Friday, 15 March 2013


I've been a dog lover all my life and we always had dogs when I was a child - sadly some fell prey to ticks and snakes, but they all lived good lives.  Now, since the amazing Rufous came to live with us I've become aware for the first time that good communication is possible between the canine and the human.  They learn a lot about us but sadly, the majority of dog owners learn nothing about the dogs who share their homes, their cars, their children and their lives.
We need to understand that dogs are not little humans in fur coats - they have a code, a need for respect and they try to tell us what they need and are feeling - but we don't listen.  The subject here is growling.  Dogs growl for a reason. If you really get to know your dog you will learn to tell the difference between a play growl, a polite growl, a watchman's growl and a warning growl.

Some people want their dogs quiet all the time and even punish the dog for growling.  This is very stressful for the dog.  There are many blogs, websites and books on dog behaviour and if you are interested please educate yourself about these wonderful creatures.

So what are the growls? From my experience and the bit of reading I've done this is what I understand;

THE PLAY GROWL you will hear during a tug of war game. The dog has one end of the towel or Frisbee or rope and you have the other.  Rufous is very good at this game, he even manages to let go and grab on again with a better grip in a split second before I can react. But when he growls, and those teeth snap closer and closer, I know it's time to end the game. The growl, while still playful, can show a determination to win and if my fingers get in the way he may not notice the difference between a finger and the rope. It won't be his fault. There is no anger or aggression, just play becoming serious.

Don't sit on me

THE POLITE GROWL can be heard when you invade the dog's space. Rufous for example, considers one end of the couch to be his. We allow him to sit wherever he likes unless we want that spot and he understands. But, if he is on the couch,  sleeping, and I sit very close to him, close enough to possibly roll onto one of his back legs - both of which have undergone surgery in the last year - he will growl a 'too close' growl. There is no threat, no aggression, just a polite request to keep my distance. Some dogs also use this polite growl when eating, but food sharing is another subject.

What is that?

THE WATCHMAN GROWL goes with body language, usually legs apart, head down and ears  back. I hear this growl from Rufous when he's looking through the screen door or out a window and he sees something that he does not like.  It could be a snake, a goanna, a bush turkey or just a palm frond moving in the breeze, but whatever it is he is saying in his own way 'Danger, Will Robertson, Danger!'  Or if you are too young to remember Lost in Space, he is warning me/us that there could be danger near.  This behaviour does not deserve a shout and a slap, it deserves a pat on the head, and if you identify real danger, a treat.

THE WARNING GROWL is the one requires absolute immediate attention.  This growl announces that someone, lets say you, have crossed the line.  It may be that a polite growl has been ignored and you are about to sit on a skinny little dog leg. It may be that you are opening a gate the dog has been assigned to defend or your two year old is about to jab his finger into the dogs eye or his face into the dogs food dish.  The warning growl says, 'If you don't stop I will bite you'. This growl also goes with clear body language, including lips curled up and back, head low, ears flat and eyes narrowed.  It is a clear message and ignoring this growl has ended in children on the way to hospital and dogs on the way to be euthanased.

The response to this growl would be - immediately move yourself, or your child, away from the dog or shut the gate etc. Don't panic, don't make eye contact, just look down and to the side, walk backwards a few steps then turn and walk away at normal pace.

Dogs who are trained to skip growling are dogs that can bite without warning. It's not the fault of the dog, but the owner/trainer who should be held responsible.

The warning growl can also be heard when two dogs meet in the street, possibly in an area they both consider to be their territory. Most dogs have good dog sense and usually one will back down.  Several years ago a small pack of feral dogs crossed our farm.  Excited to see other dogs, Rufous ran to meet them along the track, in full view of our neighbour.  The feral dogs turned and ran but when Rufous didn't stop running behind them one of the pack turned and gave a warning growl. Rufous dropped to the ground and rolled onto his back. This is a submissive gesture, showing his unprotected underside and saying 'I don't want confrontation'.  But, for some reason the other dog rushed forward and bit him on the thigh before following the rest of the pack into the bush.
Rufous limped home, dripping blood, He had a nasty hole through the fur and tissue. At first I bathed it in Bettadine/iodine. I have a first aid certificate and years of experience with first aid for children but with a dog it's very hard to see through the fur and tell if it's inflamed or infected. So off to the vet. I was shown how to irrigate the wound. The feral dog's canine tooth had punctured through the fur and skin, and scooped around inside, lifting the top layer from the underlying layer of tissue, creating a perfect pocket for infection. If you have ever skinned an animal for food you'll know exactly what I mean.  The vet used sterile water to flush out the pocket, squirted antiseptic inside, put one stitch in, leaving space to allow the wound to drain and gave him antibiotics. Poor Rufous had done his best in the situation, fighting back could have caused worse injury, but I wish he'd run from that warning growl. Maybe he knew better though. If he'd run the whole pack might have chased him.

Please, pay attention to your dog, listen when he has a message for you. Be informed about dog body language, it's interesting and very exciting when you can understand what your dog is trying to communicate.

I have taken the poster below from facebook, and posted the website link at the end.


  1. Thanks for putting into words things that I already knew about dogs but had not actually given it language

  2. I find it really interesting. Hopefully there are people like you Jenny who understand these things. I feel that if people were more informed it would save children and adults from injury and also avoid cruel treatment of animals.

  3. Thank you for the proof read, Pat, much appreciated.

  4. This is all worth knowing. J


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