A dog who growls when a greeter or guest approaches him and his person is usually not protecting his owner. This is our human interpretation. That dog is looking out for his own safety and “telling” the greeter or guest to keep his distance. This is not a behavior that the dog will outgrow or one that should be ignored. As upsetting as it is to hear one’s dog growl, he is communicating in the way he knows. We can understand the conditioned emotional response that is driving the behavior, then work to change it.
There were Preludes
It’s rare that a dog comes out of the gate growling. Prelude behaviors can be misinterpreted or responded to in ways that aren’t helpful. Attempting to flee, freezing in place, hiding behind someone or beneath something, conflicting movements towards and away from the greeter, vocalizing, or seeking higher ground by jumping on a chair are all examples of early distance-increasing behaviors.
Dogs who engaged in these behaviors and were approached, subjected to petting, or someone leaning over them learned that they didn’t work. Distance decreased instead of maintaining a wider zone between the dog and the unfamiliar human. To feel safe, the dog escalates his “keep away” display.
Allow the Dog His Comfort Zone
The worst tactic with a timid puppy or dog is to encroach upon his safety zone. We humans take things personally and some believe the dog will warm up to them, specifically. Wow is this one risky! Who wants to be the silly human to push the dog to actually biting? A better path would be to take action to build trust towards unfamiliar humans on the part of the dog.
The greeter allows the dog whatever distance is his comfort zone. No continued approach. Remain stationary. Halt the growling. The dog’s trusted person can ask the dog to “look” in order to disengage his attention from the greeter. The dog’s correct response to his person can be reinforced with a bite of high value food, such as chicken or cheese. The greeter should not back up when the dog growls, as that would reinforce the growling.
Counter Conditioning: The Dog Learns to be Approached
Approaching unfamiliar people can be on the dog’s terms. Being approached by greeters and guests is a skill learned through training. With a timid or fearful dog, it entails a counter conditioning program to change the conditioned emotional response to the person’s approach. These programs work with threshold distances and time frames, appropriate for the individual animal.
It is a myth that dogs universally love to be petted. For some, it is an unwelcome intrusion that they tolerate. For others, it can be a reason to engage in an aggressive display.
Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2019 all rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC