If a dog growls at someone, he is probably afraid. He needs to increase distance between himself and the scary person. He growls, the person backs up, distance is increased, he feels safer, and reinforcement for growling has instantly occurred. Growling ended the dog’s immediate problem, and this is exactly how dogs are hardwired to problem-solve. Dogs do what works right now.
Punishing your dog for growling is not an effective way to deal with the problem. If he gets punished every time he warns people to keep away, he will become even more anxious about these situations. Imagine if you were afraid of spiders and every time you saw one, someone hit you. Would that change your emotional attitude toward spiders? Punishing the dog may stop the growling momentarily, but it won’t improve his emotional attitude toward people he fears. Eventually he may feel he must snap or bite to keep them away.
It is better to work on modifying your dog’s emotional attitude rather than suppressing his immediate behavior. Don’t force him to meet people in the hopes that he will get over his fear. Instead, start working with him when people are far enough away that he doesn’t feel threatened. Whenever your dog begins to notice people at a distance, gently toss your dog a few tasty treats. By associating the “scary people” with the tasty tidbits he will begin to associate treats with people. Remember the spider? If you were given $20.00 every time you saw a spider, that would probably change your attitude about spiders! You want your dog to feel the same way. If seeing people means good treats, people will soon become much less scary! In time your dog may be excited to see people coming his way.
Tip of the week: Make a good first impression; greet your friend’s dog with a treat! Until then, keep those tails a waggin’