Why Did That Dog Growl?

Last week I brought Emma to the vet to get her anal glands expressed — or what Hubz and I like to call “Releasing the Kraken.” Emma was licking her nethers a lot and had scooted across the rug, all cues that she was uncomfortable and needed a helping hand (if you will).

When we arrived a few minutes early for our 5:30 appointment, I was stunned to find nearly all of the chairs filled with people, dogs, and/or cats. Ems and I froze for a second trying to figure out how to navigate the terrain without someone growling or getting snapped at.

We found an empty bench on the left wall that had a good three feet of separation between us and all other breathing creatures, and Emma happily hopped up on my lap for ear, back, and belly rubs, kisses, and various whispers along the line of “Ooh I love this girl.”

A couple of empty chairs away was a portly white Pointer named Jenny with red freckles similar to Emma’s. She was there with her guardian, who I’ll refer to as “The Guy.”

Apparently, between the time when I was told, “Come on in, we can take care of Emma right away,” and the time we arrived, a number of emergency cases usurped the staff’s time, which left gridlock in the waiting area.

Jenny was lying on the floor next to the check-in desk and the front door, and I watched with growing interest how she would react as each new pup entered the crammed space.

She bolted up when a black Australian Shepherd walked in and sniffed her face. Jenny tried to back up but the desk was right there, and then the A.S. moved in even closer. Jenny next did what I likely would have done in the same situation — she growled.

And then The Guy smacked her on the head.

“Bad!” he scolded Jenny and hit her a few more times. “I’m sorry,” he told the A.S.’s mom. “She gets aggressive. I’m really sorry,” he said.

“You know, she looks a little scared to me,” I offered up. Both The Guy and A.S. Mom turned to look at me. “Her tail’s pretty low. Looks to me like she might be scared,” I said. “It’s a really tight space, and there are a lot of people and animals in here.”

After that I waited, hoping that The Guy wouldn’t shout “Bad!” at me and hit me on the head too. He didn’t.

“Actually, I think you might be right about that,” The Guy said. Phew! “There are a lot of dogs in here.”

Then this happened:

The Guy bent down, kissed Jenny on the head, and petted her gently.

It was like he got permission to love his dog.

He didn’t understand her. Jenny had lived with The Guy for eight years, but he didn’t know how to read when she was scared or learn how to help her. Instead, he told me that Jenny “got aggressive with other dominant dogs,” and he punished her when she growled.

I’m still a student in the Academy for Dog Trainers, so I consulted my notes to read about growling. Here’s what I learned:

Dogs growl because something that is upsetting to them is too close. If you punish them for informing us of this, they are still upset but now not letting us know, thus allowing scary things to get closer and possibly end up bitten. Ian Dunbar calls this “removing the ticker from the time bomb.” Much better to make the dog comfortable around what he’s growling at so he’s not motivated to make it go away in the first place.

That sums things up quite nicely I think.

There’s a massive chasm between what most people think they know about dogs and what they actually know. (Hence my reason for going back to school to study “dog.”) In fact, there is a whole school of thought that proclaims that people need to show their dog who is boss or their dog will be, gasp, DOMINANT! And since The Guy threw the “D word” around more than once, I know that he has subscribed to that thinking.

Unfortunately many people think they should punish their dog for doing things like digging, chewing, growling, or even walking through the door first. They say the dog knows better and is just being spiteful. Jean Donaldson dispels that myth in her brilliant book Culture Clash (a must read!!!). The dogs are not being dominant; they’re being dogs!

Jenny wasn’t being dominant. She was scared. Simple as that.

Emma and I were stuck against that back wall for an hour before the vet tech came out to fetch her, but we didn’t mind. The Guy and I chatted at length about our pupz and about dogz in general, and while doing so we both gave tons of schnuggles to our girlz.

The tech felt so bad that we had waited so long for what should have been a five- to ten-minute in-and-out, that she threw in a pedicure and told me the visit was free of charge.

Ems and I walked out with our tails high, our bums lighter, and a bounce in our step.

We’re on a mission to help all the dogz. That’s one less to worry about.



7 comments on “Why Did That Dog Growl?

  1. What a wonderful article Tracey! I looked at the picture first and said that looks like Tracey and Emma. It is! I am so proud of you for doing that and writing about your experience. You handled that situation just like I would have. Most people don’t know how to read their dog’s body language or understand what a dog is trying to communicate to them should they growl. The “D” word gets cast about as the explanation for so much dog behavior when it usually is anything but. Glad your post showed up on my feed. I didn’t know that you are moving into our field. Great news! You did such an amazing job with Emma, why not make lives better for other people and their dogs. That’s what happened with me too. Excited to read more of your blog!

    • Thanks, Sandy! This experience got me thinking about vet offices. It would be wonderful if the desk staff could help clients keep the waiting area safe and happy. I don’t know if there are offices where the staff are taught to help clients understand what the animals’ body language says. Even some informative posters in the waiting area would help.

  2. We have a great vet’s office that understands that some dogs need space. They have a large window in front, so I can assess the waiting room situation before even entering, and they will let us know if there are other dogs out front after our visit so we can leave via the back.

    • That’s so fantastic. I think more and more veterinary practices are working to keep scenes like this from happening. We’re definitely moving in the right direction.

      I wish my vet had a back door!

  3. Excellent post.
    It was SO liberating to realise that growls were communication rather than aggression.
    It was SO liberating to realise that I did NOT have to punish my dog in public for growling/lunging barking at another dog.
    Life became so much easier when I learned to simply apologise for my dog’s behaviour. and at the same time realise that the fault was mine for letting my dog get into such a position that s/he felt that s/he needed to tell the other dog/person to ‘please go away’.

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