Why I Like Warning Signs & What to Do with a Growling Pet


I’m going to say something that sounds weird, so hear me out. I like warning signs. I like pets who growl. I appreciate when a pet chooses to growl. So in a society that has a lot of feelings– usually negative feelings– about growling, why am I going against the norm?


Why growling is okay

Growling is a form of communication. It’s not necessarily good or bad, just like other forms of animal communication like ears forward or backward or tail up or down are not necessarily good or bad. They just… are. It’s us humans that attach a moral “good” or “bad” tag to animal communication. We, as a society, have deemed growling as a bad thing and that causes us to treat it like it’s a bad thing instead of what it really is– normal communication. (Note: I’m not downplaying the role that language plays in the oppression of groups of people. There are certainly real moralities and pain attached to human language and communication. I’m solely talking about animal communication here, which does not have the moral implications that human language does.)

Again, growling is a form of communication. It’s a way for our pets to say, “Hey, I’m uncomfortable. Please give me some space.” It’s a way for them to try to diffuse a situation instead of escalating straight into biting. And, between those two options, I’d take growling over biting any day of the week. Far fewer incidents happen when we respond to and respect this warning sign. Communication should always be appreciated, even if you don’t like what the individual is saying. Communication– these warning signs– are what keep us safe. 


Don’t punish growling

When I was little, I thought just as many people do: growling is bad and we should punish pets who growl at us. Now I know that that’s not the best option. What happens when we punish pets who growl, is that we change their communication, but not the actual reason why they were growling in the first place. A common example in the dog training world is equating punishing growling to taking the batteries out of a fire alarm. There’s still a fire, you just don’t know about it anymore. Punishing growling only changes the growl, not the fact that they might bite if pushed farther. This is one of the ways to create “bites that happen out of nowhere”.


What to do if your pet growls

In the moment, the answer is to provide relief for your pet. If they’re growling at you, that means you should go away. If they’re growling at something else, that means removing the thing or your pet. We should give them the space they’re asking for. 

The question that always arises when I say this is, “Aren’t I rewarding him for growling if I go away?” My answer is a hearty, “Yep!” Because, again, far fewer incidents happen when we respect our pet’s communication. My primary goal is always first and foremost safety: making sure my clients and other individuals don’t get bitten. The best way to do that is to give an animal who’s asking for space the space that they’re asking for. We can then discuss how to keep those situations from arising in the future so we don’t need to worry about what happens when they growl. We can set up the environment and work through behavior modification plans so the pet doesn’t feel like they need to do so; they feel more comfortable or aren’t put into those situations. 


How can I keep my pet from growling in the future?

The first suggestion will come as no surprise to those of you who follow this blog. Learn their body language, especially subtler signs of discomfort. Unless growling occurs because of a true startle response, there are signs of stress and discomfort that happened before the growl. It may be that they were small and easy to miss, but oftentimes people don’t know what they’re looking for when it comes to signs of stress. We need to learn more about body language before we can see it in our own pets. Then, when we are able to see those subtle stress signals, we can intervene sooner so that the animal doesn’t escalate to growling. 

The second suggestion is to manage the environment and situations your pet is in. I talked a bit about this in the post “What Should I Do If My Pet Growls When I Try to Move Him?” If we know the situations in which the animal is uncomfortable, we can avoid those situations and not have to worry about what to do when they growl. They won’t do it if they’re not in those situations. Sometimes this is easier said than done; a behavior professional can help you suss out those scenarios and triggers if you’re having trouble figuring out the common threads surrounding your pet’s behavior. 

Finally, we can work through a behavior modification plan to help your pet feel more comfortable in those situations. This is a case where you should work with a behavior professional. It’s easy to make these behaviors worse and a behavior professional can help you get on the right track. 


Now what?


Happy training!


PSA: Don’t Lure Uncomfortable Pets Closer to People


Today’s post is really more of a PSA:


Don’t lure uncomfortable pets closer to people. 


We get a lot of requests from people who are struggling with their pets showing aggressive behaviors towards new people, kids, other pets, or sometimes themselves if it’s a new adoption. And while I love when people take the initiative to start getting their pets comfortable with scary things by using food, we have to be really careful about how we do it. 


The danger of using food incorrectly

A phrase that I wish I heard a lot less than I unfortunately do, is, “I don’t get it. He is clearly uncomfortable but approaches people.” While there are a lot of reasons why that behavior can crop up, one of them is that we can teach our pets to approach people they’re not comfortable with by luring them closer with food. 

For example, let’s say a creepy van pulls up to the sidewalk as I’m walking and offers me $1000. The driver’s arm is outstretched with a stack of cash. Let’s be real; I’ll probably approach the van and try to take the $1000. That’s a super valuable amount to me and worth the risk. However, I’m definitely not comfortable. If the driver makes a sudden movement I will absolutely go into fight or flight mode. If I safely get the $1000 and nothing bad happens, I’ll be more likely to approach other strange vans handing out free cash. But, again, that doesn’t mean I feel safe doing so. 

Now, let’s replace the creepy van with a person your pet is uncomfortable with and the $1000 stack of bills with a super delicious treat. It’s the same scenario. Your pet may approach the person and take the treat from their hand, but probably doesn’t feel comfortable doing so.They may stretch their neck as far as it’ll reach to grab the treat. They may flinch or startle (or worse) if the person makes the slightest move. It’s absolutely possible to teach an animal (or me, apparently) to put themselves in an uncomfortable position for a high-value reward. And, by doing so, we can teach animals to approach people who they’re not comfortable with, which I often see leading to bites. 


Decreasing distance is a side effect. Comfort is the goal

When I’m working with a new client and their pet is exhibiting stranger danger or leash reactivity, I often have to remind them that distance– getting closer to the person or other animal– should be a side effect but not a goal. As illustrated above, it’s very possible to teach an individual to move closer, but without comfort, we’ve forfeited safety and can be inadvertently teaching a dangerous behavior. Distance in and of itself should not be the goal. It should not be the sole factor by which we measure success.

Comfort, which can be observed in the animal’s body language, should be our goal. When an animal is more comfortable, they’ll typically, naturally move closer to the person. The getting closer part isn’t something we really need to teach. Decreasing distance between the pet and the new person is a side effect of them feeling comfortable, not the other way around. 


What to do instead

I’m going to be intentionally vague here because realistically if your pet is exhibiting aggressive behaviors you should seek professional help. Safety is serious. We can (and usually should!) use food to build a desirable association with the new person, but start by using food at a distance. This can take several forms and, preferably, we should be setting up the environment to keep the pet from feeling like they have to exhibit the aggressive behaviors. Again, a professional behavior consultant can help you with all of the nuances of that. 


Now what?

  • If you’re currently using food to lure your pet closer to individuals they’re afraid of, discontinue doing so. 
  • Pair scary things with treats from a distance with the help of a professional behavior consultant. We offer remote sessions locally to internationally; email us at [email protected] to schedule your first session.
  • Need help now? Check out our “Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics” course to get immediate help. 


Happy training!