Growling is an emotional response. It is not a "disobedient" behavior. You cannot punish an emotion out of a dog (or a human).
Growling is just your dog's way of trying to tell you something important, and you should listen and genuinely thank your dog for the honest feedback.
Growling is your dog's way of begging you to stop what you're doing and move away. It's not a challenge to your hierarchical status in your home.
Dog body language exists to help them stay alive by avoiding confrontation with other creatures because confrontation is risky!
But what if the other creature doesn't understand what the dog is trying to say? Or worse, simply doesn't care how the dog feels?
Then the dog is forced to bite to make you understand.
If your dog is asking for space through growling and instead of moving away you continue moving into your dog's space, or you wave your finger in their face and/or raise your voice at them, your dog will undoubtedly see you as a threat and would be completely justified in biting you at that point.
If you choose not to listen to your growling dog, do not be surprised when he bites you. Notice I said when, not if.
If you choose to punish or silence your growling dog, you're teaching him that warnings don't work and he should just go directly for the bite next time.
What other way can your dog react when he/she is uncomfortable with how close you are or what part of their body you're touching? Really. What are your dog's options here?
- Sit there and just let it happen (frozen in fear)
- Move away (if that option exists)
Is it fair for us to expect our dogs to just sit there quietly and let us make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable because they "love us" and "want to please us?" I don't believe so. I wouldn't expect that of my children, my husband or my friends (who also love me and want to please me), so why would I expect it of my best fur friend?
Fact: Dogs growl because they desperately don't want to bite. It's a warning that they're feeling pressure to bite because you're not listening and they're running out of other communication options.
Biting leads to fighting, and fighting leads to injury, and dogs aren't interested in fighting any more than we are. Generally speaking, anyway.
Myth: Dogs growl because they're "dominant" or "alpha."
The dominance theory was debunked long ago so you can just wipe this old information from your mind and open that brain space for some more up-to-date information.
Bottom Line: When your dog growls at you I recommend that you listen to what your dog is saying. Immediately stop doing whatever it is that you’re doing and move away.
If your dog is telling you he’s uncomfortable in a situation that you feel should not result in such big feelings of discomfort, then you make a note that this is something you have to work on with a certified professional dog trainer or behavior consultant who uses LIMA* training methods.
*LIMA stands for Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive