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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.

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

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.

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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).