It's that noise that every dog owner dreads, a deep guttural growl emitted the minute your dog is pushed off the bed, but what's really up with dogs growling when moved off the bed? Why are they so grumpy about it? It often starts with you asking your dog "politely" to get off the bed, and then, trying with a firmer "I mean business" tone of voice. Since your dog gives a deaf ear and decides he doesn't want to give up his "throne," you are then forced to use plan B and grab his collar to get him off or even give him a push, and out of nowhere, comes that growl. What's going on? Is Rover acting like a bully? Here's a little guide on what's more likely going on from Rover's perspective.
There Are Always Two Sides of the Story
You might have heard about your friend who has been cheating on her husband or your co-worker may have told you how her boss hurt her feelings, but before making a judgement, have you heard both sides of the story?
This seems to have become a forgotten practice. Failure to hear the whole story from both points of view, failure to gather factual information and failure to distance oneself so to remain emotionally detached, may often lead to a rushed, inaccurate judgement.
Situations of he said/she said are particularly challenging especially when the other party happens to be a dog!
The dog not only cannot talk to provide his version of the story, but he happens to speak a totally different language, and all that dog owners often hear is that final"grrrr" which is perceived as the ultimate proof of the dog's stubborn nature and reluctance to got off the couch.
"Why can’t I remember that not once have I ever seen a coin, whether grimy copper or bright gold, that had but one side.” ~Andrew Levkoff,
From the Owner's Perspective
Owners often describe the dynamics about a dog growling when asked to move off the bed as such: So I was walking through door and found Rover on my bed. I am not really too keen about having him sleep on the bed. So I first asked him nicely to get off. When I said "off" the first time, Rover ignored me. So I said "off" in a more serious tone of voice, leaning over him and pointing near his face. At this point, he even turned his head the other way and then yawned!
So since he was acting stubborn, I decided I had to push him off the bed. When I pushed him, it was like trying to move an old piece of furniture-he just wouldn't budge. So I pushed harder, and he growled at me! I got scared, and therefore stopped pushing him, and left. I was afraid he was going to bite me!
So I let him be and now I am here asking for help because I am afraid of my own dog growling at me when I ask him to get off the bed! Not only, now he also growls at me if I even come close to him when he's on the bed! He's telling me that he owns the bed! How do I deal with such a stubborn dog?
From Rover's Perspective
Let's take a closer look at what Rover may be silently "telling" the owner before the infamous growl. Here's his version:
"So I was sleeping comfortably on the couch. I like to stay on the couch because it feels comfy and my owner has allowed it in the past. I also feel safe and it's the only place where I can get some restorative sleep. Now here comes my owner telling me "off." I tilt my head wondering what that means. It almost seems like she's trying to say "woof?"
Next, the owner says "off" in a more serious tone and looms over me in an intimidating manner. Now, that was quite scary!
So I started getting worried. What does "off" mean? It's not like I was doing anything bad. I was just laying there! Is my owner in a bad mood today? I tried sending her some calming signals such as yawning or turning my head in hopes of calming my owner down, but this didn't work, it actually seemed to escalate her behavior even more!
So next she comes near him and starts pushing me. I don't like that, I was never touched in such a way before. My ears are back as I try to make myself invisible as much as I can. But the pushing continues. Finally, I had to tell her "I don't like what you are doing, please stop." I think she got the message as she left the moment I growled.
Pheeewww... that was really odd and scary! Glad it's over. Now, I can try to relax and hopefully go back to snoozing. I guess if she comes back and comes anywhere near me, I might have to remind her that I didn't like her intimidating approach.
A Better Understanding
Now that we heard Rover's story, we have put some important pieces of information together and have noticed that the two sides of the story don't match. While in real life, dogs cannot talk, a video of the episode or observing the interaction is often worth a thousand words; however, it's often not safe to do so. However, from an accurate description with details of Rover's body language we can gather some pertinent information as to what may be going on. While the owner is convinced that Rover is acting stubborn and wants to claim the bed, Rover is telling us a different story. Let's take a closer look.
No Idea What Off Means
First of all, Rover often has no idea of what "off" exactly means. When dog owners are inquired about it, turns out their dogs were never really trained to respond to the "off" cue. We often assume dogs will naturally understand certain words when told in a firm manner, such as telling the dog "off" or telling the dog " no!" but it's not like that.
Words like "no" or "off," unless given a meaning through training, don't provide enough information of what is asked of them and often just convey the message that we are in a bad mood. These words often result in a dog who feels confused and compelled to send calming signals left and right such as yawning, walking away or turning the head which are often interpreted by dog owners as further signs of their dogs are ignoring them and purposely acting stubborn.
After repeatedly hearing "off" and then, being pushed away, there are chances that Rover starts to think that "off" is a bad word. Since dogs live in a world of associations, soon the word "off" therefore becomes a negative cue, a predictor sign that the owner is upset and something unpleasant is going to happen (being pushed or grabbed by the collar).
Please Stop That!
While the owner perceives the growl as the dog wanting to remain on the couch and "not giving up his throne," Rover is often not growling because of an intent to stay on the couch, but as a way to stop the owner from acting intimidating.
Indeed, as soon as the owner leaves, the dog feels relief. In this case, for those interested in learning how dogs learn, negative reinforcement is at play. Basically, the behavior of growling is rewarding because it feels good when something negative (the owner's presence) goes away.
Let's provide a practical example of this: Imagine working for a customer service department. An angry customer swings by and tells you he is angry because a TV he just bought is not working properly, but has no receipt and demands his money back. You act apologetic about it telling the customer how sorry you are (just like a dog sending calming signals to an angry owner) and explain that it's against company policy making a return with no proof of purchase, but this only angers the customer more.
So you go to plan B. As for social etiquette, you certainly cannot address him as your instincts would like to (telling him to go away and stop pestering you, it's not your fault!) as that could get you fired, but with courtesy, you give him the customer support hot line number to see what they can do. Since this works like a charm in calming the customer down, soon telling customers you'll give them the customer support number becomes your preferred, default method of dealing with angry customers and making them go away. Ah, so much relief!
"Whereas the owner thinks the dog is growling to stay on the couch, the dog may actually be growling to get the owner to stop threatening it. "~Dr. Lore I. Haug, veterinary behaviorist
The Importance of Careful Assessments
Understanding the dynamics that trigger certain dog behaviors is important and can make a difference on the outcome of the choice of behavior modification. This is why it's important to hire behavior consultants who take a factual approach paying careful attention to what is triggering the behavior and refraining from being lulled by certain labels that are given to dogs.
Statements such as "My dog is acting like a bully" or "my dog is being stubborn" not only blur what may be truly going on, masking the real dynamics, but also risks hurting the relationship between owner and dog.
Data obtained from collecting the dog's behavioral history along with factual information obtained from interviewing the owners, and possibly, observing a video of the problem behavior when safe and feasible to do so, can help behavior consultants attain a quite accurate description of the problem behavior so to develop effective management strategies.
Implementing behavior modification based on faulty, non-scientific approaches can yield more problems down the road than bargained for. If a dog trainer using aversive dog training techniques and adhering to unscientific, narrow-viewed beliefs was not paying attention to gathering factual information, and was hired for such a case, he or she may have believed that the dog was truly stubborn and trying to challenge the owner and may have suggested implementing a correction, under the form of a collar grab or a a scruff shake every time the dog refused to get off the bed.
This approach could seem to be working in the first few trials, but then the owner may notice that Rover now appears more stressed out than ever and now growls every time he's touched by the neck area such as when the owner reaches out to pet him or to put the collar and leash on. This is because now the owner's mere touch has assumed negative connotations. From bad to worse!
" While punishment may temporarily inhibit the aggressive response, stifling a growl, over time punishment often intensifies a dog’s reaction and escalates his aggression or anxiety. Punishment also damages your relationship of trust with your dog, as your interactions become less predictable. When you use force-based techniques, you increase the risk your dog will show aggression—and bite." ~Mikkel Bekker
Other Possible Motives
Of course, dogs may behave in certain ways for various different reasons, and there's never a cookie-cutter explanation for all.
If it were that easy, there would be manuals with step-by-step guides on how to fix dog behaviors just as those handy-man manuals tackling how to fix a leaky faucet making it feasible for everybody to do it.
For instance, a dog may be growling because he's actually really protective of the bed or couch, but not as to the materialistic "owning the couch" as many people may believe.
Dogs do not place value on objects in the same way we do with jewelry, watches or cars. When they act protective of items there are more likely items linked to the dog's survival and fulfilling associated needs as the need to eat, sleep and feel secure.
So growling when somebody comes near a dog on the bed is perhaps more like "I feel safe and comfortable here" rather than "This bed is all mine! I am king of the house, now go away and go sleep on a mat, you subordinate owner!"
In some cases, it could be that the dog has mobility issues or is not feeling well and the presence of the owner, along with being asked to move away, has been associated with the pain. Stressed dogs who go on the couch or bed in a quiet room to escape from rambunctious children may perceive the couch as their safe haven and by growling they may be putting a virtual"please do not disturb sign" in hopes of preventing further pestering. And of course, dogs should never be disturbed when sleeping!
Regardless, sometimes looking for the exact cause may be time consuming and there are sometimes risks for misinterpretations no matter how hard one tries to find the ultimate motive, so at times it just helps going straight to fixing the issue. How can an issue as this be tackled? It often takes a multi-faceted approach by managing the dog's environment so to prevent access to beds, couches and sofas if the dog tends to growl when on them which makes him rehearse the problem behavior.
Providing the dog with a suitable replacement sleeping area such as a comfy dog bed is a great alternative. Get the best dog bed you can and make it extra appealing by giving a chew toy or long-lasting treat like a stuffed Kong while on it. Also, training the positive off cue may come handy just in case the dog manages to get on the couch despite our attempts in preventing access to it.
"Aggression is caused by cumulative stress that pushes a dog over his aggression threshold. We’re all grumpier when we’re stressed."~ Pat Miller
- DVM360, The Facts About Growling, by Mikkel Becker, retrieved from the web on December 8th, 2016
- Clinician Brief, Growling in Dogs, retrieved from the web on December 8th, 2016