Known for being wiggly, cuddly bundles of love, puppies are loved by all. They love everyone, don't they? Wrong. Most puppies are friendly to everyone they meet, but there are also those that are cautious of strangers and may even growl at them. But what does this growling mean? Is it a sign of aggression or is there something else your puppy is trying to communicate to you? Growling at strangers is usually a sign that your puppy thinks that something is wrong, and the most likely explanation is simply that your puppy is fearful of people that they don't yet know.
Why Do Dogs Growl?
A growling dog is usually perceived as an aggressive dog. And this is true for the most part, as it often comes before a bite. But growling is still a form of communication. Dogs will growl to show that they are fearful, uncomfortable or unhappy about a certain situation. A dog may growl if another dog gets too close to them. This is your dog’s way of saying "back up, you're in my personal space here". If the other dog receives this message correctly, they will back off from your dog.
Growling is a warning sign. This means you have time to adjust to the situation before things escalate. A growling puppy indicates that your puppy is unhappy about something and it is their way of telling you that they need something to change. As a responsible dog owner, your job is to show your dog that you hear them and make the necessary adjustments to make things more comfortable for them.
Growling Shouldn't Be Punished
You should never punish your puppy for growling. This is their way of communicating to you that they are uncomfortable with something. As a dog owner, your job is to prevent your puppy from becoming uncomfortable by ensuring they receive adequate socialisation, training and management. Punishing a growling puppy is only going to encourage them to skip giving you this warning sign, and moving straight onto biting without warning.
This could become a huge problem for you if your puppy doesn't warn you if they are uncomfortable. Perhaps your puppy has become uncomfortable around small children. In the past, they may have growled, alerting you when the children made them uncomfortable. But since you punished your puppy last time they growled around children, now they aren't going to growl, they might just bite instead. Your puppy may also make the connection between punishment and children, making them even more nervous around kids as they think they are going to be punished again. You can see how this is a recipe for disaster!
Practice Socialising with Strangers
You can prevent your puppy from growling at strangers by introducing them to a wide variety of people from an early age. You should aim to introduce your puppy to people of many ethnicities, ages and sizes, as well as people who might look a little different to your puppy such as people in wheelchairs or using crutches or wearing glasses or hats. By doing this, you can show your puppy that all people, no matter what they look like, is a friend.
Simply introducing your puppy to strangers might make a nervous dog worse. You will also need to pair these introductions with a high-value reward such as a treat or time with their favourite toy. Allow your puppy to set the pace of the introductions. Don't drag them up to strangers, let the puppy approach in their own time. In no time at all, your puppy will be dragging you to meet new people as they will soon learn that making new friends is rewarding, and not at all scary.
What To Do If Your Puppy Is Already Growling
If your puppy has started growling at strangers, you will have to take a slightly different approach to introduce your puppy. Slow things down and start when your puppy is calm and relaxed. Keep your puppy at a distance from strangers where they aren't yet growling, but are close enough for the puppy to see the stranger. While they are sitting calmly and not growling, praise and reward your puppy for their good behavior. Slowly work your way closer and closer to the stranger, only rewarding and praising your dog if they continue not to growl at the stranger. If they do growl, take a step or two back, and try again. Continue getting closer and closer to the stranger. You may even be able to get the stranger to help by offering your dog a treat to show your puppy that they are not a threat, and in fact, if they behave, they will be rewarded with a tasty treat!
The process of training your puppy can be a long one. Rather than addressing only surface-level problems, it is best to treat the underlying problem. Addressing any problems early on and practicing positive reinforcement will result in a well-behaved adult dog.
If growling continues to be a problem for your puppy, or you want advice or tips on the best training program for your puppy, we recommend speaking to your vet or a certified animal trainer. With a bit of extra support, your puppy will be happily approaching strangers in no time.