Dealing With Growling

Dealing With Growling


Rewarding proper behavior is key.


Problem


I have a one-year-old field-bred springer spaniel who recently returned from a month-long training session. I visited her there and trained with them a few times. She was 11 months old at the time I took her and very submissive. She is my only dog and she had little exposure to other dogs.

I actually noticed this problem before I took her for training. While putting her in the crate before bed she growls as the crate door is latched. Usually this was with the kids or my wife, but since I've gotten her back she wants to stay in the crate all the time and growls if anyone even enters the room.

She will growl even when she is lying down and any of us walk by or get too close to her resting place. It isn't all the time but enough for me to worry about the kids when I'm not home.

The growling actually started at around six months old. She growls if anyone tries to take a toy from her; this started recently right after we got her back from training. Recently she seems to be getting worse.

My wife and daughter took her for a walk yesterday. She did great, followed commands and seemed very happy. When they got home the girls played with her in the yard and all seemed well. But when she came into the house and curled up on her bed, she totally changed.

I could actually see it in her eyes; she snarled and bared her teeth at me as soon as she was on her bed. I really am getting nervous for my kids.

She usually is a very loving dog; her tail is always wagging. But she does like her alone time more than other dogs I have had, and we're worried about her. Her obedience skills are great; she was housebroken in two days, never chewed anything in the house or outside, and is great in the field, very steady to the flush and retrieves to hand.

We really just want a pet and hunting companion, not a field trial champion. We are willing to help her, but I'm losing my patience. I think it's either dominance or territorial driven. If you can offer some advice on how to correct this behavior and what might be the cause it would be greatly appreciated. She's a very talented bitch in the field and a part of the family.

Solution

From what you say about your dog being very submissive, it is safe to assume she is not dominant aggressive. She is defensive, more from insecurity than anything else.

There is territorial defense in it as well, wanting or needing her individual space and just protecting her stuff. She has learned that if she growls it will back people off and she can keep her space. Her crate has become her security blanket.

What I have in mind for her has to be a group effort, dependent on teaching the children and your wife what to do to help head off her growling and what to do if she does growl. I am concerned that if her growl doesn't work to give her the space and privacy she prefers, the growl could escalate to a snap or a bite. Or if the children would rush at her unexpectedly she might bite out of fear.

You will need the help and cooperation of the children and your wife and you will need to be on board too. She must get to be as comfortable with every member of your family as she is with you. When she is, she will be okay, a good addition to your family and a good hunting dog for you. She apparently has a lot of cooperation. This is the biggest plus a dog can have to be a member of the family and a good hunter.

Assuming there is no physical problem with your dog, which only a vet exam could determine, I think I have her figured out. What appears, on the surface at least, as dominance aggression is really more defensive than dominance. And she has learned a growl works.

Anytime she growls she is reinforced because the growl works to back away people who are annoying her. Her bared teeth were because the growl didn't work on you so she had to crank it up a notch. This is the escalation I worry about. The growling at you, your wife and children is a learned behavior.

But she is a submissive, sensitive dog. Meeting force with force with her would be counterproductive. Force is not an option as you already saw with the bared teeth. The indirect way will work far better for her temperament, but it too will require some tough love from everyone. She is already well schooled in obedience so it will be easier than if she had not had any obedience training.

First, give her back her crate as a means of shrinking her defended space. She has to be relegated to the crate whenever she chooses to lie down, rest, sleep, whatever. After it is again her all-time favorite place, you probably would not even have to close the door.

You could move her bed into the crate to help make it a favorite place.

Giving her treats will make it even better. Give her a small treat like a dog biscuit every time you put her into her crate. Let her defend it all she wants for awhile at least. By shrinking her turf you will be keeping her from claiming more of the house as her own.

The next part of the remaking of her is where you will need everyone in the family on your side. She is to get no attention, no affection, no greeting, no play, no positive anything unless she asks properly and shows it by being very obedient. For example, if she is in her crate, whoever is walking by must totally ignore her if she growls, no words, not even a look in her direction.

If she doesn't growl, keep walking, but say "good girl" or "nice girl" as positive reinforcement, but don't stop or acknowledge her any other way. When she wants to be sociable, she can be allowed out to approach anyone she chooses but she is not to be acknowledged until she sits respectfully.

At first this might need a command word to sit. She will quickly learn to do it automatically. When she has shown proper respect, she can be rewarded for doing the right thing the right way. She can be asked if she would like to go outside or have her food or go for a walk, a drink of water and so on. All the normal things she has been getting and taking for granted must now be earned.

If she doesn't show the demanded respect and jumps up or does something pushy, turn away and ignore her until she gets it right. The apparent affection deprivation and her having a job to do before getting anything she wants will change her attitude and she will become a good member of the family.

It is a good idea to have the girls take regular turns walking her on leash, making her sit, stay, come and all the basic obedience things. The girls must also be good at ignoring her when they should be ignoring her. In return, she gets her crate, inviolate, and the girls must respect that as well by giving her space when she wants it.

Gradually s

he will stop the growling as she understands that no one else cares. All the play has to stop for awhile, especially the games that involve any chasing her when she has an object, until she accepts everything on your terms and not hers. If you can get everyone completely on line with the attention/affection deprivation, with everyone in the family going along fully, it should take two or three weeks to turn her around.

It depends on how strong the learning has been. The more often she has been reinforced by someone backing off, the harder it will be for her to unlearn the growling defense.

Growling must get nothing, and not being defensive but doing her job correctly gets her what she wants.

If you have questions on how this is to work or if I haven't explained some things well enough, get right back to me and we can straighten it out. You will need to stress the importance of adhering to the program for everyone's safety and how everyone needs to do her/his part. Consistency is very important.

Follow-up Report

It was almost like a switch turned on. A few days before I took her to get spayed she started acting like her old self. She no longer "hides" in her kennel but is back to interacting with the family. It's unusual to see her in the crate anymore when we're home.

She still has her blanket and stuffed animal but doesn't guard them like she used to. She's improved a little more since she was spayed but I don't think that was the reason for her change. The only problem she really has now is growling when we lock the crate door; other than that we can go past her with no growling and she doesn't protect her spots where she lies.

We really thank you for the help. She's now eating normally too; it's great to see her and the family happy again.

For solutions to your dog's behavior problems or behavior related training problems, you can contact Ed Bailey at edbailey@uoguelph.ca

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