I am surprised to learn that experienced trainers have dogs that growl, bare their teeth, and even, in some cases, bite them…on the regular. The stories are shared, I believe, to explain and describe their dog’s communication, sometimes referred to as body language. Body language is important because dogs cannot talk. If an owner is lucky their dog shows a fair amount of warning before they become aggressive. The same goes for a dog’s luck if an owner realizes and heeds these warnings.
A popular belief is that these signals are natural and highly beneficial for dogs who live in our world. Unfortunately, we humans are not well trained to recognize these signals. I recommend that people refrain from harsh reprimands for the warning behaviors. From my experience, dogs may bite much faster when they are harshly reprimanded for showing such behaviors. When biting occurs in these situations, it does not seem to be reduced after a harsh reprimand; sadly, bites become worse. Instead of reprimanding, we should heed the first warning and, in most cases, back away from our dogs. If a dog engages in the behavior more than once I believe treatment is necessary. Trainers may sometimes recommend that owners praise these warnings in an attempt to increase the amount of warning a dog gives before biting. I agree…to some extent.
Certainly, if my dogs were ever in a strange situation and they showed me some of these signs, I would listen. That said, if the circumstance presented itself often- meaning more than once-I would take a completely different approach. I certainly don’t support the idea that my dog should growl (or show more subtle signs) at me regularly for reasons such as it’s too early to get out of bed, she doesn’t want to have her ears cleaned or toenails cut, or I reach for a bone that she has. Instead, I tend to think of these warning signs as behavior and, as such, treatable. Ideally, these behaviors would never happen; if they do, it is unacceptable for them to occur on a regular basis.
I truly believe that these warnings are low-level aggression. It’s our job to reduce them in our dog, for their benefit and ours! Reducing these warnings means reducing the likelihood that our dog may bite us or others, which could literally save their lives.
The approach I like to take is essentially about removing my dog’s desire for me to move away or stop what I am doing. Suppose my dog hates to have her ears cleaned. She might growl at me when I approach her with the ear cleaner. My goal is to address her dislike of ear cleanings (basically, change how unpleasant this experience is for her). If she no longer hates having her ears cleaned, she has no real motivation to growl at me when I approach her with the ear cleaner. Doesn’t this make my life AND her life better?
I might start by having the ear cleaner present at each one of my dog’s meals. I might even put the actual bottle in the bowl of food. The next step might be to hold the cleaner and give very tasty treats at an almost rapid fire pace. The tastier the treat, the faster the process will go. I would, over the course of several weeks, begin approaching my dog with the cleaner, deliver treats, and then walk away. From there I might approach, touch her ear, deliver treats, and walk away. This process would continue until I was actually putting the solution in her ear. I would likely give multiple treats per ear-cleaning for life. Through this process I effectively teach my dog that ear cleanings mean tasty treats are coming. In addition, I am teaching my dog a more appropriate response to me approaching her with the ear cleaner. These changes do not happen overnight, but they can and do happen. We owe it to ourselves and to our dogs to treat, not tolerate.