What Function Does Growling Serve?
It was no start in life for a puppy.
Rose growling? It was hard to believe!
Lurcher Rose, now four, came over from Ireland as a seven-week old puppy, already separated from mother and siblings and having been in one or even two shelters.
She lives with Molly an elderly Collie mix, an older Chocolate Labrador called Bryn and an excitable Jack Russell called Mouse. All are rescues. The couple have done wonders with these dogs – particularly with Bryn who was totally shut down when they first took him in a few years ago.
Lurcher Rose’s behaviour is what has been causing them concern for a while.
From the start she might growl when people approached. This developed into growling at the other dogs also. She will growl at them if they enter a room after herself, if they enter a room with her particularly if they try to go in ahead of her, and she may growl even if she is lying down and one of them gets up to do something.
The intimidation is affecting the lives of Molly, Bryn and Mouse.
The couple have successfully cured the growling at people by, every time someone entered her presence, that person giving her a treat.
They had been using same idea when she growled at the other dogs – feeding her while she growled. Unfortunately I think this may have backfired. What probably has happened is reinforcement for growling.
I believe food is still the answer, but the timing was wrong.
More recently they have reverted to telling her off.
What function does growling serve for Rose?
Starting so early in her life, its roots are surely either genetic or behaviour the little puppy learnt for her own survival in the first few weeks of her life – or both.
It will undoubtedly also, after all this time and with so much rehearsal, be a learned behaviour, a habit.
We looked at what function the growling can possibly serve for Rose – what’s in it for her.
During the day when people are busy all seems to be fine. The dogs can all be closely together with no trouble at all though Rose does prefer to take herself out of the way much of the time. The others are together, she is apart.
The intimidating, growling behaviour starts in the evening when humans and dogs all go into the sitting room together for a quiet evening.
She directs her growling at all the dogs – she doesn’t have one particular ‘victim’. This doesn’t seem to be a girl thing as she includes Bryn.
She (most likely) only does it when people are nearby. She possibly is worse when additional people are there; she also may guard a new person from the other dogs by growling. She never now growls at people.
In one respect growling is good in that it is a warning, which in this case the other dogs fortunately take heed of. If extinguished rather than being understood and resolved the dog may feel forced to take things further.
So what function can growling at the other dogs possibly serve for Rose?
One function it successfully serves is to keep the dogs out of her own personal space or directs them away from herself and possibly away from a particular person. She also is in control of where they are and what they do. It worries them, poor Molly in particular.
Another function is that growling gets reinforcement by way of attention of some sort from the humans. This is something they can work on.
A third function is that it may simply make her feel better and this another thing they can do something about. They can make not growling feel better still.
All the time that I was there Rose lay spread out on a sofa as Lurchers do, beside the man. Typically she showed me none of her usual behaviour towards the other dogs until the end when I got up to go. They did plan her entry well, though. First Mouse was with us, then the other dogs joined us and were settled before the friendly and inquisitive Rose came in. She ignored the other dogs, jumped up on the sofa, stretched out on her back and stayed like that all the time I was there!
I shan’t go into detail here because our plan is very specific to this particular case, but in general they will be working on their own relationship with the dogs. They can take ‘responsibility’ away from Rose by showing her that they make decisions. This involves treating all the dogs as individuals rather than a gang, getting and holding attention, cutting out free food etc. so that it can be used for working on her growling issue.
It’s the humans’ job to control the other dogs should control be needed and not Rose’s job.
We need to deal with Rose’s emotions that are driving her to behave like this, pairing negative feelings with good things. Teaching her to cope.
They need to do their very best to prevent further rehearsal of the behaviour as I am sure that, in addition to any actual function growling serves, it’s now a habit. Something she simply automatically does now.