This is why dog trainers will often reinforce a growling dog, and we definitely didn't see this one coming!

Labrador growling in the park
(Image credit: Getty Images)

While some dogs growl more than others, growling is natural for dogs. However, many people punish dogs for displaying this natural behavior. It makes sense that some people might think that this is the right way to deal with growling – it’s often perceived as aggressive, and most dog parents don’t want their dogs to show aggression.

But, increasingly, trainers and other experts are urging dog parents not to punish their pups for growling, as doing so doesn’t tackle the underlying issues. Instead, you could try anything from moving away from your pup to tossing them some of the best dog treats.

If your dog growls, it’s because something is making them uncomfortable. And, the certified dog behavior coaches at Calm Canine Academy have explained in a new Instagram post why trainers will often reinforce a growling dog. For many of us, it goes against our instincts, but it actually makes a whole lot of sense!

“Growling dogs are trying to meet a need,” they begin. “Often, this is a need for safety, space, and agency.” When a dog is growling, it might mean that we’ve missed other signs that they’re unhappy – dog body language is worth brushing up on! 

If your dog is unhappy or uncomfortable, they may be moving up the ladder of aggression. Early signs of discomfort can include things like yawning, blinking, and turning their head or body away. These are all signs that your pup wants to leave the situation. 

When these signals are ignored, your dog may move up the ladder of aggression to things like crouching, lying down, or staring. If your dog is still uncomfortable, before snapping or biting, they may growl. It’s a warning sign of sorts, and gives us valuable information. 

The Academy describes punishing your dog for growling as like taking the batteries out of a smoke alarm – you can end up with a dog who’ll bite without warning. Punishing a growl doesn’t address the underlying issue that’s causing your dog to get upset, and can make your dog more stressed, potentially leading to worse behavior going forward. 

So, how can you reinforce a growl? Moving away from a growling dog is a simple one, but shows the dog that their wishes are being respected. Alternatively, you could give up a resource to the dog, move them away from whatever’s triggering them, or simply toss treats at a growling or barking dog.

We might instinctively think that reinforcing growling will make our dogs more aggressive, but it’s much more likely to have the opposite effect. As the Academy puts it, it “keeps the batteries in the smoke detector and ensures the behavior never escalates.”

Meanwhile, if you keep advocating for your dog and respecting their space and their needs, you’ll probably see behaviors like growling less frequently on the whole regardless! And, for more tips on better understanding your dog, here are 32 things your pet is trying to tell you

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$4.19 at Chewy
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Adam England
Freelance Writer

Adam is a freelance journalist covering lifestyle, health, culture, and pets, and he has five years' experience in journalism. He's also spent the last few years studying towards undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in journalism. While a cat person at heart, he's often visiting his parents' Golden Retriever, and when he's not writing about everything pets he's probably drinking coffee, visiting a cat cafe, or listening to live music.