Barks & Growls

Understanding “aggression” and vocalizations in dogs.

Dog language and communication is about so much more than subtle body language. If their subtle body language, i.e. their calming signals, are not heeded they will often have to resort to not-so-subtle body language, which is often interpreted as aggression.

“Aggression” – perhaps one of the most misunderstood sides of dog communication.

The reason why the word aggression is often in quote marks in this blog post is because the words “aggression” and “aggressive” are descriptions that we have imposed on certain types of behaviours exhibited by dogs. It is not the true nature of dogs though.

The first definition for aggression in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is this:

a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master”

In dogs, however, the signals or behaviours, which are often described as “aggressive” are neither unprovoked, nor are they intended to dominate or master. So, I believe, this is entirely the wrong term to be applied to dogs in any circumstance. The use of this term is once again a symptom of misunderstanding dogs.

“The idea of “an aggressive dog” or “an aggressive dog breed” is a myth.”

Dogs, by nature, are not aggressive, and do not display “aggressive” behaviours without cause. The idea of “an aggressive dog” or “an aggressive dog breed” is a myth.

The behaviours we brand “aggressive”, growling, snarling, snapping, even biting, are another form of dog communication; they are a dog’s way of trying to communicate that they do not feel safe or comfortable in the current situation and they would like some space. These behaviours are often also referred to as “distance increasing signals”, which is a much more accurate term for this behaviour.

If you’re already familiar with the calming signals exhibited by dogs and used as a form of communication you’ll know that calming signals are often the first form of communication used by dogs, usually to indicate friendly intentions and to encourage calm interactions. Dogs use calming signals in a wide variety of situations; when interacting with others, when stressed, scared, unsure or threatened, to name a few examples. If however, these calming signals are not noticed, are ignored, or do not otherwise work to improve the situation, the dog will have to either remove him/herself from the situation (often not an option for our pet dogs who are either confined to our homes or tethered to us on walks) or will have to start using stronger signals.

These stronger signals are distance increasing signals, such as showing their teeth, growling, lunging, snapping, and in the end even perhaps biting. These should be, and often are, last resort behaviours for dogs when all their other attempts at communicating their discomfort have gone unheeded. The Nordic Education Centre for Dog Trainers described the difference between these two types of signals (calming, and distance increasing) very nicely: “Calming signals are like dogs talking, distance increasing signals are like dogs shouting”. If you listen to them when they “talk” they won’t have to “shout”.

For many dogs distance increasing signals will often occur in particular situations or in response to particular stimuli or triggers. Common examples of these include food or resource guarding (i.e. the dog might growl or snap if you approach him/her while he is eating or in possession of a high-value treat or toy), in the presence of other dogs or humans, either all or only certain types (e.g. the dog might react with hostility towards other dogs, only male dogs, only large dogs, or towards people, or maybe only men or people wearing hats – these circumstances are usually closely linked to some trauma from their past). These are usually the dogs who would get branded “aggressive”, and although these dogs will need more support and training to help them deal with these situations better, it’s still important to remember that even these cases are a result of learned behaviour, not natural behaviour; the dog was not born reactive, or “aggressive” as some might say, but instead the dog’s life experiences have shaped his reactions to certain stimuli.

“By using one or several of these signals and sounds your dog is trying to tell you something, so listen.”

And then of course, in addition to body language there is vocalization. Just as we make sound when we talk, laugh, cry, shout, cheer, grunt, moan, sigh, etc., dogs can also express many if not all of these same emotions through their vocalizations.

The first one that no doubt comes to mind when you think of dog vocalizations is barking, and this one word, “bark”, can have so many different meanings. One bark does not fit all meanings; dogs can bark out of joy, fear, anxiety, stress, frustration, loneliness, anger, in warning or to guard territory or resources. Many of the meanings behind barks can be understood from the sound of the bark itself, and understanding them doesn’t always necessarily even require extensive experience with dogs, but this will vary from person to person. See some of the resources referenced at the end of this post for help with understanding dog barks.

A close second to barking would probably be whining, and much like barking, whining can also have multiple meanings depending on the context in which it occurs; dogs might whine out of boredom, pain, frustration, stress, loneliness, fear, or in an attempt to get some attention. If you know your dogs well and observe them closely on a daily basis the reasons for whining should not be too difficult to decipher.

Howling, which is synonymous with wolves, is loud and often contagious; once one starts, others will find it impossible to resist joining in. If you’ve ever been near a howling wolf or dog, you’ll know that it’s quite impossible to ignore. Howling could be considered a type of roll call, which is why it is so instinctual for wolves and dogs to join in when it happens, but it is often also an indication of loneliness; puppies howl and cry when left alone, and howling is also a common symptom displayed by dogs who suffer from separation anxiety. On occasion it may just be a reaction to a passing ambulance, police car, or even an ice cream van – a bit like when “Despacito” comes on the radio…how could you not join in? Company and social security are a recurring theme with all of the vocalizations listed here; dogs are not solitary animals by nature and they will often feel social pain when left alone or separated from their social circle.

So, whether it’s calming signals, distance increasing signals, or vocalizations, the reasons behind all these is always the same – communication. By using one or several of these signals and sounds your dog is trying to tell you something, so listen.

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