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.


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).