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Canine Behavior/Colt is suddenly Growling at my wife?


QUESTION: Im hoping you can help here. We have 2 Chows, Emma is the oldest, she is 11 and has been fixed for years. Colt is the young one, he is 2 and we have had him sense he was a young puppy, and he is whole. we have never had a problem with him being agressive with anyone ever. suddenly over the last couple months Colt has been showing some agression towards her. He greets her every day when she gets home with kisses and is willing to play around with her and everything. but when she trys to pet him he will growl at her. its not a mean growl but more a low one like a warning. he has never been like this so anyone not even strangers. Our kids will come to visit and he is all over them for attention, but only acts like this towards my wife. we have never been mean to them and had no issues when we brought him home as a puppy with Emma. why would he be acting like this all of a sudden?

ANSWER: Thank you for your question. I'm going to need some more information before I can provide some insights. Please use the reply button on this response and answer the following with as much detail as you can - remember, since I'm not there to observe Colt in person or the dynamics in the room, I need you to be my eyes and ears so I can get a more complete picture.

1. Does Colt's growl appear to happen when your wife touches a particular part of his body (e.g. a shoulder or hip or top of head), but not if she pets other parts of his body?

2. Where are you and Emma in relation to Colt when Colt growls? In the room, in another room, cuddling with Colt, cuddling with each other, etc?

3. What is Colt doing when your wife pets him and he growls at her (e.g. resting/napping, chewing on a toy, eating, engaging with you or Emma, etc?)

4. How does your wife respond when Colt growls (e.g. scold him, spank/swat him, tell him 'No', yell at him, stop touching him, give him space, speak sweetly to him, etc)? How do you respond?

5. How is his energy, eating, drinking, urinating, pooping, playing in general?

6. Any indications that you've noticed that he might be feeling ill or in pain - eating less, playing less, limping/favoring one part of his body, etc.?

7. When Colt growls what is the rest of his body doing? Is his body stiff or soft and relaxed? Are his ears pricked forward, pulled back to his head, off to the side like airplane wings or in their normal neutral position? Is he showing his teeth or is it a closed mouth growl? If showing his teeth, is he showing just his front teeth with his lips pulled up high or is he showing all his teeth with his lips pulled back like a smile? Is his tail up and stiff or wagging stiffly or is his tail down (still or wagging) or tucked?

8. Does he look at your wife when he growls at her or turn his eyes/head away from her? If he's looking at her, is he giving her a hard (daggers from the eyes) stare or are his eyes soft and squinty?

Telling me more about the circumstances in the space, the actual interaction (what Colt was doing when she touched him where she touched him, etc), how people respond to Colt when he growls and (very important) what Colt's body is doing when he growls will help me to better understand the likely motivation for the growling and then be able to offer more specific comment to your issue.

I look forward to your reply with lots of details.

Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
MAPP 2016 candidate
Tufts Cummings Veterinary School of Medicine

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: ok let me see if i can answer all your questions. First when she tries to pet him its really anywhere. she will try to pet his back or head and he will just kind of emit a low growel. He will lay his ears back a bit and look like he is afraid of her almost. He has really bonded to me. But she has never scolded him physically. sometimes we will both voice our displeasure at his attitude and he will just walk away and sulk with his tail down.

As for Emma, he will do this no matter where she is in the house. he doesnt let her bother him at all and never has. He hasnt worried about emma sense the day we brought him

His energy and appatite are just fine. I have taken him to the vet when this first started and he had a perfect bill of health. I took him there after i changed their food and thought that might be it but have sense changed it back.

When he growels at my wife she just responds in a hurtful tone to him, never forcing anything and she just stops and walks away. Im the one who will look at him with an angry look and sometimes i will show my displeasure with my own growl. and he will walk away and i let him go. He knows I dont agree with him growling at her. he will growl at her and then walk to me as if looking for protection or reassurance. he wants to be close to me.

There are even times whe she will walk into the room and he will seem to run away from her and come sit next to me like for protection. I work from home now so i am always around. and I know thats why he comes next to me. but why would he be afraid of her?

when she tries to pet him he will look at her but not in a mean way, and he never shows his teeth, the growl is just barely heard its never very loud. his ears are laid back like when you pet him on his head and his tail is down, his body isnt stiff.

He will het her play with him, give him treats, even greet her at the door when she comes home with kisses. he will lay close to her on the floor (within 3ft or less even). he will sit with his head in her lap if she has treats.

ok i think the only question i havent answered is where Emma and I are. the most recient time (last night i think) was Emma was on the left side of me (our couch has 2 recliners in it) and Colt was on my right side in between me and my wife. and she just tried to give him some loving and he growled at her and looked at me. I just stared him down and he moved. He has even done this to our son a few times. but Alex will stare him down.

During the day both Colt and Emma will be by my side the whole day. there is no question they have both bonded to me the most. But I have had Emma sense she was a puppy too. My wife and I have been together for 10 of her 11 years and we have no problems with her at all. she is the guard dog. being 11 she will get a bit grumpy with me when i am trying to groom her or doing something she doesnt like but i let her know im the boss. we have socialized them both forever. We take them out in public, i take them both to the groomers and they get great report cards. they are fine when we have company and wont let the guests in unless they pet them for at least 5 min. they both get along with everyone, but Colt will get moody with my wife.

Do you think getting him fixed will stop this behavior? or os it just teenage rebellion? we both love him to death, and just want him back to normal.

Thank you for your help

ANSWER: Thank you for your detailed reply.

So it sounds like Colt is expressing fear. Ears pinned back, but mouth closed and not looking at the source of his motivation for growling. There may be some Resource Guarding involved (resource guarding of you - which is not the same thing as being "protective").

The first thing to understand is that growling is communication and we never want to punish our dogs for communicating with us. If we tell them that communicating isn't OK they will stop communicating, but that doesn't mean they've stopped feeling uncomfortable. In fact, the most common situation for an "out of the blue" bite is that of a dog who has been told repeatedly that he's not allowed to say he's uncomfortable with a growl.

Growling is what we call a Distance-Increasing signal. It's meant to create space and avoid conflict and confrontation. Colt is telling your wife, "back off. I need space". Whenever a dog tells me that, I actually apologize to them. I will stop touching them or I'll take a step back if I wasn't touching them, and I'll say something like, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get too close. Is this better?" I say it with sincerity so that the tone of my voice is conciliatory. This is important because the dog doesn't understand the words you're saying, but he will understand your tone and intent.

Respecting a growl by acknowledging it and adjusting our part of the interaction so that the dog feels safer is the single best way to help the dog learn that their communication is understood and they have no reason to escalate to a more obvious communication (showing teeth, hard stare, snapping, biting, etc).

So, in some circumstances Colt very happily engages with your wife and in others he very clearly does not wish to engage. How do we help him feel a little more consistent about interactions with your wife?

Here's the protocol I would follow if this were happening in my home:
For the next 3 weeks:
1. Your wife should be responsible for ALL feeding. You should never provide food (for the time being) - not even treats.

2. Because you work from home, the dogs are spending a disproportionate amount of time with you and not with your wife. I would strongly encourage you to close the door to your office and keep the dogs in the rest of the house for 2-3 hours at a time. You can go visit them for a few minutes every 2-3 hours, and on your lunch break. But don't allow them to nap at your feet all day. We are trying to level the playing field between you and your wife again.

3. You can greet them when you're done for the day as if you've been out at work all day. Love them, play with them, go in the yard and run around with them or take them for a walk. However you normally greet - but no treats for the next 3 weeks.

4. Your wife should provide all the treats as well as all the food. Treats can be delivered for basic obedience commands (even just Come, and then treat when he gets to her), or tricks or as part of a game of "Find It" as she tosses treats or kibble around for him/them to sniff out and find.

5. Because there may be an element of resource guarding of you, we want to help Colt understand that her presence/contact when he's near you is not a threat to his interaction with you. This is the only exception to the "you can't give treats" rule. Have a few of his favorite treats near you, but out of the way. When he's sitting between the two of you, talk with your wife to make sure you're timing is right. Tell her when you're ready to reach for a treat, but don't actually reach for it yet. Your wife will tell you a cue word such as "Now" or "ready". She will gently place a hand on the body part nearest to her (no petting, just contact). At the same moment that her hand touches him, you will reach for a treat and give it to him and speak lovingly to him. Tell him what a great dog he is. Then, your wife should remove her hand and you stop interacting with him.  Pause for 10-20 seconds and then repeat.

The purpose of this exercise is to help him make the connection that her contact with his body while he's snuggling you reliably predicts more attention/affection from you, not less.

NOTE: He may growl a little the first several times because he is currently uncomfortable. Give him the treat and speak lovingly to him. Don't scold him, don't stare him down and don't growl back. If you do any of those things, you are telling him he's absolutely right to be concerned about her contact while he's cuddling you because you get confrontational with him. Instead, reassure him that your love and affection aren't going anywhere, no matter what!

I know that feels counter intuitive because as humans we want to tell him growling isn't OK. But how else is he supposed to communicate with you that he's nervous or worried or uncomfortable? By reassuring him, you teach him that he has no reason to feel worried during this interaction.

Now, do that exercise just 2-5 repetitions and then stop for the evening. Before and after that exercise, your wife should not reach out or make physical contact unless Colt seeks it out from her. Let him tell her when he's ready for loving from her. By giving him the space he needs right now, and by working the exercise above, you may find that he starts to solicit her for attention/affection much more often. He may even take to stretching out, looking for love from both of you simultaneously.

NOTE: you can spread those 2-5 repetitions out over 2 minutes or 2 hours as you all feel comfortable. Just be sure that in between those prepared training moments, that your wife is not trying to sneak in any contact.

Also, note that Emma will most definitely want to be involved in this training - there's tons of loving and yummy treats happening. So don't forget to acknowledge her and love on her and have some treats ready to give to her as well.

After 3 weeks, you can assess and decide if you need to continue this practice or if he seems to have come around.

You can follow up with me after several practice sessions and let me know how it's going. We may be totally on the right track or we may need to tweak some things as you begin to implement the process and the real world shows some different than expected responses.

If you're able to get some video footage, you can upload to as an unlisted video on YouTube so that it doesn't show up in any public search. You can then reply to this thread as Private so that the link won't be viewable by others and I can see how you guys are doing and offer some tips for tweaking if necessary, based on observing Colt's body language as well as you and your wife.

Remember, you and your wife need to be relaxed in your body and confident in your heart and mind that this process will work. If either of you are stressed or anxious, that will resonate more than your words - it's about the tone of voice and the intent behind the words, not the words themselves...

By creating a little more distance between you and the dogs during the day, making your wife the giver all great things outside of cuddle time, and by making sure that the only time you give Colt his most favorite treat is when your wife is physically touching him, we should be able to help him feel better about her proximity - even during your evening snuggle time.

Please follow up with me within a week of beginning this protocol and let me know how things are going. And if you can get some video uploaded, that would be very helpful, though not absolutely necessary.

Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
MAPP 2016 candidate
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Well so far with my working in the basement all day and locking them upstairs as well as my wife giving him treats as well as making time to play with him every day for a few min seems to be working. He has only groweled at her once that i know of and that was this weekend. Im going to keep working in the basement and we will see how these things go. but so far things are going a lot better. I will keep you informed how this goes.

That sounds like a pretty good start. We don't expect a complete 180 in behavior reaction immediately. But it seems there has been some clear improvement so far. Keep it up! and keep me posted of any triumphs or setbacks and we can make adjustments as needed.

Thank for the update.

Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
Masters candidate - Animals and Public Policy, 2016
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

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Jody Epstein, MS, CPDT-KA


IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 8 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If you’re looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if you’re local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members and many other issues. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.


I have been a professional obedience trainer for 9 years, and specializing in behavior modification for 8 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I own my own dog training and behavior modification business called Nutz About Mutz.

I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

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I have a masters degree (MS) in Animals and Public Policy, with a minor in Animal Behavior, from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. I also have 3 years of graduate education in Animal Behavior and Learning from UM-Missoula and UL-Lafayette. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences, workshops and seminars. Beginning in March, 2017, I will be the Behavior & Training Manager at Second Chance Center for Animals in Flagstaff, AZ.

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