoot ways in which you can make the space safer. What kind of management can you put in place? Hint: baby gates can be incredibly helpful!
  3. Can you rearrange your furniture to give your dog more agency to move away successfully? Or to try to eliminate any tight spaces? 
  4. Make your dog’s resting places such as their bed or their crate a 100% kid-free zone. 
  5. Active, adult, awake, parental supervision is a must when it comes to all interactions between dogs and kids. 
  6. I will never underestimate the value and importance of learning dog body language. It is the number one most important skill for all dog parents but it is especially important for homes where kids and dogs cohabitate. Doggie Language by Lili Chin is a great resource for families with kids and dogs to help get you started. 
  7. If you are feeling stuck, worried, or need help with navigating a difficult relationship between your dog and child/children, Pet Harmony is here to help!

Happy Training,