The young man sits on the sofa in the evening, black Labrador Dex the other end of it. The man looks at Dex and they make eye contact. Dex growls.

Soft growls

For the first few weeks after he took in the now eighteen-month-old Dex six months ago, the dog showed none of this behaviour. As he settled in his guarding increased.

He guards his food. He guards his bed or where he happens to be lying. He may guard his own personal space.

Often the soft growls ramp up until they a become snarl before the man does anything about it, which is too late. On one particularly stressful occasion he gave no warning at all (what is the point of growling quietly, after all, if he only gets the result he wants by snarling – or biting).

The dog had damaged his tail and the young man was putting on a cone. Dex had been taught to put his own head through it with no trouble for a couple of days. On this occasion, with no warning at all, he bit the young man. The bad bite resulted in a trip to A & E.

Guarding behaviour worsens in the evening

The behaviour worsens in the evening and the two biting incidents happened after his walk. The walk is adding to his stress levels.

I am convinced that there is a connection between Dex’ stress levels and his intolerance of being approached, having something imposed upon him and even just being looked at.

The role walks may play

Walks can be changed. He doesn’t like heavy vehicles so the man will now walk him away from that busy road. He pulls and is reactive to some other dogs but wears a Canny Collar. All the time he will be suffering discomfort and probably frustration. More stress.

We looked at a Perfect Fit front-fastening harness as a comfortable and safe alternative to the Canny Collar. This will avoid his associating discomfort with lorries and other dogs and the frustrating of being restricted.

He spends most of his off lead walks chasing a ball. This is not natural and the more repetitive chasing he does, the more ramped up his arousal levels will become.

The fallout may come later in the day as things build up.

The unusual and interesting side to this is the soft growls at mere eye contact on the sofa in the evening. The young man likes him there as during the day the dog has taken to being anywhere the young man isn’t like he’s avoiding him.

When the soft growls develop to to loud growls or even snarling, the man reacts by sending the dog to his mat.

When sent to his mat, Dex then looks at the man until he is invited back. It seems like a sequence which the dog is conducting, controlling the man’s responses.

This is my suggested approach to the eye contact growling:

  • You hear soft growls – react immediately. No waiting for him to ramp it up.
  • Immediately you basically say, ‘oh dear, you’re not happy. Let’s do something about that’. This should be the attitude.
  • Now stand up, go to Dex’ mat, call him over kindly, ask him to lie down (which he usually does willingly) and then drop him a few bits of food.
  • Don’t invite him back up until he looks away from you and settles. It should be when you choose for now. You will then gain a bit of fair sharing of the sofa space.

So I would now do zero tolerance with all growling, soft or otherwise. Always respond with ‘what’s the problem, let’s see how can I help’. Probably the advice I would give is to stop whatever you are doing and change it.

Getting Dex to participate in interacting

Another rule for the young man: for now try not to approach Dex. Try to get him to approach you instead. Even if this is just getting him to walk a couple of steps towards him. If he participates in the interaction he won’t feel his personal space is ‘threatened’.

Over his short eighteen months of life and his five other homes, he will have found that growling, snarling and maybe biting has got him the desired result – for someone to move away. Who knows why this became necessary. Now he has to learn that is not necessary.

Dex is a lovely happy and friendly dog for much of the time, but has certain trigger points that we are dealing with.

A couple of days later: ‘Dex is already responding well to the new measures”. 

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ and is always written with permission of the client. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog it can do more harm than good. Click here for help