If you have been a parent to young children, you know that when things get quiet, something is going terribly wrong. Marker drawing on the wall, flushing cereal down the toilet, cutting their hair or their siblings hair or the dogs hair, or going out the front door for a neighborhood walk about, etc. Silence is not golden, unless everyone is relaxing together.
Laughter, talking, singing, crying, really any form of verbal communication is a welcome sound to any parent, it means their child is trying to tell them something directly or indirectly. There is information there that a parent can learn from, teach about, or simply give some well needed comfort.
It’s much the same with puppies and dogs, with the differences being, we aren’t the same species, and dogs speak canine while we speak human.
Dogs, similar to humans, use a combination of body language and verbal language in order to communicate or express feelings, wants, desires, or needs. Dogs however have an additional language, what is referred to as a scent vocabulary. And here is what might surprise you just a bit. Even though humans talk, and we have languages to help us understand one another, that’s the hope anyway, and we might think that what comes out of our mouth counts for a great deal, we actually gather 70% of our information visually. Dogs on the other hand gather roughly 70% of their information through olfaction, or scent gathering.
Talking for humans can be many things, an exchange of ideas, solving problems, pleasantries, an avenue to express emotion, a time and space filler, a way to intimidate or harass, or a gift of comfort. There is no end to this list. And we all know that some voices we hear are so soothing that you can feel it enter every cell in your body, while other voices are like cheese graters. Tone or word choice, they can count.
But if we turned down the volume so to speak, and observed the humans around us, we would learn just as much about someone, before a word was ever spoken. Some of us are more perceptive when it comes to body language, and we pick up on cues easily. but now knowing that 70% of our information comes to us visually, we should all be more observant, a lot is being said without the spoken word.
So, if we are so gabby as a species, and we have put so much emphasis on words, vocalizations, and utterances, when we actually really don’t need too, why does it freak so many humans out when their dog becomes vocal? After all it is just an expression, a way to communicate.
Sometimes I meet dog owners that just want to know why their dog growls or barks, what does it mean, how can they support their dog through more understanding of environment, health, space, and needs. Always refreshing to be sure. But more often I meet people that don’t want their dog to bark, growl, sing, chirp, yodel, whine, or anything else. They don’t want their dog to react, engage, desire, show fear, or display too much joy when faced with new and different.
So when I sense a strong communication gap, I’ll ask a person to sit in a chair, not talk, not breath to loudly, and not look around the room or acknowledge anything I have to say, and for sure no twitching of the eyebrow, rolling of the eyes, or mentally hating me, while I go about my work with their dog. The person generally gets highly offended, usually crosses their legs, arms, and turns ever so slightly to the side, purses their lips, furrow their brows, and their breathing becomes a bit intense with each exhale from their nose. If it is a male I am working with, the chest gets ever so slightly puffed out, and they will start to air tap with the elevated foot. If it is a woman, the eyes start to squint and tighten, ever so slightly in a predatory way. I’m still talking about humans by the way. And when I ask them if they see the connection, if they understand the parallel I am trying to help them see, some do, most do not. On these occasions, there truly seems to be a grand canyon size misunderstanding of living with another species.
When a dog growls it is fair communication.
When a dog barks it is fair communication.
When a dog sings, yodels, chirps or whines, it is fair communication.
If you want to think of living with a dog as learning a foreign language, that would also be fair.
Growls are growls, and can only be defined within the context of the situation, and the environment your dog is in.This means no two are alike.
Sometimes a dog will growl, like a purr, because a massage feels that awesome. Many dogs let out a little deep growl as they circle and nest before going to sleep, much like we do when we sink into a yummy soft bed and snuggle in, satisfaction.
But then other dogs growl when another dog or person gets to close into their personal space. Adult dogs often times will growl hard at a puppy when a puppy pulls a stealth sucker punch head launch move, fair communication, learning and teaching.
Some dogs growl at shadows, signaling cautious behavior. Other dogs growl at new cars in the driveway, a stranger at the door, which can be cautious or guarding behavior, but for sure, showing a level of concern as well. And then we have the resource guarders who growl over a favored space, items, food, or their person. MINE!
And as is so common it is predictable, the overly aroused adolescent dog that sees his friends, but cannot access them because he is on a leash, behind a fence, or in the car, so he starts to bark and growl, and present with a display of frustration that can look somewhat threatening.
In the extremely rare case, we have dogs with malice intent, that are predatory towards humans and dogs (their own species) and their growl signals imminent demise.
Then talk with any owner of an intact female that has been through one or more heat cycles, growling comes with the territory, literally. Breeding rights, breeding territory, no sniffing of the genitals unless she says yes, because no really means fucking no. No mounting unless she is in standing heat, because no really means fucking no. Growling keeps the female safe until she is presenting and receptive, mother natures way of saying, cool your jets, or rather fuck off! And she means it with every ounce of her being. Conviction, we all need more of it!
So growling can have many meanings; fearful, content, cautious, concerned, guarding, teaching, playful, malice, and the list goes on and on.
When your dog growls you need to know WHY your dog is growling, so you look beyond the behavior. The growl is the symptom, you need to look beyond that and find the cause. Because if you correct a growl, and you aren’t sure why your dog was growling, and your dog learns that growling around you is unsafe, then you will get a quiet dog, whose only form of communication will be a swift, punishing, stealth, bite. Sit on that for a moment. The most dangerous fights I have ever seen are very quiet and quick, human to dog, and dog to dog.
The most dangerous, sociopathic, dogs I have ever worked with are dogs that most likely had concerns about something, expressed those concerns through growling and barking, and were in turn, heavily corrected for this communication display. They learned to be quiet, very quiet, show no concerns, show no signs of emotions, and when faced with what their initial concern was in life, they become stealth dangerous punishers.
Now at least one of you reading this is saying something along the lines of, even if only in your head, okay, but what about my dog that growls at every dog we pass on our favorite hike, in the most beautiful mountain area of the world. I would say, it may not be your dogs most favorite hike, and possibly very stressful for them, if you are passing that many dogs, on possibly a very narrow trail, you may want to choose the most low volume time of day during mid week, in super shitty weather to unsure you have the trail to yourself, OR, leave your dog at home, go for your favorite hike, and then take your dog on a less stressful trail, that is wider, less traffic, and doesn’t apply so much social pressure.
Your choices count for a lot.
Some of you may be mentally growling at me after reading this, that is okay, it is fair communication, and it means you may have learned something new, or are possibly acknowledging that you need to change things up for your dogs sake.
If your dog is trying to tell you something or teach you more about them, listen.