Greyhounds who growl or snap.  What to do; what not to do.

Who would have thought it could happen?  Didn’t you read the books about greyhounds and how gentle they are? Why then did your grey just growl or snap at you?  What does this mean?  Does it mean that you have adopted Cujo and must return the grey, or worse?  Does it mean you have a dominant dog on your hands that you must force to be submissive? I will try to address these questions in this article.

The bad news is that growling and snapping are aggression.  But, believe it or not, aggressive behavior is normal for dogs.  Dogs can’t talk to us.  They can’t say “will you please not do X to me.”  They can’t ask us to back off.  They can’t ask a small child to quit pulling their ears or quit crawling on them.  A growl is a normal method of communicating to a dog.  But, the problem is that it is generally unacceptable to humans. 

From a dog’s perspective, there is always a reason for aggressive behavior.  All aggression is provoked from a dog’s perspective unless there is truly something psychologically or neurologically wrong with the dog, but that is rare.

Humans and dogs have different communication systems.  Dogs are uncomfortable with direct approaches, with hugs, with direct eye contact, etc.  All of these behaviors, are behaviors humans value, though.  Thus, misunderstandings can and often do occur between the two species.  A person may intend to be friendly, but a dog may perceive that person’s behavior as threatening or intimidating.  If you are interested in learning more about this – I highly recommend Patricia McConnell’s books “The Other End of the Leash” or “For the Love of a Dog.”

There is no way around it:  aggression is bad.  Aggression by dogs towards people is not acceptable in our society, and it can lead to bad outcomes for the dog or the person who got bitten. The good news is that if your grey has growled or snapped, it probably means that he/she has not yet bitten.  The other good news is that a growl/snap is a warning and your grey is warning you rather than hurting you.  We do want dogs who warn, right? 

In years past, dog trainers would look at growling and snapping as dominant behaviors.  Many people were instructed by dog trainers to respond to dominant behaviors by alpha rolls, stare-downs, scruff shakes, and long forced down stays.  Unfortunately, even though a wealth of information exists currently about the danger of these training techniques, many trainers continue to use them, including popular celebrity dog trainers who make it look effective by highly choreographed video editing.  Trainers also are more willing these days to recommend even harsher methods for dealing with aggression such as shock collars.  My advice is to stay away from such trainers and advice you might see on television.

Any trainer/behaviorist who truly understands dog behavior and the psychological process behind modifying behavior knows that punishment does not help aggression.  In fact, punishment often makes the problem worse.  If the aggression is motivated by fear, punishment will make your grey more fearful, and therefore more aggressive. Attempting to punish or dominate a pushy controlling dog (who we used to refer to as dominant aggressive) is likely to escalate his behavior.  In both cases punishing aggressive behavior is likely to result in a bite or severe attack. Punishing territorial, possessive, or protective aggression is likely to elicit additional defensive aggression.

My own sweet collie-shepherd mix growled at me the other day when I was wiping salt from his paws after he started limping.  Thankfully, I was walking him with a trainer friend who said “don’t lean over him next time.”   I had been leaning over him trying to comfort him and get that awful salt off of his feet.  My first reaction was “duh.”  I had just ignored the growl because I knew he wouldn’t bite me, but I hadn’t backed off.  What he was telling me was that he wasn’t comfortable with what I was doing.  So, from then on, I was aware of my body posture when cleaning his feet and have had no further problems!  Had I not respected his growl, he would have learned that I don’t listen to him. And, if I had continued to act in a manner that made him uncomfortable, he could have escalated his growl towards me in the future. I did not punish him for growling at me because I respected the fact that I did something that made him uncomfortable. What he did in growling at me was not bad.  He was trying to communicate with me the only way he knew how.

Punishment on the outside might look like it works against aggression.  You might be able to intimidate your dog into not growling at you again.  I probably could have let JJ have it and he might have never growled at me again.  But, would that have solved the underlying problem:  my behavior towards him made him uncomfortable?  No, it would not have.  Could I have caused JJ to escalate to a bite against me?  Possibly. 

If you don’t address the underlying issue, be that fear or control or possessiveness, etc., you are not making your grey feel any differently about the incident that caused the growl in the first place.  The danger is that if you don’t make your grey feel any differently about the incident, you might be able to successfully suppress a growl, but your dog is still feeling the same way, and the punishment might intensify its feelings.  Thus, the next time a similar incident happens, the dog still feels threatened and is more likely to bite.  The dog has learned that its warnings don’t work.  People don’t respect it’s warnings to stop, so the next step is a bite. 

Also, punishment is often associated with whatever is causing the dog to be uncomfortable.  So, if you punish your dog for growling at a crawling toddler, the message the dog was trying to tell the toddler was “leave me alone” and the message the dog might get from the punishment is “bad things happen to me when that child crawls towards me.”  Thus, the punishment could cause an escalation of aggression towards the child. 

I was sitting in my vet’s office once waiting for an appointment and listened to a vet tech respond to a caller’s question about what to do because her newly adopted Dalmatian just growled at her.  The vet tech said “you get into that dog’s face and tell it under no uncertain terms that was not appropriate!”  I thought to myself, “…and then get into your car and drive yourself to the Emergency Room.”  That was the worst advise that could have been given to the caller. 

The moral of this story is that we want our dogs to growl at us.  We want them to warn. We want them to feel comfortable enough that they can warn us and that we will respect their feelings.  If they growl and we respect the growl, they are less likely to resort to further aggression in the future.  By ignoring the growl, though, I am not advising you to be permissive with your dog or to totally ignore the circumstances that caused the growl.  If your grey is growling, there is something bothering him/her and you must address what is bothering him/her.  I would highly recommend you consulting with a behaviorist/trainer who understands aggression and will not use punishment to address the issue.

I completely understand that what I have just written might be hard for many of you to understand.  We live in a society that is punishment based, so that is what is being reinforced in us.  But, I would highly urge you not to react to your grey when it growls, rather become that thinking person you were so created to be.  Think about why your grey growled and what you can do to fix the problem proactively rather than punitively.  Your grey will thank you. You will ultimately reap the reward of having a greyt relationship with your grey.

Lilian Akin, CPDT

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