Canine Behavior/Out of nowhere growl
Hello. My boyfriend and I have a one year old un-neutered male viszla. He's a great dog. From the time when we first got him when he was a little puppy we've brought him around other people and other dogs to socialize him. To this day he loves people and playing with other dogs. I live quite a ways away so I only get to visit a few times a month, but whenever I go the dog is always very happy to see me and comes up to me for pets and play etc throughout my entire stay. About two months ago I was down for several days for a visit, and he acted as he usually does, happy and excited. One night I was sitting on the couch petting him when he got really, really still, almost like he was in a trance, with his ears down flat (not back). Then he had this very low short growl. All of a sudden he bared his teeth and snarled at me. I jumped up and scolded him and right away he rolled onto his back and showed his belly and wagged his tail. Then came up to me and kinda rubbed against me like asking for pets. My boyfriend grabbed him by the collar and led him to the kennel, but he let out this god-awful yelp and was crying like he was being hurt. We have never hit or been rough with Gage. A while later we let him out and he went up to me almost like he was apologizing. It was so weird. Almost like he snapped for a second and then snapped out of it and realized he messed up. We thought is was just a fluke. But a month later he did the exact same thing, only this time bit my hand. And again, the same thing happened afterward. Other than these two occurrences he is still extremely affectionate towards me. He is around other people a lot, even for extended amounts of time. What could have caused this, and how do we remedy it? Thanks in advance for your time. -Lee
Thank you for your question. It can be scary when a dog we know and trust does something we're not prepared for. Before we can modify this behavior, it's important to understand what the behavior is. Growling, showing teeth, snarling, barking, snapping are all signals designed to increase distance and avoid conflict. The technical term is actually "distance-increasing signals". They are an essential part of normal canine communication meant to AVOID conflict. This is crucial to understand because we humans tend to get angry when our dogs communicate and we scold them, drag them by the collar, lock them away in a "time out" or physically assault them for speaking up. So, we essentially ignore the communication entirely. It would be as if you told your boyfriend, "Move away, give me some space. I don't want to fight with you." and his response was a right hook. The problem with this response from humans is that it teaches the dog that their communications not only fail to communicate effectively, but that their communication efforts result in a confrontation they were trying to avoid. So, they learn (sometimes quickly) to escalate. Instead of just a low growl or air-snap, they'll sink their teeth into you without first giving the less overt signals because they've learned that we don't heed those signals and so they go straight to something more likely to work.
So, let's back up for a second. You gave a great description of Gage's body language in the first incident, yet you said "All of a sudden he bared his teeth and snarled...". Actually, it wasn't at all "all of the sudden." He gave you ample warning/communication - and you noticed it, though you may not have recognized it. The first communication he gave was his body becoming "really, really still, almost like he was in a trance." The second communication (probably simultaneously to the stillness), "his ears down flat." He may also have been staring you in the eye or actively looking away from you. He may also have licked his lips or his tongue may have just darted out and back in very quickly. His third communication was a "very low short growl."
Each of those behaviors are clear canine communication that he needs space and he needs it now. If, when he went still, you just calmly removed your hand from touching him and looked away from him, maybe gave him a little more physical room, he probably never would have growled, let alone snapped at you. If you then spoke sweetly, "Gage... you okay? It's just me..." he may well have softened immediately and offered you his belly as he did. Or he may have gotten up and walked away to give himself the space he felt he needed but, for whatever reason, was unable to get while you were petting him.
A month later when the same thing happened, he already knew two things. First, you don't understand or don't respect his less intense communication since you failed to respond appropriately the first time. And second, he got punished for making friends with you last time - your boyfriend didn't punish the growl or snap. He punished rubbing against you and making up... So this second time, he was more on the defensive and thus he landed a bite.
Now, please understand, before I had a good understanding of canine body language, I would have missed those early signals too. It's not your fault you didn't know his language. But it is definitely time to learn Gage's language. It's only fair, right? We expect our dogs to learn our language and our rules - many of which are totally foreign and strange to a dog - so it seems only right that we learn their language as much as possible so we can better communicate with them.
So, the first rule of canine conversations is this: RESPECT their communication. NEVER punish it. Even if your boyfriend had grabbed Gage's collar while he was growling, I'd tell you punishment is wrong for this. If we punish communication, we only teach the dog that telling us they're uncomfortable is dangerous. So they'll stop telling
us, but that doesn't mean they've stopped feeling
uncomfortable. Communication is a GREAT thing. We need it to know how our dogs are feeling. Instead, if a dog is growling, the best thing to do is assess the situation and determine what we are doing that makes this dog feel a need for more space. Are we too close? Are we threatening the dog in some way (the dog decides if you appear threatening, not the human, so you have to see it from their perspective), is the dog hurt and in pain, sick, confused, scared? These are all valid reasons for a dog to be defensive, and if we can determine what is motivating the communication, then we can help the dog feel safer. A confident dog doesn't growl outside of play. So if a dog is growling, they're not feeling fully confident and relaxed.
Ideally, we never give a dog a reason to escalate to a growl. Gage has some excellent communication, so the better you and your boyfriend get at reading those early signals, the more likely you are to avoid any future growls, snarls, snaps or bites. Dogs have lots of behaviors they do to tell us they feel less than awesome with a particular situation. Some are (this isn't an exhaustive list):
* Licking their lips
* Tongue flicks (the tip of the tongue darts in and out but doesn't actually lick the lips)
* Yawning when they're not tired
* Panting when they're not hot or recently exercised
* Stiffening of muscles throughout the body
* Rigid facial muscles that result in a "worried" look with furrowed brow, tension around the eyes and lips
* Lips pulled back
* Stillness/freezing - the body goes still, the breathing may pause - a freeze may last only a microsecond before an explosion.
* Averting gaze (eyes, face, head or body turning away from the thing they don't want to engage with)
* Sitting down, often with back turned
* Walking away
* Sniffing the ground (or something near them) as if suddenly very interested in some unseen thing
* Squinting the eyes or blinking excessively
* Ears flat to the head, or pulled back
* Hard Stare - focused, unblinking stare directly at the object of their discontent
* Mouth clamped shut
* Penis Crowning (a little pink showing, the more showing, the more aroused the dog is - not necessarily the good kind of aroused, either)
* Hackles raised (hair anywhere along the spine from head to tail).
Many of the above (lip licks, yawns, averting gaze, sniffing, ears back, etc) are considered appeasement signals or 'cut-off' signals because they're designed to turn off aggression from the other individual.
Some (stillness/freezing, mouth clamped shut, hard stare, etc) are warning signs that are saying "I really don't want to have a conflict with you, but if you press me...."
Then, if these subtle cues don't work, the dog will escalate to low growls (sometimes while turning their head away from you - "I really don't want to fight...", sometimes while staring with a hard, focused stare - "Push me and I WILL bite you."), showing teeth, snarling, air snapping, bite-and-release (a very quick single contact), multiple bite-and-release or all the way to a bite-and-hold/shake.
Some dogs have a very long, drawn out escalation and will give you ever-longer warnings. Some dogs have a very short warning vocabulary and will give only a few, and may do them practically simultaneously, escalating quickly. Those that truly give no warnings, have usually been punished repeatedly for communicating their needs. Or, those warnings have gone unheeded so many times that the dog has learned that they need to be much more obvious to make themselves clear.
I can't tell you what triggered Gage's behavior in those two moments. I would think back and try to remember where exactly you were touching in each case: his head, neck, shoulder, back, right side, left side, a foot, his rump, tail/nub? If it was the same place in both cases, my first line of investigation would be pain. Has he hurt himself? Is he sore? This may require a vet check to make sure there is no injury or ailment in that area. And it may be that he's guarding a whole region of his body. So if the first time you were scratching his rump, and the second time you were on his lower back, it may be anywhere from his lumbar spine to his hip/thigh that's sore.
I'd also revisit exactly what position you were in. Were you sitting next to him and your hand was the only part of you touching him? Were you draped over him, using him as a pillow while cuddling? Did you bend over him to give him kisses on his head? He may have felt suddenly trapped by your proximity.
Grisha Stewart has a nice video that talks about using the 5-second rule for physical interaction with dogs - both known and strange dogs. Essentially the suggestion is that even with dogs we know, we should interrupt our contact every 5 seconds (less if you're unsure, longer if the dog is clearly requesting continued or more contact) and let the dog tell you if they want more. Many dogs will hold still, look away from you, give many of the subtle signs of stress but won't actually disengage from you. But if you just stop petting them for a moment, they will walk away from you, relieved at the opportunity for more space. They may return a moment later after they've recovered a bit, or they may go lay down somewhere else for a break.
I strongly encourage you and your boyfriend to read Turid Rugaas' book, On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals
and watch the companion DVD Calming Signals: What Your Dog Tells You
These will walk you through a multitude of subtle canine communication signals, circumstances when a dog is likely to do them, what they appear to mean and how other dogs typically react to them. The book is an easy read and the DVD afterward will give you a good feel of what each of the behaviors looks like in real time.
Along with distance-increasing signals and appeasement/cut-off signals, dogs also have a repertoire of distance-decreasing signals or contentment signals. There is some overlap and so context is important...
* Squinting eyes - often when enjoying a cuddle, the eyes will partially close
* Ears off to the side, back - though not pinned to the head
* Soft, loose, wiggly body
* Soft mouth - smiling, mouth open but lips are soft so no upper teeth showing at all. Often the tongue will loll out covering the bottom teeth. This often includes the ears back and squinty eyes.
* Moving into your space, leaning against you, looking up at you dreamily
* Rolling on back or otherwise exposing the belly, but arms are usually soft and bent. The dog will often look at you/engage with you, though not necessarily the entire time. (If a dog "falls" into an exposed belly but the arms/legs are straight out and the dog's head is turned away from you, not looking at you at all, possibly licking lips or panting, that is called "tapping out" and is a giant neon sign that the dog is not comfortable and would much rather you leave them alone).
* Some dogs will lick you as part of their engagement during pleasant encounters. But they may also lick you in an effort to distract, for example, if you're clipping their nails, they may lick you in the hopes you'll stop touching their feet...
OK, so this has gotten to be a very long response. There's just so much subtlety and nuance in canine behavior. I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist