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Why We Should Be Grateful For The Growl

Being on the receiving end of growling is no fun, and can actually be quite a scary experience, even when it is our own dogs doing the growling. When we love and care for them so much, it can be difficult not to take it personally when it happens. In this blog, I will look at the feelings we might experience, what the growling may mean, how it can help us, and how best to respond to it.

One of my dogs growled and then barked at me the other morning, which was extremely out of character for him; it took me by surprise. My initial feelings over his little outburst were of disappointment and sadness that I’d somehow made him feel uncomfortable, puzzlement at how I’d missed the signs, embarrassment that it had happened and, if I’m honest, I felt a little put out at being on the receiving end of an ear bashing. Jack is a large, deep-chested hound with a voice to match, so a bark from him in close proximity is rather startling at five thirty in the morning!

Jack had been demanding breakfast for the past ten minutes by pressing his nose to mine, giving me a close-up of his enquiring nostrils and a faceful of tickly whiskers, followed by whining and a paw whopping to ensure that there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that he was on the verge of starvation and could not possibly wait another minute without fainting from hunger. I trundled downstairs in my PJ’s to feed him, almost being mown down in the process as he overtook me at speed, halfway down. There is nothing faster than a Trailhound on a food-seeking mission, let me tell you! I fumbled around in the kitchen, preparing breakfast for both dogs, then put Jack’s down for him on the raised step that I’ve been using ever since last summer, when he was very ill.

One Monday evening at a scentwork class, Jack suddenly began to hesitate over getting in and out of the car. Normally he was out of there like a rocket to take his turn at having a sniff and earning himself some tasty chicken, and would happily hop back in for some of his favourite ham. However, on this occasion, something was amiss. The following morning, he was reluctant to even get up, and when he finally came down to breakfast, he was growly over his bowl, as if guarding it, although he couldn’t eat. Jack had never been a growly dog, and he loved his food, so I knew that these changes in behaviour were all indications that something was very wrong.

We booked him in for a vet check-up immediately, and after being scanned, poked and prodded extensively, we were told that Jack most probably had pancreatitis. However, Jack continued to deteriorate, and we were making almost daily trips back to the vets to keep him comfortable. The possibility of meningitis was muted and, although our vets are wonderful, they felt they had exhausted what they could do for him with the equipment they had, and that Jack would benefit from a referral to a specialist clinic.

To cut a long story short, Jack finally came home several weeks later with a diagnosis of Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis. He was quite underweight by then, and looked like a patchwork quilt from having lots of hair clipped for the many tests, joint taps and lumbar puncture he underwent.

My poorly boy: just a few of the patches that were clipped from his coat

He came home from Newmarket with a prescription for steroids, which made him absolutely ravenous, but it was such a relief to see him enjoying his food again! Thankfully, the medication took effect very quickly, and Jack was feeling so much better after just a couple of days. Although much more comfortable now, Jack still seemed to struggle to find the right position to eat in, almost resembling a baby giraffe as he splayed his legs to reach his bowl. In an effort to counteract this, I raised it onto a portable caravan step, which worked a treat.

Now that Jack is better, I have continued to use the step, as both dogs are seniors now. Jack's enthusiastic attempts to reach the dregs and lick the pattern clean off the bowl means that very occasionally, he loses it over the edge of the step. He loves to pick up his bowl in his teeth, let it crash to the floor, then lick up any crumbs which fall. If he can't manage to pick it up, he waits for me to help him. Instead of diving straight in to pick it up though, I have always given a verbal cue first, out of habit, and to be on the safe side. He has never shown any concern over me being near him or his bowl while eating; however, the other morning, when I moved to pick his bowl up, just as I'd done so many times before without issue, it resulted in a growl and barking.

I had no idea what had caused him to do this, but, despite what I felt at the time, I knew that Jack was simply communicating to me in the only way he knows how; he was telling me that something had upset him, and I needed to help him feel more comfortable.

So how should we respond in these situations?

If I had responded grumpily, I might well have scared him, and would only have succeeded in making him feel worse, confirming to him that I wasn’t listening to him. Getting cross and attempting to suppress the behaviour through punishment in the form of a telling off is never the answer, as it does nothing to address the emotions at the root of an issue. It does, however, make it increasingly likely that a dog will escalate his efforts to make himself understood, and is more likely to skip the growling stage and go straight to a bite. Growling is actually one of the last communications on the “Canine Ladder of Aggression”, so we should be very careful to respect the growl and treat it as a gift, rather than trying to stamp it out. We need as much of an early warning system as we can get!

There is a common saying that we should reward the behaviour we like and ignore what we don’t like, but we need to realise that growling isn’t disobedience or poor behaviour; it is a reflection of how they are feeling and it is vital communication which should be heeded and acted upon. Often, all that is needed is some distance from a trigger in order to help them feel better.

Learning how to recognise and understand canine body language is an essential skill for guardians and professionals alike. If we can spot the more subtle signs of worry and stress, we can take action to remove our dogs from any situations in which they feel pressured or uncomfortable, reducing the need for them to escalate their behaviour.

You can read about how to spot the signs of stress in the following blog post:

There are many reasons why growling might occur: they may be frightened, afraid that their food will be removed from them, underlying pain or discomfort may be exacerbating a situation, or we may simply have startled them; there is always a reason for growling, and these are just a few possible causes. It is our job to listen to our dogs, and respond appropriately to help them feel better.

I still don't know what it was that upset Jack the other morning, but he hasn't growled at me again since then. I've made an effort to be extra vigilant when feeding him, especially on breakfast duty, when I'm not at my best!

If you are encountering similar problems yourself, it is highly recommended, as always, that you enlist the help of a qualified professional to guide you, in order to keep everyone safe. If you are at all in any doubt, please do seek help.

Remember: growling is something to be grateful for; it is a gift!

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