Q. My two shelties (age three and one) are very gentle and friendly towards strangers. They are also well trained and can perform many tricks. However, they make soft growling sounds sometimes, even though they have never followed the growling with aggression. For example, if someone knocks on the door, they will growl and bark. I have put my hand around their mouths whenever they growled and told them sternly “no”. I have also tried taking them to sniff whatever they were growling at. But nothing works. How can I fix the problem, or should I be concerned in the first place?
A. Safety is always the first concern. A dog’s growls certainly should be a heads-up for the possibility of escalating aggressive behavior. The fact that the behavior hasn’t gone beyond soft growls is a good sign. That being said, much more information is needed. For example, how long has the behavior been manifesting? Are there other physical displays which give clues as to how the dogs are feeling? Are your dogs sensitive to motion, sound or touch? (Maybe the growling is fear-induced). Are they “self employed” – that is, if they bark at other times, are they unintentionally rewarded for doing so? How is their health?
A professional trainer who uses positive methods should be consulted to evaluate your situation and set you up on a behavior modification program. Basically, you want to do two things:
1. Change the way the dogs feel about people coming to the door.
2. Teach your dogs a substitute behavior.
The first is accomplished by using counter-conditioning, which deals with the possible cause of the growling behavior, namely their fear. By dealing with the cause, the symptom (growling) disappears. For example, by offering your dogs awesome treats whenever someone comes to the door, they will eventually associate the newcomer with the treats. As a result, they will really like it whenever someone knocks and will no longer bark or growl.
Teaching your dog a substitute behavior will take away their “job” as official guardians of the home and give them something else to do. Why not teach them to run to their beds whenever someone knocks at the door? Or how about fetching a favorite toy whenever the doorbell rings? Or teach them to bark three times and then come to you and lie down at your feet? Or teach them to immediately lie down and stay and then give them a good chew toy, such as a treat-filled Kong.
It’s very possible your dogs are growling because of the corrections being used. If the only time you yell “no” and hold their noses is when someone comes to the door, they will quickly learn that a person at the door means trouble for them. I would suggest using the proactive, positive methods as outlined above, rather than correction.