Growls lead to bites
I learned this catchy phrase “A growl is a bite that hasn’t connected – yet” during a veterinary behavior seminar. That statement has stuck with me and served me well to inform people about the meaning of a growl. The growl is a vocal warning indicating that the dog feels threatened. It means “Stop! Go away!”. The thread is from the dog's perspective. We may think the hug from a grandchild or a reach to pet the dog is fine, yet the growl tells us it is not.
What does a growl mean?
A growling dog is saying “I don’t like this. Get away from me”. This is verbal communication, one component of canine body language. Vocal and physical actions create the language from which we know what the dog is thinking. The best tool I have found to understand canine body language is the canine Ladder of Aggression by Kendal Shepherd DVM. This handout describes the normal response to stressors. As you look at the ladder, notice the body language as the graph goes from green to red. Stare, growl, snap and bite are red. These four signs are the body language signs of aggression; threatening actions to communicate to the perceived threat to leave. Growl is one step away from a bite. So, a growl is a bite that has not connected yet.
Vigilance, wariness, and mild avoidance are normal low-level fear responses in the adolescent to adult dog. Fear develops in puppies as a normal development as certain areas of the brain are growing at 12 weeks of age. Vigilance or wariness is the primary way an animal stays safe as they mature and go out into the world. The degree of fear development depends on genetics, nutrition, socialization experiences, training techniques, and health. Dogs do not outgrow fear. Puppies learn by how they feel as they experience life. If they stay timid, or fearful, that will grow and develop.
The importance of socialization before 4 months of age
Going out, and exploring new places and things is how dogs socialize. Socialization is learning to accept the stimuli in the world they live in. They learn to be fearful or calm based on how they feel when they were in the new experience. If you pair play, food, or praise with the new situation, creating a positive feeling, they will have a non-fearful experience and learn to accept this. This is how socialization happens. Daily experiences paired with positive experiences. If a dog does not receive socialization from 8-16 weeks of age, fear will be more developed. This fearful puppy will hide, shake, and over time go to staring, growling, and ultimately biting if the threat does not leave or the dog cannot leave the threat. The growl is an important warning sign to let us know what the dog is thinking.
Despite handing out the ladder of aggression to my clients and posting it for all to see in my exam rooms, I would still hear clients say “My dog is just growling. He won’t bite.” Despite the evidence of these body language handouts, people do not believe that a growl will lead to a bite. They finally understand after the dog bites. A second problem with understanding the escalation to aggression is understanding that there are bite levels. Many people think a bite is only a problem when it breaks the skin. There are 5 bite levels as defined by Ian Dunbar DVM, ACVB Bite Scale. This scale, shows the escalation of intensity and injury using a scoring system of 1-5. Lip lifting (snarling), biting the air (snapping) and lunging (jumping up suddenly) is a level one bite according to the scale. Deeper bites reflect the dog’s desire to eliminate the threat (aka - death). The highest level the dog bites when threatened, will be the first level to dog escalates to the next time. The dog has learned to bite this intensely to stop the threat.
Ignore a growl - invite a bite
What happens when a growl is ignored? If the dog does not see the threat decrease, then the dog must increase the intensity of their aggression to stop the threat. Snap (aka bite attempt) or bite is the next step. The dog is showing you and demonstrating to you what they will if they continue to feel threatened. It may by your agility that is preventing you from being bitten.
Dogs may growl at seemingly non-threatening situations. It is up to the dog what is stressful, not you. People that ignore the dog’s warning, set the dog up to bite. A common scenario is a child who loves to hug the dog when the dog is laying on the couch. The dog growls as the child hugs him because his rest is disturbed. The growl is ignored, and the dog cannot get up and move away as the child is holding the head and neck. Now the dog snaps or bites the face of the child. This did not happen out of the blue - the growl was ignored. The child kept hugging! After the bite, the veterinarian is contacted to euthanize the dog. All of this could have been avoided if the growl were acknowledged, not ignored.
Dangers of punishment
Some dogs do not growl. Many dogs have been punished for growling - so they stop. Common punishers are vibrational anti-bark collars, shock collars, collar pops, scolding, kicking cages or smacking a dog across the face. In my 36 years as a veterinarian, I have seen it all. Punishment will stop the growling so you think the dog is "ok" now. Many dogs will be silent, but staring and preparing to lunge to bite. This dog looks "ok" but the reality is the threat is present, and the aggression is brewing. The warning system has been silenced. Often the dog is faster to escalate to bite after punishment. The anticipation of further punishment increases adrenaline and the speed of escalation to aggression. Growling tells us what the dog is thinking. It is an important warning system that must be heeded for safety.
Thank you for growling
When you hear a dog growl, stop whatever is going on. Stop all movement, noise, touch, or stimuli. Call the dog away from the stimulus and praise the dog as you go to a safe area. Praise is rewarding the dog for leaving – this is an important skill to decrease aggression. Learning to leave rather than bite allows the dog to self-calm. Aggression is always managed by removing and reducing stimuli that upset your dog.
After everything has calmed down, immediately assess the situation. Aggression does not come out of the blue but it can be difficult to determine what was threatening the dog. Aggression is not trained away. Contact your veterinarian immediately and tell them exactly what has happened. Follow their advice for an exam, or setting up a veterinary behavior consult. Sadly, often this call is the first time the veterinarian hears about aggression problems. Many knowledgeable veterinarians warn clients about brewing problems. Sadly, many clients ignore the advice, just as the growling is ignored. Aggression is brewing and now that frantic post-bite call is made. The veterinarian must provide the solution, often the final solution. Death.
Listen and Learn
Please listen to your dog and to your veterinarian. We care for both all of your family. A growl is a bite that has not connected – yet. Use the ladder of aggression, take on-demand courses to learn more about dog behavior. If you have children under the age of 6, be certain to follow my pet safety rules. To learn about dog behavior, health and how to keep both at their best take Dog Behavior and health at all ages If you have young children, or are expecting a baby take Don't let Junior be Fido's lunch my pet child safety course.
Sally J Foote DVM, CABC-OIAABC, LSHC-S