Help! My Dog Growls When Greeting People

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Q. My dog is a little standoffish when he meets someone new. If he can greet them at his own pace, he’s OK. But if they reach out to pet him too fast, he sometimes growls. He’s never bitten anyone, but I’m worried. What should I do? 

A. Never force your dog into a greeting situation; a dog should not be greeted unless he initiates friendly contact. Without intervention, a growling dog can easily become a snarling, snapping, biting dog. I would strongly recommend that you not try to handle this on your own, but that you work with a professional to train your dog to stay relaxed while greeting people. In the meantime, recognizing the initial signs of discomfort and limiting your pet’s interaction with strangers during this training time can minimize the potential for a bite.

In this situation, it is important not to punish your dog when he growls. The growl serves as a warning: He is telling the overenthusiastic human to back off. Punishing a growl may temporarily inhibit the growling behavior, but it may exacerbate his underlying fear or discomfort, leading to an escalation of aggression in the future. Punishing your dog for growling may cause him to launch directly into a bite or attack, without any warning.

Learn to Recognize When Your Dog Is Uncomfortable

Like people, dogs use body language to communicate their need for space. It is important that you learn to recognize when your dog is uncomfortable in order to minimize the potential for a bite. Signs of discomfort can be subtle, and can include lip licking, head turns, hard stares or avoidance of eye contact, yawning, panting, pinning the ears back and dilated pupils. Once you understand your dog's body language, you can intervene at the earliest sign of discomfort — before the situation escalates.

In many cases, the root cause of a dog’s aggressive response to being approached is fear. Working with a professional can help to alleviate your dog’s fear in a greeting situation. Start by consulting with your veterinarian; she can look for underlying medical causes that may be contributing to your dog's behavior. In severe cases, prescription medication may help reduce your dog's anxiety, which may improve the way he interacts with people.

When you speak with your vet, ask for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist who specializes in this type of behavior. Not only is it essential to address your dog’s underlying fear or anxiety, it’s important to train calm greeting behaviors, and this training is best handled by a professional. The trainer may use techniques like hand targeting and counter-conditioning to help your dog feel more at ease in greeting situations.

While your dog continues to be uncomfortable greeting people, it’s important to manage your dog’s environment and carefully oversee his interactions with people and other dogs, in order to minimize the chances of a bite. But management alone won’t change your pet's behavior — it is imperative that you seek professional training. Your behavior intervention should begin as soon as possible to protect both your pet and anyone he comes into contact with. Talk to your veterinarian as soon as possible.

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