Canine Behavior/Why does my dog growl at me when I come home from work
My family adopted an ex-military IED dog, Belgian malinios, 2 1/2 years old, male, not neutered. He growls at me every day when I come home from work, yet he has his head down, ears back, submissive, and nudges my hand to pet him, all the while growling. He is so sweet with me in the morning before I go to work, in the middle of the night, and on the weekends if I stay home all day. When I am at work he is with our German shepherd and my boyfriend who is not working. He is also good with our 11 and 12 year olds and grandpa. I am the only one he growls at. He was dismissed from the military for being "stubborn" and his last owners for a year, the wife stayed home at first but when she went back to work he chewed things and pooped in the house so they kenneled him all day. So I think he is treating me like the wife, like he thinks when I come home from work I am going to be angry and discipline him. That's just a theory. I gently tell him "no" when he growls and I tell him I love him and he is a good dog and I play fetch with him and feed him and give him treats. My boyfriend thinks he's "purring" but I think the growling should not be tolerated. I don't know why he only growls at me and I don't know if I should be afraid of him. I want to work this out because I have never given a dog up, I believe in forever dogs.
Thank you for your question.
What you're describing sounds like your dog is experiencing some conflict. The growl is generally considered a distance-increasing signal, while his body is telling you that he's uncertain/nervous and his behavior is a distance-decreasing signal and specifically requesting contact and reassurance.
The first thing we need to remember is that this dog has been in combat and has seen and experienced things you will likely never truly grasp - even if you, too, were in the military... we just don't know how the dogs process those sights and sounds and smells. It's reasonable to assume there is some real emotional trauma this dog is dealing with - depending on his personal experience, potentially a full PTSD, which can be devastating for a dog, much as it is for a human. Compound that with that he's no longer living with his handler from the military days and he was in another home for a year before your family took him in... and that continues the trauma and distrust of his environment and the people in it.
Is it possible that he's associating you with the woman from his last home? Possibly, but if you've never done to him the things she did - scold him, yell at him, show him anger and kenneled him as punishment, then it's unlikely.
He was "dismissed from the military for being 'stubborn'." That may well mean that he was showing signs of trauma and hesitance to comply with required activities, not simply typical teen-age rebellion that some dogs show where they suddenly regress in their training. In the last home, when left alone, he was chewing on things and pooped in the house - both signs of separation anxiety (common in dogs, but in an ex-military dog, likely also a sign of emotional trauma from his experiences - scared to be unattended without a person to tell him what to do). The last thing you want to do with separation anxiety is punish the symptoms. Those symptoms are cries for help and punishing him as the last home did, only exacerbates those symptoms because now he not only fears being alone, but his anxiety increases as it gets closer to the time that the people come home because he's learned that they come home angry.
So, is he growling at you or purring? I can't say without seeing it (if you can get it on video, you can upload it to Youtube. You can choose to make it a private video so that only those with the URL can view it, and the you can private message me with the link). But, whether it's conflict and he's giving distance-increasing signals while also telling you he'd like your love, or it's purring and a part of contentment, the very last thing we want to do is punish it in any way.
Growling, no matter the motivation, is communication. If we scold the communication, the dog learns that communicating is bad. He'll stop telling you he's conflicted, but that doesn't mean that the conflict has gone away. Those who punish growling are the ones who usually end up talking about a bite that came "out of the blue" because they've told their dog to stop talking about their discomfort, but never addressed WHY their dog is uncomfortable.
In your case, you say that once you've been home for a while, at night for snuggle time, in the mornings and on days when you don't leave the house, he's great and sweet with you. It's only when you've left and return. So we need to look at this from the dog's perspective and try to understand what might be going on with him. It's a change in the environment. It's a person coming back that he likes, but the change itself (new person! Is it friend or foe?!?!) causes anxiety. You didn't say how long ago you adopted him, so I don't know how long he's been in your home. He may still be getting used to this new routine.
You might try something super simple such as keeping a stash of treats in your car or just outside the door through which you enter (front door, garage door) and as you enter, call him sweetly over to you and offer him several treats - one at a time, giving him just long enough to eat each treat before you present the next one. Squat down to his level, turning your body so that your shoulder is pointing at him, rather than your chest fully square to him. Look at his back rather than directly in the eye for any length of time. Give him the tasty treats and pet him gently while doing so. Tell him in a soft, sweet voice that he's the very best dog that has ever walked the earth, that he's a hero and that your home is so much better for having him join the family. Saying things like this help to moderate your tone to project the emotion/energy that you're trying to give to him which is warm and welcoming and not even a tiny bit threatening. The treats should be super wonderful - like freeze dried liver bites or string cheese or hot dog (if you have a place to store them properly where you need them to be). It's important that you enter the house with the treats and that as you open the door, you're saying, "Fido... come see what Mama has for you, my big, brave and handsome boy..." This way you're being warm and inviting the moment you walk through the door.
You don't mention what you do for a living. So depending on what you do, you may come home smelling different than when you left (either from environmental smells, or from stress sweat), or you may come home feeling stressed or frustrated by work and he's feeling that from you. So by making your entrance all about helping your dog feel safe and comfortable with your return, we get you out of whatever mindset you were in on the drive home, help your dog feel better and in the end, will lower your own stress/anxiety as you'll be learning to leave it on the outside of the door to the house.
Will you need to enter this way forever? No. But for a few weeks to several months - even a year or more), yes. You'll need to do it until your dog has clearly shown you that he no longer has any conflict about your arrival. Depending on how long he's been in your home, it may only take a week or two, or it could take a year. We also have to never forget his military history and that what may take an average dog just a few weeks to overcome, may take him much longer do his military experiences.
If you don't find this exercise to be showing improvement in his greeting behavior (less vocalizing, softer and more relaxed body language) in a few weeks, or if you find those behaviors escalating, then you'll need to speak with a veterinary behaviorist. These are vets who have a specialty in animal behavior. they are the psychiatrists of the animal world and they will be able to assess your dog and help you design a proper protocol to help him feel better about you and changes to the environment. They'll also walk you through a protocol to deal with separation anxiety if that's still an issue.
You can search for a board certified veterinary behaviorist here:
Or you can speak with your regular vet. If there are no veterinary behaviorists in your area, your vet will be able to have a phone consultation with one. Or they may refer you to a canine professional in your area whom they know and trust to do a proper behavioral assessment and then they can consult that way.
If he growls at you, rather than telling him "no", I would tell him "You're safe. I'm not going to hurt you or force you to do anything you don't want to do. I promise." He's growling because he's uncomfortable and/or conflicted. If we scold it, even quietly, we will only add pressure to that situation and increase his anxiety or fear.
I wish you the very best of luck going forward. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist