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The Singapore Dog Lifestyle Blog

A growling dog is NOT a bad dog

So Donna was invited to a social event recently, where she got to meet up with some new dogs and some dogs that she had met before.

Now every contact with dogs, humans, etc is a socialisation event. But the quality of socialisation differs.

You know, what they say for humans – the first impression is most important.

The same may be said for dogs.

If dog gets a good time, he starts to associate positive feelings to the dogs and humans he met. That is good socialisation.

If dog gets a bad time, he associates negative feelings to the dogs and humans he met. And that is bad socialisation.

None of us want a badly socialised dog. And yet, it is not uncommon to see dog owners who take the dog out to places and then let the dog run around by themselves, seemingly not caring if the dog is having a good time or not, and they call it socialisation.

Donna is my dog, so whatever event I take her to, her welfare is my first priority. Therefore, I follow her almost everywhere she runs and track her activities with the other dogs. I distract her by calling her to me when she starts displaying actions that I do not want reinforced. That is what I feel I need to do as a responsible owner.

They say love me, love my dog. But I had always thought it was a little extreme for people to judge others who are not dog lovers.

But you know what, I do that too in my own way. Guilty, as charged.

Case in point, my dog Donna, here. She has been kindly described by Vanessa of therufusway, as having “such a kind look in her eyes” for this photo on our Instagram account.

But the truth is, there were two to three episodes in that session in this environment the photo was taken, where she was tense and growling at another dog. She certainly did not have a kind look in her eyes then.

Now it can be equally stressful for the human, given the circumstances. A roomful of humans and dogs underfoot, all socialising nicely and then your dog starts growling at the other dog.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s probably not uncommon for most people to jump to the conclusion that the one growling is at fault. Especially when it involves a bigger dog growling at a smaller one.

Mr P also pointed out that I always hastily pull Donna away, which also painted a rather guilty picture.

But you know what? There is nothing else I can do.

A growling dog… is NOT a bad dog.

A growling dog… is NOT an aggressive dog.

A growling dog… is NOT a vindictive dog who remembers past grudges.

A growling dog is being nice by growling to let a human or another dog know that they are making him uncomfortable. That they should back off and give the growling dog more space.

A well-socialised dog would recognise this verbal cue. Perhaps before it escalates into a verbal cue, they would have noted the more subtle behavioural cues like looking away, moving away, not engaging with you and not showing playful behaviours.

One of the incidents occurred while I was squatting down and next to Donna and Donna started growling. The other dog, instead of moving away, came closer and started rubbing against her. And Donna growled even more.

So what was I to do. I did what I had to do. I pulled Donna away.

My first commitment was to her. She was tense and verbalised it. If I don’t remove her, I’m just allowing her stress to build.

There is a quote floating about the Internet by Suzanne Clothier – ”One of the quickest ways to get your dog not to trust you is to keep over riding your dog telling you he does not feel safe.”

*I can’t find the exact instance where she said this, but it does sound like something she would say. :P

So yah, I’m not about to do that. I’m not about to let the growling be reinforced time and time again by a dog who didn’t seem to recognise or care about the other dog’s cues and perhaps eventually allow it to escalate into a bite. I’m not.

And honestly, I would worry about the little dog if this is a frequent behaviour for him. Not every dog would be so nice to give a verbal warning first.

Some would snap without warning because they got scolded time and time again when they growl, and they’ve learnt to repress the growling.

Unfortunately, I found I had to keep calling Donna away from the trigger after that. And I started feeling rather haunted by the smaller dog. He’s everywhere! Hahaha!

At least I heeded my own advise from the last experience, and put Donna on the lead despite all the other dogs getting the freedom to play. I was too tired trying to track both dogs to make sure they were separate, and I could no longer supervise effectively which led to repeated incidents.

It’s not Donna’s fault. It’s just that the environment that day was not conducive for her to socialise in a positive manner.

I am glad she did at least kindle a budding friendship with Lexie. Lexie is a young dog, so she can be rather unsure about dogs she is not too familiar with and she needs her space. That’s normal. She shows some behaviour like moving away from Donna and jumping onto the doggie playground, perhaps when Donna got too much for her.

And I’m glad that her human thinks that Donna was respecting Lexie’s body language. Donna was sitting, not moving further into her space. Donna was looking directly at her at times, but she also looked away and turned around and looked at me once. She sat and perhaps patiently waited for Lexie to be comfortable to play. Or at least I like to think so. Hah! They did seem to be playing a little at times :P

On hindsight, a video would have been better to study their interaction. :P It was a highly distracting environment for me too. Haha!


Note: Donna used to be labelled as dog-aggressive at the shelter she was from. I’m inclined to think the label was just that – a label. Donna has never shown any growling/snarling/snapping behaviour to any dog she has met outside the shelter since we adopted her, with the exception of this small dog.  Her body language has always tended more towards being fearful, rather than aggressive. If you have a dog who reacts to other dogs in an “aggressive” manner, I strongly urge you to learn to read dog body language and their behaviour and consult with a positive trainer on the best course forward for your dog.

And of course, do supervise your dog so that he learns to respect cues from other dogs. Please don’t expect other dogs/humans to teach your dog. This post from Barbara of Goodog Positive Dog Training in Australia sums it up rather well.

I offended a fellow dog owner today. My dog was playing with her doggie friends in one of the enclosed areas at St Ives Showground and she let her exuberant 8 months old teenage dog jump right into Shellbe’s face. When Shellbe growled, she said: ‘That is ok, my dog needs to learn some manners.’
I told her in no uncertain terms that I did not want my dog to have to teach her dog manners. The times when we let them sort it out are well and truly gone and owners have to mange and train their dogs and not rely on other well socialised dogs to teach their unruly teenagers.
Even a well socialised dog can become stressed and growly when exposed too many times to under socialised and rude dogs.
– https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=805403872813598&id=164212460266079


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  1. Love this post! I know exactly how you feel bcos Lexie doesn’t growl to warn first but snaps right away and it’s rather stressful for me bcos I’m always worried when she’ll do it. Should make it a law for all owners to go thru classes on reading dogs body language.

    • Yah, we definitely feel each other’s pain!

      They require mongrel owners to enroll for Basic Obedience Course for Project Adore.

      I agree, they should require all dog owners, not just mongrel owners to go through Basic Obedience Training.

      And as you said, the key here is Basic Obedience Training with certified positive trainers who bother to learn and teach the students what certified dog behaviourists (not self proclaimed ones, but actual researchers backed with science-based studies of canine behaviour) have found in their studies.

      Unfortunately, our authorities are not as progressive in the area. A look at the AVA list of accredited dog trainers clearly shows this. :(

      • Wow didn’t know that. But why? A dog is a dog, it’s a matter of how you train it. It’s like how people judge pitbulls and stuff. Yup. If not for lexie, I wouldn’t be where I am with them today. It’s bcos of her being fearful and snappish that woke me up and that I should learn more on their behaviour and why she acted like that. With all the reading up then I realise she’s not aggressive. Remember on instagram where I kept saying I hope Lexie doesn’t turn aggressive.

        • Yah, I remember. I left you pretty long comments at first.. then afterwards scared you think I’m naggy and irritating cos you were not that into positive training at that point, so I stopped LOL… so very glad we have the same understanding now :D Hee hee. And of course Lexie is turning out fabulously :D

          • Hahahaha I’m glad I’ve got into positive training! And mostly thanks to you with your advice and stuff! Haha aawww thanks!

  2. jsteuten

    I really love this post! It is a topic very important to me. There are so many myths about dog behaviour, and aggression in particular, and sadly there are some tv personalities who perpetuate them. I would go one step further to say not only is a dog that growls not a bad dog, it’s a very good dog. It’s a dog who is communicating without aggression. And it’s nearly always a dog who is scared or anxious.
    If it’s not too difficult in a given situation, I’d actually reward the growling dog, preferably before they start to growl, but even after. The key thing, I think, is to associate a situation they find a bit worrying with good things :) the old theory that you can reinforce anxious behaviour by rewarding it thus making them repeat it is outdated. What do you think? Sorry for the very long comment!

    • Totally agree.

      I really hated the aggressive label on Donna. Because even after adoption, it is easy for people who don’t know her well to revert back to thinking of her as aggressive if she so much as growled a little to communicate her need for more space, just because that was how she was described in the past and most people don’t understand growling behaviour but they watch a lot of TV.

      We were in a busy environment with too many variables for treating to work. My amateur dog owner opinion (haha!) is that treating will have a higher chance of working if both dogs are isolated with enough space between them like in a BAT setup so as not to trigger the growling. And Donna is treated and reinforced for calm behaviour with the other dog at a distance, and then we slowly shorten the distance depending on her level of comfort. Honestly, I don’t know for sure what it is about the other dog that caused her to react in this way.

      I did consult with our positive trainer and she is of the opinion since we meet infrequently, we can better spend our time on other things, then to rectify this problem with that one dog. That I agree, since I don’t know the other dog’s owner very well either.

  3. Oops I’m guilty of the “let your dog punish my dog” part :P sorry! :P

    Love this post, JX! Especially love the part where you said: “Some would snap without warning because they got scolded time and time again when they growl, and they’ve learnt to repress the growling.”

    I used to do that before I learnt not too. Cause Cotton gives a fair bit of warning before she snaps, and it’s usually only to puppies who have yet to learn boundaries, or dogs that are far too large (case in point Tazzy hehe) who don’t see her. But I’m not excusing her behaviour in any way! It’s something I’m working on by walking away and calling her to me, then rewarding her for coming, when she gets uncomfortable or about to snap. (Hope I’m doing this right)

    Far too often when I share that revelation with others about inhibiting warning signs, I get the reply “oh, but it works for my dog when I scold/whack her/him”. Oh well.

    And yes I really do hate when Cotton gets labelled as aggressive. She is more like a dog who wants a lot of space? Idk, I hope I’m not being an overly protective “mama bear” and excusing her shortcomings and being in denial :/ Jazz was with me yesterday and she said (from what she learnt from your body language theory training class) that Cotton seemed like she was trying to play with another poodle (incidentally the actress Lin Meijiao’s poodle) who was giving her quite a bit of space. Not 100% sure how true as that remains to be seen!

    I really wished there was a mandatory body language class, not just for mongrels under project adore! I’ve been reading about dog body language, but I can’t seem to apply when it comes to Cotton with other dogs, but I do get when Cotton is with humans or with me :/

    • There is a facebook group where users post videos of dogs interacting and your comments must only be describing the dogs’ actions purposefully. You are not supposed to use any emotional words that will show bias or skewed perceptions. I find that if I take the time to go through the posts and the comments, I have learnt much because honestly, unless we work in dog-related jobs, we aren’t exposed to dog-dog interactions everyday to be able to read dog body language very well. I can send you the link via Facebook if you like. Jazz has it as well.

      I also like this section of Mel Freer’s blog – http://nodogaboutit.wordpress.com/category/dog-behavior/ – where she takes videos of dog interactions and dissects them. Very illuminating for beginners like us :)

      It is one thing to attend a class and say ears pinned back or whale eyes are a sign of stress. But the actual practical observation I agree is daunting, especially since our dogs can sometimes move so fast – – So I find studying other people’s videos and observations very helpful in gaining a new appreciation of their more subtle signs and how dogs display them. Breed differences affect me a lot… I find it hard to read dogs with a lot of hair that obscure their face, or no tail, etc :P

      Maybe after your exams and you have the time, you can check them out ^____^ and of course, you can always enroll with a professional trainer to help you with Cotton. It’s always good to have someone experienced to consult with and verify your doubts :)

      Oh when you remember, video Cotton’s interactions. You’ll probably see something new that you did not notice at the time. I always do with Donna :)

  4. My personality is that I take on the energy of the other dog. If the other dog is friendly, I reciprocate. If the other dog growls, so do I. I never start things, I just finish them. Most of the time the other dog is great.

    • Ha, if we ever meet, we will be best friends ^____^ … or maybe not… I just want to play all day… I think you prefer to eat… and sleep… :P

  5. This is so important to know, and I’m so glad I knew it when our pup Luke started growling (out of fear) at some other dogs and even people. If I hadn’t known to just remove him from the situation without scolding him we could have made him far worse. When we took him to a trainer to work with him, that was the first thing the trainer asked us. As you said, growling is their way of communicating that they are uncomfortable and if we take that away, then they’ll take it to the next level and that is definitely not good.

    • No that is not good. Lycan and Lexie’s comment above shows that’s where she is at with her dog… very stressful not knowing when your dog will snap because she no longer growls in warning.

  6. Very true. A dog growls to say, “enough, leave me alone”. The other dog should get it, but they don’t always and some owners don’t either. When Mom tells someone please take your dog, my dog wants to be left alone and they don’t, that is really rude and asking for trouble for which we would be blamed even though we had warned.

    • I have to do that bit about asking people to take their dogs away better. And it’s true, the growling, biting party usually gets the blame, doesn’t it? Even when they are nice enough to give a warning.

  7. I disagree with Barbara. I think sometimes it is better to let dogs sort things out for themselves rather than to always jump in to the rescue. Of course you don’t want it to escalate into a dog fight and sometimes you have to pull your dog away. I think sometimes humans are the classic helicopter parents when it comes to their dogs. They want them to play in groups and not act like dogs.

    • A lot depends in the situation, the environment and the dogs and the people involved. So I respect she must have her reasons just as you have your reason for your beliefs and opinions. I’m sure both of you have formed your opinions not lightly but from considerable length of experiences and exposures to different dogs and cultures in your respective countries.

      I understand the point about letting the dogs at like dogs, but most people will have a cut off point somewhere, according to their own individual thresholds.

      If I seem helicopter here, it was largely with consideration of the circumstance, where we were at and the people involved. And also, Donna is always a happy, fun loving dog but when she starts growling… it’s a continuous growl and she really doesn’t stop until the trigger is removed to a further distance away. I have to admit, it upsets me when my dog is upset.

  8. Jo

    I hope this comment isn’t too late but I recently read a relevant article about this issue and would like to share it with you :)

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