When reinforcing growling is not only acceptable, but desirable

Yesterday, I had a consultation with Rosemary and her 4 year old terrier Jasper. Jasper has had significant health problems for his whole life. He has a spinal defect on the lower part of his back, which causes very stiff movement. He has developed cataracts in one of his eyes over the last few months and from what I saw yesterday, he doesn’t see too well from his good eye either. He’s also reactive to other dogs.

Rosemary is realistic about how much I was able to do for Jasper, and every now and then a dog like wee Jasper comes along and really tests my abilities and powers of lateral thinking. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “threshold”, it refers to the distance at which a reactive dog will react to the stimulus in the environment which she doesn’t like. For example, if your dog as reactive to other dogs, she might be non reactive if the dog is 30 feet away, and only react if the other dog comes within 25 feet. In this case, 25 feet would be the threshold distance.

In the case of Jasper, because his eyesight is so poor, the other dog is well within his threshold distance by the time he knows it’s there, which means in most cases, as soon as he can see or smell the other dog, it’s already far closer than he is comfortable with and he then barks and lunges at the other dog.

Usually when I’m working with reactive, I do my best to work sub-threshold, so the dog I’m working with can see the other dog but the distance is enough that he doesn’t react. We then reinforce (reward) more appropriate behaviours such as looking away, sniffing the ground, tongue flicking or looking back at us, all of which the dog uses to calm himself or try to displace what he is feeling.

Because I couldn’t do this with Jasper, I allowed him to approach the other dog and the instant he recognised the presence of the other dog and growled, I verbally praised him with a “Good boy” and walked away. Here, the sense of relief the dog is feeling from being away from the other dog is rewarding so we can use this relief to reinforce the growl. Why would I want to reinforce Jasper growling at the other dog? the answer is because it’s not a lunge, snap or bark. The growl is the first behaviour Jasper is offering me that lets me know he’s uncomfortable but it is considerably less intense that behaviours he usually offers.

If we do this time and again, Jasper is than far more likely to growl rather than lunge and snap. As his confidence increases, he will become less growly and we can then start reinforcing less intense growling with the ultimate aim being him not growling at all.

If your dog can’t do what you’re asking or wanting him to do, reinforce something he does which is in some way, even a tiny amount, more appropriate or more approximate to the behaviour you want. It’ll work wonders.

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3 thoughts on “When reinforcing growling is not only acceptable, but desirable

  1. Thank you for this helpful article. I don’t know much about dogs but i am trying to learn. I have had so much conflicting advice about dealing with my slightly fearful greyhound and it has been very confusing. Your article has given me the confidence to trust my instincts and listen to what my dog is trying to tell me.

  2. I love how you’ve broken this down. I’m always worried about reinforcing my dog reacting in any way but it’s a good point. Growling is better than lunging and snapping.

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