How to deal with the dog who growls too much
January 6, 2012 7:04 AM   Subscribe

My dog is an incredibly vocal dog, in play. He growls like he crazy with humans playing tuggy or rough-housing, with other dogs he meets who he wants to play with or is playing with. It all sounds so fierce but it's not, he's just being playful (he's nearly 3). How do I deal with this on walks, when other dogs don't always figure out the playful part straight away, and other owners who basically call me a liar when I assure them he's friendly?

The growls and eventual barking can be comprehended as just play by people who know him. Dogs he knows and sees regularly, also have no problem with it. But on a walk outdoors, both on and off a leash, I see it spark a negative or at least overly boisterous reaction in other dogs, and cause problems. Given 5 minutes to run around a field together, no problem, but often there isn't that opportunity.

Most owners of the dogs I meet are annoyed or fearful of all this growling, assume my dog's intentions are bad (he's never attacked anyone or anything in his life), and reject anything I say like 'He's very friendly.' He's just such a damn vocal dog. When I play with him indoors my neighbours probably think he's savaging a whole bunch of people, every night.

If he's on a leash it's worse, but still present off a leash. I'm wondering what strategies I should adopt to tackle this? I'm extremely wary of any kind of chastisement for growling. It's important communication you should never discourage in a dog. It seems it's in his nature to growl a lot, even at the best of times, just playing with people or dogs he knows and gets on with extremely well. I wonder if I can ever change that, or if I just need to accept it?

If that's just how he is, then what kind of strategies should I use to try and cause less problems on walks? How best to communicate 'Yes my dog is very friendly else he'd be muzzled or nowhere near your dog. Yes I'm not lying. Yes it's just noise.' How to get him to chill out a bit with interactions, be less boisterous, growling, in your face trying to play? Or is that just part of his age? Will more socialisation help? He's going back to dog class this weekend.

Some background: He's just shy of 3 years old, generally very well behaved and obedient, has some leash aggression (which I am tackling in dog class), and I think he's a little insecure (does tend to approach other dogs in a cocky kind of way, ears up, hackles all the way along his back). Gets on better with girls than boys. Also behaves impeccably around large numbers of dogs at dog shows and so on. And as is obligatory, here's a picture of him: .
posted by Elfasi to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think one of the reasons no one believes you it that his outward behavior --growling and raised hackles-- are not signs of a playful pup. Sorry, but nothing you would say would get me to believe that he is not at least a potential threat to me or my dogs.

Playful pups play bow...they don't raise their hackles.
posted by murrey at 7:21 AM on January 6, 2012 [11 favorites]

Best answer: If other DOGS are interpreting it as aggressive, no HUMAN is going to convince me they know otherwise.
posted by Eicats at 7:22 AM on January 6, 2012 [17 favorites]

Best answer: A couple of things you say raise concerns, primarily the leash aggression and the fact that you state you're seeing hackles up, couple this with the fact that you've got a breed that is known to be aggressive (when trained to be so) and is probably larger than the majority of the dogs you encounter.

As a dog owner, if I encountered you I would pay more attention to those behaviors than I would to anything you told me about what a great, non-aggressive dog your pup is. Trying to solve this problem by convincing others to ignore what they see is going to be a useless effort.

You really shouldn't be taking him on walks where he is going to encounter other dogs until you train him not to respond in this manner.

My husky was very enthusiastic when she came upon people or other dogs, and, like yours, she can be viewed as frightening for a lot of reasons (as any dog that has that wolf quality in it's appearance can). We didn't have the hackles raised, or the growling, but she would lunge and want to make contact.

I trained her by making her sit and focus on me before she was ever allowed to interact with another dog or person. Once she was calm she was allowed the contact. Use a treat reinforcement that is very enticing, don't give it to him until he is sitting calmly for a while.

Needless to say, if you don't have the basic come/sit/down commands working well, that's the first step.

This pup shouldn't be interacting with other dogs until you've some better control over him.
posted by HuronBob at 7:25 AM on January 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

Let me add, also, that your post has some conflicting information:

"He growls like he crazy with humans playing tuggy or rough-housing, with other dogs he meets who he wants to play with or is playing with. It all sounds so fierce....If he's on a leash it's worse, but still present off a leash."

Does not equate with:

"...behaves impeccably around large numbers of dogs at dog shows.."

What are you doing differently at the dog shows?
posted by HuronBob at 7:30 AM on January 6, 2012

Maybe I'm missing something, but I didn't interpret "hackles all the way along his back" as "hackles up". I'm a dog owner, but I've never heard that phrase. If hackles are raised, then yes, he really is being aggressive. That seems to be what most people are pointing at, and, if true, probably what most other owners are picking up on.
posted by supercres at 7:38 AM on January 6, 2012

Everyone thinks their dog is so friendly and playful. I've seen owners screaming about how friendly and playful their dog was when their dog was going for my dog's throat in a not-at-all friendly and playful way. So if you assured me your growling dog was friendly and playful, I'd assume you were another one of those lunatics.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:38 AM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: HuronBob:

Your guess is as good as mine as regards dog shows. I'm not knowingly doing anything different. My theory is, the sheer number of dogs simply intimidates him at dog shows, knocks the edge off his insecure cockiness. I've seen the same sort of thing when he meets a particularly large dog, like a St Bernard. Too large to even think about messing with, he doesn't try. No negative reactions in that case either, no hackles, no fear aggression. Just calm cool interactions, or sometimes he ignores the larger dog entirely. I do wonder what's really at the root of the psychology of all that though, and if there's anything in there I can use to help him.
posted by Elfasi at 7:38 AM on January 6, 2012

I agree with huronbob. As much as I love seeing my dog interact with other dogs, he's barky, especially on lead. (Worse, he's fine far away and fine close up, but barky upon seeing a dog a few feet ahead, for example)

I've decided that he doesn't need to meet every dog we see. I march him in the opposite direction upon spotting a dog. And wave to the owner to let them know that I'm a friendly dog person.

Bring your concerns to the training class. They should be able to give you some insights.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:39 AM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, other dogs aren't stupid. If other dogs interpret your dog's behavior as aggressive, it is.

what kind of strategies should I use to try and cause less problems on walks?

That's easy. Keep him leashed and away from other dogs while on walks.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:40 AM on January 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have a German Shepherd who does pretty much the same thing. In fact it's the only way I can tell who her doggy friends are at the dog park because she gets growly when she's playing with them.

I've found that if I act like it's no big deal while she's doing it and explain to the other dog owners without apologizing it goes a long way: *Shrug* "Isn't it weird how she gets so vocal when she's playing? She only does that with dogs she likes. I wish she would be that loud when salesmen bug me at the house."

I also tell her to go easy while she's playing. "Easy Leela, be nice to the puppy." So that the other owners know that I'm still in control of her.

We go to the dog park really regularly and so do most of the other people. They're used to her weird brand of vocal playing now and don't even pay attention any more.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:43 AM on January 6, 2012

My neighbor has a dog like you describe.
The only thing to stop it was a shock collar
It works miracles. He growls or barks and gets a shock.
A humane treatment for such dogs.
posted by JayRwv at 7:44 AM on January 6, 2012

Best answer: I had a dog who was friendly once you got to know her but also who was a bit protective and leash-aggressive at different points in her life. If I was meeting random stranger that I was not likely to meet again, I'd just say "No, she's not really friendly with strangers" rather than try to explain the whole thing and get everyone calm enough so they could pat my dog on the head.

What helped with neighbors and less-random people (like at the dog park) is that she was also well trained in terms of not approaching people. So if someone wanted to approach I'd say it would be ok, just don't seem nervous and you might get an excited bark or two. If they didn't want to interact after I said that then I'd just tell my dog to stay put and she would. So at worst someone might think a little not-friendly but at least well-trained.

My dog was at her best, interaction-wise, in the years where she got a lot of socialization with people and dogs due to our location. So that can help with some dogs.
posted by mikepop at 7:50 AM on January 6, 2012

Elfasi, a reasonable answer.

There's a lot we don't know about your dog, perhaps a history of events that would explain his different reactions in different situations.

Let me explain a bit more how I handled inappropriate reactions.

My pup spends the day with me, every day, she could care less if I walk into the room. However, when my wife got home from work pup was VERY excited, ears went down, dog scrambled to rush her at the door. Wife shared the excitement and would often allow pup to jump on her (everyone wants to be loved, right?). When the pup was 8 lbs, this was cute, when it became 55 lbs of charging Husky, it meant that wife had little defense with her arms full of whatever she was bringing home. And, the pup couldn't differentiate between the wife and anyone else coming in the door, the greeting became universal. I handled it as I mentioned above. The minute someone comes to the door, BEFORE they come in, pup is told to sit (knowing that her favorite treat would follow), the person comes in, puts their stuff down, greets me, dog is still sitting, focused on the treat, dog gets pets from the person, and, finally, gets the treat, by now things are calmer and nobody's been tackled by the Husky. The same procedure worked with meeting other dogs. As they approached, pup is put into a sit, and told to stay that way until the other dog walks by or until there is an opportunity for a calm greeting, they she gets the treat.

At this point (3 years old), the treats are really necessary, but she gets them periodically (intermittent reinforcement).

Good luck!
posted by HuronBob at 7:51 AM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

By the way, I learned a lot about this from my first dog --we have a schnauzer who loves other dogs. We took him to the humane society when we wanted a second dog --to try them out together.

The first 4 dogs we tried off lead in the enclosed yard were sweet playful, largely untrained dogs who just couldn't take a hint and back off when the schnauzer indicated that it was too much for him.

We could've taken any of them home and socialized and trained them. But the schnauzer did not prefer those dogs. It would've made him really unhappy for awhile.

The dog we chose is the one I spoke of above. He's a cattle dog beagle mix who is defensive around people and barky at dogs when he's on lead....but he and the schnauzer are in complete harmony.

Training class is a great place to socialize and train your dog. Dog parks can be too, but not everyone is going to go the extra mile and be trusting. Random people walking dogs on the sidewalk? Even less so.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:00 AM on January 6, 2012

To be fair to the OP, my dog can be like this too. He picked up what is essentially doggy trash talking from my friend's dog when he was little and when he gets overly excited he growls and barks at dogs and gets his back fur raised. There is a very distinct difference when he is doing this in play and when he is actually fearful/aggressive. That said, I don't let him interact with other dogs on walks much because of this, at least until we've walked past the dog a bunch of times and he's gotten more familiar with them and less annoying. And if he does growl or anything at another dog (even if I know it's playing) I immediately pull him back and away from the other dog, letting the other owners know he's just overly excited, but giving them an easy leaving strategy. Like yours my pup's is worse on the leash, but he totally growl barks when playing off leash too (but I only let him off leash with dogs I know and who know him).

I have not been able to find anyway to dissuade this, mostly because my dog is way more dog centric than food centric so the typical behavior of distract and calm dog with food doesn't work, he cares nothing but to interact with the other dog. I would try those tactics with your dog (not letting your dog greet other dogs, just going on walks with the food and getting the dog calm when you see other dogs, etc, check older dog posts for more specifics), but if it doesn't work, you are just going to have to limit your dogs interactions to people who know and understand, and work your way up with other dogs in the neighborhood as possible.
posted by katers890 at 8:11 AM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: A wide range of answers so far, which I actually find heartening. No simple or obvious answer for this problem, not something I'm being stupid for missing. It's good to get the perspective of the other dog owners I could also meet, good to get an idea of which aspects of the problem I can/should tackle, and which ones I'd be wasting my time on.

I'm liking the idea of getting him to sit and wait by the side until another dog goes by, even if people in my neighbourhood think I've gone crazy. Gonna need to crack open the stinkiest nastiest dog treats for that I think, some tripe ought to do it. And those who missed it in the body of the question, a picture of him: Thanks everyone, keep the ideas coming!
posted by Elfasi at 8:13 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If it is what you say it is, it sounds like your dog might need more socialization with dogs as it seems to be trying to make friends with dogs and people using the play behaviours that work with you. I know you want to keep his vocalisations, but at the moment your dog is speaking a whole other language to the dogs and people he meets. Growling in this case, unfortunately that has a lot implications of aggression in both other people and dogs.

We had a dog that had real problems with not knowing what play was and getting signals confused and he assumed all approaches to play where aggression, the best thing we did was slow and steady socialisation with friendly dogs that basically slowly taught him dog language. Play growling does happen when dogs rough and tumble but if you watch other dogs closely it is not the first sign that they want to play, there is a whole lot of other signals they go through first. It sounds like right now your dog is speaking the "language" he uses when playing with you and needs to learn to "speak dog" and so give signals that both other dogs and people understand as friendly, don't worry dogs are smart enough that he can learn both means of communicating. Just socialise the crap out of your dog.

I would however mention your concerns to your trainer just in case you are misinterpreting them and they are in fact some sort of aggression, I am taking at face value what you have written about your dog, and getting an experts opinion to eliminate that it is aggression or fear as a factor would be my first step.
posted by wwax at 8:22 AM on January 6, 2012

Our dog is sort of like this: at unfamiliar dogs, she barks and bares teeth, but is otherwise playbowing and wagging her tail. Somewhere along the line, she has decided that's how dogs want to play -- as others have said, though, we understand that other dogs don't "get it", and we can't just assume that our quirky dog isn't causing problems. Our solution is to avoid direct contact with other dogs, just avoid the situation. Same with our dearly departed other dog; he didn't like his butt or face being sniffed, so we just avoided the situation.

If you want to train your dog out of that behavior, you'll have to work on it like any other behavior; be very persistent, consistent, and instant with the reward or reprimand, and do it all the time in a controlled situation.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:25 AM on January 6, 2012

when I said "At this point (3 years old), the treats are really necessary", I, of course, meant "aren't"
posted by HuronBob at 8:28 AM on January 6, 2012

I'm extremely wary of any kind of chastisement for growling. It's important communication you should never discourage in a dog.

I disagree, and the same with barking. There are appropriate times for both, and if your dog is doing it inappropriately then it's up to you to train him.

My partner has an adorable, lovable 6-year-old who he never trained at all. She barks a shrieking shrill bark at anyone who comes to the door, whether me/the partner, or the mailman, or a bad guy. It makes people not want to walk in the door. I know she's a loving sweet playful harmless thing, but she doesn't sound that way to others. You can't change how other people react to a poorly-behaved animal. You have to change the way your animal behaves.

How to get him to chill out a bit with interactions, be less boisterous, growling, in your face trying to play?

By telling him consistently not to. But you have to believe it's necessary or you won't be consistent, and that's not fair to the dog. It's not unfair to train a dog to behave appropriately, it's unfair to do it half-heartedly.

My partner's dog never barks at me anymore when I come home. I can see her through the front window and she's wagging her tail and absolutely beside herself with excitement, but she doesn't bark. I get inside and praise her, give her loves and a treat, and she's happy. When he comes home, she wakes the dead with her shrieking until I tell her to stop. Because he doesn't consistently discourage it, she doesn't know what's ok with him. Consistency is key.

Your dog is smart, and even at 3 years old can learn how to behave around people and other dogs. If you want other people to respond warmly to him out in the world, you have to teach him how to behave out in the world.
posted by headnsouth at 8:49 AM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: even if people in my neighbourhood think I've gone crazy.

I am pretty sure you can not help a problem dog without doing at least one thing that makes random peds (and possibly friends and family) think you are crazy. If you want your dog to fit into society, you may have to forego a few social norms here and there.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:00 AM on January 6, 2012

I just want to say that it is not safe for this dog to be off a leash in anything other than the most controlled situations. Whether or not you know your dog is friendly and harmless is not the point - the point is your dog appears to be aggressive and dangerous to humans and dogs. If a dog who looked like your dog (who is absolutely gorgeous BTW) approached my adult male with his hackles up and growling he would probably get a kick from me and if he did it to my female puppy who I am still socializing he would DEFINITELY get a serious kick from me. Part of the covenant that I entered into with my dogs is that when we are out in public they will refrain from fighting and in return I will do everything in my power to protect them so that they do not have to fight.
posted by Bango Skank at 12:30 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Raised hackles do not intrinsically mean aggression - they can more generally just mean arousal (one of my dogs hackles up when she plays fetch with her favorite frisbee, because she gets THAT excited). However, hackles and growling which are being interpreted negatively by other dogs mean that your dog is not acting friendly. Not all dogs love all other dogs, nor do they have to, but your dog can learn how to be less reactive.

The vast majority of science-based dog trainers and bite-prevention experts state that correcting growling is inappropriate (and a shock collar for this sort of thing is precisely the wrong thing to do, and is extremely dangerous to boot, over-stimulated dogs do NOT need pain added to the mix!), but working on having your dog focus on you is a good idea. Growling is an important message from your dog which indicates he is uncomfortable, and it is a signal to you to make some changes to reduce his level of discomfort. Taking him away from what he is reacting to and working on refocusing his attention is the right thing to do, as is starting to desensitize him to what worries him.

Control Unleashed is an excellent book with a ton of great exercises for exactly this sort of thing, I highly recommend it to you.
posted by biscotti at 12:32 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

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