How did we become so unforgiving of dogs who growl? Where did this attitude come from? Is it a result of the mistaken belief that a growl is a sign of an attempt by the dog to "dominate" the household?
And a nip-as my east coast friends would say...fuggitaboutit!*
Just a couple of generations ago, a child who ran home crying because, "Rover BIT me!" would be met with a sharp, "Well, what did you expect? I told you to stay away from that dog!" instead of a lightening-fast call to a litigation attorney.
A growl is information
Dogs are social creatures and most will not bite when a growl will do. The problem occurs when there is a blind assumption by us that all dogs can and should tolerate whatever we dish out, as unflinching as a robot.
What are you saying, Chris? That I should just ignore all growling?
The short answer is "no". Take the growl as an indication that something is making your dog very uncomfortable. Is the dog ill? In pain? Frightened?
Especially if this is a new behavior that comes on suddenly, the first stop should be your veterinarian. Hopefully your veterinarian is also a veterinary behaviorist or has access to one (most are happy to consult with your veterinarian- many times as a professional courtesy-as in free of charge) who will determine if this is a medical issue or one that can be solved with the help of a good trainer.
There are many good dog trainers who are well educated in canine behavior. There are also many who simply add the term "behaviorist" to their brochure because it is trendy (like the woman I met once who assured me in a hushed tone that dogs who are afraid of brooms were most certainly abused at some point in their lives).
Do your homework and ask questions! Where did they receive their education? There are some really good self-taught individuals out there-and also some that are not.
If your trainer suggests methods that merely suppress the behavior by using "corrections" (keywords to look out for are "alpha" "pack leader" "dominance" "red zone dogs") my advice is to keep looking. Most of the time, you must change the underlying behavior in order to solve the problem.
Aggression met with aggression results in...click here to find out
Need a board certified veterinary behaviorist? click here to find one in your area
*Let's be clear-we are talking about a nip, not a serious, damaging bite. That I have to even make that distinction speaks volumes on how we view dogs who behave like...dogs.