What to Do If Your Dog Growls or Snaps

Many popular training guides advise that you punish your dog for showing aggression. Why that’s counterproductive, and what to do instead.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #25

Many of us have had that uh-oh moment when our dog suddenly doesn’t look so friendly. My beloved dog Izzy once growled at me when I came up behind her while she was working on a pig ear. Maybe your dog has growled or snapped while having her nails trimmed, or when startled, or when being petted by a child. At these moments we may feel frightened, even betrayed. It’s hard to know what to do. Today I’ll talk about canine warnings and how we humans can respond to them productively.

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“Aggressive” Isn’t the Same as “Bad”

As usual, unexamined ideas floating in the ether have a way of getting dogs and their people in trouble, and of making trouble worse when it does arise. The ether is chock full of unexamined ideas about aggression. Among the most pernicious is the notion that there are good dogs, and then there are aggressive dogs. As a corollary, every dog is one or the other, and the two categories never overlap.

In fact, normal dogs have a huge vocabulary of aggressive behaviors. I started this episode by mentioning growls and snaps, but humans often miss many more subtle clues to canine tension. A brief overall body stillness is one; pushing the corners of the lips forward is another. The vocabulary of aggression ranges from the quickest hard glance up to all-out attack.

A Normal Dog Delivers Several Warnings

My dog Izzy, the one who growled at me over a pig ear, once delivered a beautiful lesson in how to escalate. We were at the dog park, and a bouncy boy dog just wouldn’t stop humping her. I was so flabbergasted by his obliviousness to her signals that I didn’t intervene. The first time he got on Izzy’s back, she walked out from under him -- the equivalent of “Nah, I’m not into that.” He came back for seconds. She whipped her head around at him -- a low-key warning. Third time: She whipped her head around and curled her lip. Fourth time: Izzy whipped her head around and snapped. The fifth time Mr. Humpy got on her back, Izzy threw herself into the air with a roar and drove him off, snapping and snarling. Nobody got hurt. “Wow,” said Mr. Humpy’s guardian. “Your dog sure is aggressive.”

Aggression and Behavioral Health

Roughly speaking, the more behaviorally healthy a dog is, the more relaxed that dog is in different kinds of circumstances, and the less likely to aggress. Also, a behaviorally healthy dog delivers warnings stepwise, starting with the gentlest and proceeding-- if mild warnings go unheeded--to something more Technicolor and surround sound. Usually, matters stop short of bloodshed. That’s what happened with Izzy and her humper.

Why a Confrontational Response May Do More Harm Than Good

So behaviorally healthy dogs take most of life in stride, and they deliver warnings when they’re pushed. Those two facts together help explain why it’s best to respond without confrontation to a dog’s growl or snap. First, underlying almost all aggression is stress -- whether that’s a huge stressor in the moment or an accumulation of small stressors over an hour or a day. Bear in mind that this is stress from the dog’s point of view, and that many dogs aren’t in perfect behavioral health. No matter how much you enjoy the toddler next door, if your dog growls at her you can take it as a given that he finds something about her presence distressful.

If you punish your dog for growling or snapping, you’ve essentially punished him for warning you that he’s close to the limit of what he can stand.

Second, if you punish your dog for growling or snapping, you’ve essentially punished him for warning you that he’s close to the limit of what he can stand. If your punishment is perfectly calibrated, he may never growl or snap again. Now that cute toddler can pet your dog on the head and he’ll hold still. But he’s not feeling okay about it. What happens when the little kid, who doesn’t know any better, pulls the dog’s tail or sticks a finger in his ear or runs up to him when he’s eating dinner? You, the child, and your dog may well get lucky and go the dog’s whole life without finding out. But I’d rather not leave everybody’s safety to luck.

Instead of Punishing, Back Off and Think!

An outright dog attack is an emergency, of course. You must do whatever it takes to protect yourself or others. But if your dog growls or snaps, or if you’ve caught one of those more subtle warning signs I mentioned earlier, your best bet is to back off. Exit the situation. Take a deep breath or 50, enough for you and your dog both to settle down. And then think. What, exactly, were the circumstances around the behavior? And can you identify any new or old stressors in your dog’s life? You and your dog need professional help, and the best thing you can do right now is to gather information.

Some Possible Triggers of Aggression

Many dogs guard their food bowls, resting places, or favorite toys. Many are on edge around big, assertive men or erratically moving children. Did your dog get beaten up at the dog park that morning, then have to go to the vet, and did you just step on his foot while he was asleep? Did some ignorant trainer tell you to jerk on your dog’s leash when he lunged at another dog on the street? Is your dog old and arthritic? Is that chronic ear infection flaring up? Does the aggressive behavior reflect a sudden change, or have you sorta-kinda seen a problem coming but wanted to believe everything was fine? I strongly suggest making written notes. A detailed account of the aggressive episode is golden, whether your dog needs behavior modification, or medical treatment, or both. Meanwhile, prevent further rehearsals of the aggression-- avoid the problem situation as much as you possibly can.

How I Taught My Dog She Didn’t Need to Growl at Me

Izzy’s guarding of her pig ear was mild, so my behavior modification was fairly casual. A good program is meticulously tailored to the individual dog, so please get professional help rather than trying this on your own. I taught Izzy that if I approached when she had a pig ear, she could expect a small piece of roast beef to land nearby. Soon she acted glad to see me coming. Now I could approach more closely, and then more closely still -- always pairing my arrival with a tasty treat. I started trading her -- pig ear for roast beef, and then she’d get the pig ear back. Sometimes I’d hang out with her and her pig ear, giving her a treat from time to time. In a couple of weeks, the program was done. It’s been years since Iz felt any need to growl at me. I’m pretty sure a persistent humper would still get a roar and snap. And that’s okay by me.

For more resources on aggression, see the transcript at dogtrainer.quickanddirtytips.com. And talk to me! Email dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com, call 206-600-5661, or visit me on Facebook. That’s it for this week! Thank you.

Additional Information

For behavioral help, your best bet is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (especially if medical problems need to be treated or ruled out) or a trainer with special expertise in behavior modification. Evaluate any prospective trainer according to the criteria in my episode #5.

The use of pain, fear, or startle in a behavior modification program does not reflect the modern standard of care; the position statement of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior explains why.

While you shouldn’t attempt to handle behavior problems on your own, excellent reading materials can help make you an informed participant in your dog’s care. Here are just a few:

“Mine!” (resource guarding) and “Fight!” (dog-dog aggression), by Jean Donaldson, and “Biting” and “Fighting,” by Ian Dunbar, DVM.

“Feisty Fido,” by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., and Karen London, Ph.D., discusses on-leash aggression toward other dogs. Be sure to get the new second edition.

Pat Miller’s Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog and Positive Perspectives 2: Know Your Dog, Train Your Dog are valuable general resources.

My example of a dog stressed by the presence of a child reflects reality: children are bitten more often than any other people. See, for example, Shuler, Carrie M., et al. 2008. Canine and human factors related to dog bite injuries. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 232 (4) (Feb. 15): 542-46.

Finally, Janis Bradley’s Dogs Bite: But Balloons and House Slippers Are More Dangerous is indispensable for putting the whole problem of dog bites into perspective. The title says it all, and Bradley backs up her position with meticulous research. 

Growling Dog image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).