I worked part-time at a veterinary clinic for two years. I often had to take dogs whose owners were dropping them off for services to the back of the clinic. As you may expect, dogs are are not happy to be at the clinic and don’t want to be separated from their owners. Some may be really afraid and nervous.
The first time a dog growled at me I was startled and said something like “hey” or “knock it off”. As I thought about it later, I realized l that was unfair. A dog’s growl is an early warning system. A dog’s growl is their way of communicating he or she is scared, startled, or hurting. It is how they tell us or other dogs we are doing something they don’t like. (It may also be part of resource guarding, but I am focusing on the nervous growl today.)
I don’t want to take the growl away from a dog. So I trained myself to say “thank you” calmly when a dog growls at me. First ,this gives me a second or two to assess the next best step. Is this growl a precursor to a lunge or bite? I am genuinely thankful that the dog chose to warn me with a growl rather than bite me. Second, think about when we say “thank you”. Even an automatic sort of thank you means your voice may lower and soften and our body changes and relaxes a bit. Dogs are so incredibly attuned to human body language my change in posture may help them relax a bit.
Sometimes we may address a growl with redirection or other strategy, but I think the “thank you” lets a dog know we are reading them and just that may help the dog to calm down. A dog who has learned that growling keeps them in charge or lets them use bratty behavior needs to be addressed a different way. Dogs who are extremely fearful may growl a good deal. That situation also calls for different strategies.
Reading our dogs and a growl this way goes back to the my 2018 theme “our bond with our dogs”. I want us to learn how dogs communicate and honor them that way.