Dog growling at other dog

As part of an ongoing series, dog trainer Mikkel Becker teaches you how to address common behavior problems at the dog park.

Q. When another dog sniffs my dog's face at the dog park, she  lifts her lip and growls. But once the other dog backs away, she’ll start playing with him soon after. She has never bitten any dog and she has never been in a fight. Is it OK to have a dog that sets limits like this?

A. It sounds like your dog is setting her boundaries right away with other pooches. She may be reacting with the lip snarl and growl either because she's nervous about another dog lingering in her face and doesn’t know a better way to convey this, or because she wants to set limits about her personal space from the beginning.

Dogs don’t use words to set their boundaries with other dogs; they communicate mainly through body language. It is critical that we allow our dogs to communicate with one another effectively. Problems often arise when we hinder our canines' communication by punishing them for perfectly normal dog behavior, like using warning signals to get other dogs to back off. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many well-meaning owners punish their dogs for snapping, growling or otherwise giving signals to other dogs to move away. These signals can come from perfectly well-socialized dogs, and are their way of saying that they need space.

Redirect Your Dog's Greeting

Dogs use body language, such as lip snarls, to settle conflict without resorting to physical force. Humans use body signals in the same way. As a mother myself, I know that a simple eyebrow furrow from a parent can make an out-of-control child settle down without any physical — or verbal — intervention. In the same manner, your pooch is using her body language to communicate to other dogs that she needs her space, without using physical force.

It sounds like her greeting habits have thus far been heeded by other dogs and have not caused a problem. When you meet other dogs, it’s essential that she continue to be able to use her body to signal to them, without fear of reproach for doing so, since punishment can both increase her anxiety around other dogs and remove important warning signals, such as growling, that tell other dogs how she wants to be treated. This lack of communication could possibly cause her to snap at or bite another dog.

A few dog-friendly pooches I’ve worked with have shown this type of tense greeting behavior. It is possible for a pet owner to redirect this growly greeting by letting the initial moments of sniffing occur, and then calling the dog back over before the greeting lingers too long and the other dog feels the need to react. For these canines, the first couple of moments of sniffing usually go well, but as the other dog lingers or moves from the rear area toward the face, the situation can get tense. Simply calling your dog back to you after she has sniffed the other dog for a couple of seconds takes away the grouchy greeting behavior by giving your dog another behavior to do. This releases her from a greeting situation she feels unsure about before it gets tense enough that she may react. The play can still occur after, but it helps to take away the first few tense moments by giving your dog a “go to” behavior. Many dogs learn to self-regulate this way, by learning that moving away can decrease tension.

Make Sure the Dog Park Is Right for Your Pup

It’s important to assess whether or not your dog is actually enjoying the experience of being at the dog park and being around other dogs. It’s also important that she isn’t causing stress to other canines with her greeting behavior. Keep in mind that if your dog shows any fear or aggression around other dogs, the dog park is not the best outlet for her.

You also can’t control the way other dogs will interpret her behavior. For some dogs, simply the sound of another dog growling or barking can be enough for them to react aggressively. Although the dogs you have met in the past have heeded her warnings, there is a risk that she will meet a dog who does not back away and instead interprets her greeting as a challenge, which can put her at risk for a fight.

Our dogs are surprisingly civil about settling matters with other dogs by using subtle body cues that allow them to communicate without using physical force. However, it’s critical that you assess your dog's enjoyment of the dog park experience to make sure it’s really the best option for her. If the dog park does seem like an appropriate place, work toward teaching her an alternative method of coping when moments get tense.