If your dog growls at strangers, you may be looking for ways to stop that behavior. Perhaps you’ve even tried a few solutions, but it didn’t seem to help. The first step is to understand why your dog is growling, which you can explore in this article here. Though there isn’t always one simple answer, looking at the reasons behind growling can help you better change their behavior.
Now let’s dig into how to address your dog’s growling at strangers.
Step 1: Identify Your Dog’s Triggers
A trigger is something that causes your dog to react in ways that are usually undesirable to humans. In this case, it’s the presence or action of a stranger that causes your dog to growl. But knowing that strangers make your dog growl isn’t enough! What specific situation makes things better or worse?
Try to get specific about what it is about people that causes them to growl. Here are some questions to help you identify your dog’s unique triggers.
- How close does the person have to be for your dog to growl at them?
- Do they growl when the person is walking toward them? Away from them?
- Does your dog growl if a person reaches out or touches them?
- Does growling happen in a specific location, like a certain room or a particular park?
- What kind of people tend to trigger a growl? All people? Men? Kids wearing backpacks?
- What kind of behavior are the strangers doing? Running? Staring? Entering your home?
Step 2: Make a Trigger Description
Now you can assemble a detailed description of your dog’s growling at strangers. Maybe your dog growls at anyone within 50 feet of them. It could also be much more specific, such as men who stand within 5 feet of them and stare or reach towards him. The more details you can pinpoint about what causes the growling, the better.
If your dog seems to growl at everyone and you aren’t able to be specific, that’s okay.
When you observe your dog growling at a person, try to be aware of the context. It can be very helpful to write down a short note with details about the person’s distance, behavior, and appearance.
Your notes may reveal a pattern to your dog’s growling that you didn’t notice before.
Step 3: Implement Management and Plan the Behavior Modification
When it comes to dealing with difficult or undesirable dog behavior, there are two options.
The first is management, which means changing the environment to prevent the growling from happening in the first place. For example, you could simply avoid walking your dog near the school yard at recess if kids are the issue.
The second is behavior modification, which means using training to change our dog’s behavior around strangers.
Very often, these two strategies are used together to set the dog up for the most success. Each dog and situation is unique, so let’s look at each option in more detail.
What Is Management?
Choosing a management approach to your dog’s growling around strangers may be easier than embarking on a full behavior modification plan. You may also choose to only use management to deal with your dog’s growling.
The downside to management is that it doesn’t actually fix your dog’s growling. You have to keep managing your dog to prevent the growl. Still, depending on the situation, that may work just fine for you. In some cases, simply giving your dog a break from the triggers can help them cope better in the future.
What Does Management Look Like?
As I mentioned above, management is about adjusting the environment so that the undesired behavior does not occur. You can use your list of triggers to help you determine exactly what management might be effective for your dog. That may sound hard, but in many cases, it’s quite simple.
- Telling a friendly stranger that they can’t pet your dog.
- Crossing the street to avoid an oncoming jogger.
- Putting your dog in your bedroom with a stuffed Toppl when the plumber comes over.
- Walking your dog when it’s not so busy outside.
- Putting your dog behind a baby gate while a friend comes over.
- Changing your walking route so you don’t walk by the playground.
In all these situations, you changed the environment (which includes the presence and action of strangers) to keep your dog feeling comfortable and avoid the growl.
Is Management Alone the Right Solution?
Managing your dog’s growling can be a pretty attractive solution. It requires that you change your behavior, rather than trying to change your dog’s. For some dogs, management alone may be a feasible approach. Here are some factors to think about when considering a management-only route.
How often does your dog encounter people who trigger a growl? Depending on where you live, you may not encounter many people who your dog finds uncomfortable or scary. If you live in an area with low human traffic, you can likely manage your dog’s environment pretty easily to keep them feeling safe. Similarly, if your dog has a very specific trigger, such as strangers walking with canes, you likely won’t encounter that kind of person at a high frequency. You can simply employ some management strategies to help your dog feel comfortable when that trigger appears.
How many people-related triggers does your dog have? If your dog usually only growls at people who reach out to touch her, but otherwise feels comfortable around people in other situations, management alone is likely the way to go. You can easily avoid putting your dog in situations where strangers are touching her.
If your dog is worried about any person within 100 feet or has a long list of people-related triggers, management alone is probably not going to cut it if you want to deal with the growling. In these kinds of cases, a combination of management and behavior modification training will help you see the best results.
How much time and energy can you devote to solving the growling issue? I’m not going to lie to you. Behavior modification will take time and effort on an owner’s part. It requires patience and consistency. Maybe your dog has other behavior issues that you’d like to prioritize. Perhaps the growling doesn’t happen enough for you to put a lot of energy into training. In these kinds of situations, relying on management can be the way to go.
What If I See a Stranger and We’re Not Ready?
You’ve decided to use management to prevent your dog from growling at people on your morning walks. So long as you stay on the other side of the street from strangers, your dog is okay. But what do you do if there are people walking in your direction on both sides of the street? You don’t have anywhere to go to give your dog enough space so that they don’t growl.
Real life can be unpredictable and strangers may appear even when you’ve done your best to avoid them. This is where having some “coping skills” can help. These are easy skills you can teach your dog at home, away from strangers. Once they’re established, you can use them in the real world when things don’t go as planned.
Cookie Magnet. Hold a few treats in your hand and let your dog nibble the treats as they follow your hand. At first, let the dog have the treats after just a couple of steps as they follow your hand. Then gradually add more steps. The goal is for your dog to hold their nose to your hand while walking together past a person who may be triggering for your dog. This gives them something to do instead of growling at the person.
U-Turns. Teaching your dog how to quickly turn and move away with you can also help prevent your dog from growling at people. Start this in your house or yard. With the dog on leash and walking forward, say something like “let’s go” or “this way”. Then turn around. Feed your dog treats as you walk the other way. This can be useful if a stranger is approaching and you need to give your dog some space.
Treat Scatter. It doesn’t get simpler than this. You toss a handful of treats on the ground and your dog eats them as the person walks by. Or as you tell them to please give your dog some space. Or whatever other stranger situation you might be in. Again, practice this at home so your dog gets really good at eating the treats from the ground, even with distractions present. I use the word “party” to let my dog know I’ll be dropping a handful of treats, but you can use any word you like.
Let’s talk about the other option for addressing your dog’s growling at strangers: behavior modification. This means we actively work to change the dog’s behavior in response to the presence of action of a stranger. Depending on the factors of your dog’s situation, various behavior modification strategies may be helpful.
Management Supports Modification
First, let’s briefly revisit management. Even if you do choose to go the modification route, you still need management. Why is that? Because in order to change your dog’s growling, you have to prevent them from practicing the growl. Dogs growl because it’s effective communication. It tells the person to back off and give the dog their space. A dog who growls at a stranger wants space. And most people do not move toward a growling dog.
So when the dog growls, they get what they want. They are reinforced for growling when the person moves away. Even if the person doesn’t leave right away, like the mailman, they eventually leave, and the dog feels their growl was effective. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we want to ignore your dog’s request for space. It’s far better to reward a few growls than it is to risk a bite!
That’s why avoiding the situations that trigger your dog to growl is so helpful. If you work on training your dog to behave differently around people, but they’re still growling at people on your daily walks, your training won’t be very effective. While you work on modifying your dog’s behavior, management will be your friend!
Changing Your Dog’s Feelings About Strangers
Your dog growls at people because they feel discomfort about them. They have bad feelings about the stranger, for whatever reason. If we can change the way they feel when they see their trigger, we can change their behavior too.
We can use food to help our dogs create a positive association with strangers. If the presence of strangers predicts treats for your dog, they’ll start to feel differently when they see people.
Think of it like this: If you were scared of spiders, but every time you saw one in your house, someone handed you a $20 bill, your feelings about spiders would change. You actually might start to like spiders. Your behavior around spiders will probably change too. Instead of screaming or running away, you might point them out, smile, or do a happy dance.
Of course, that will only work if the spiders are far enough away and small enough that they’re worth $20 – being chased by a giant tarantula and then being handed $20 won’t change your feelings. The same goes for your dog.
Here are some games that use treats to help change our dog’s feelings and behavior around strangers.
Look at That! Game
The Look at That! Game, created by trainer Leslie McDevitt, can help you change your dog’s feelings and behavior around other people. The final result of the game is that your dog looks up at you and then eats a treat when they see a trigger, in this case, a stranger. This is a great game for a dog who is uncomfortable around people in general. It also works well for more specific triggers like joggers or children.
I suggest starting with a person that your dog does not find worrisome – even someone that lives with you will work. Using a clicker can make this easier, but you can also say “yes” instead.
Step One: When the dog looks at the person, click and feed a treat. Repeat this at least fifteen times. If the dog is ignoring the person from the start, have the person do something subtle to get the dog’s attention. They shouldn’t scare the dog, but they can walk around a bit or talk quietly.
Step Two: Delay the click until the dog looks back at you. Then click and treat. After all the repetitions, your dog will now be expecting to get a treat after they looked at the person and got clicked. They will likely look back at you to see what’s taking you so long. The moment they look back at you, click and treat. Repeat this another 15 times.
Play steps one and two a few times at home. You can use different people that your dog is comfortable with. The person can also do increasingly distracting things, so long as the dog doesn’t find them scary or threatening.
Step Three: Take the game on the road. Set up the situation as best you can so that your dog doesn’t feel the need to growl. Maybe that means you ask your house guest to sit at the far end of the room so your dog has enough distance to feel safe. Or you chill in a quiet corner of the park where your dog can spot people without being scared.
Start from step one. Click when your dog looks at a person, and then feed a treat. Repeat. If your dog is taking the food easily, you can move onto step two and click when she looks back at you. Even if your dog is looking at people who aren’t your dog’s exact trigger, they will be creating a positive pattern that will be useful when they do see the type of person that worries them.
If your dog will not eat food, you’re too close to the triggers. And if your dog is growling, you’re also too close. Find a way to create more distance and try again.
I suggest setting a timer when you do this. Though this seems like such a simple game to us, for a dog, it can be mentally exhausting. Start with just a few minutes, then leave.
Step Four: Gradually get closer to the trigger. As your dog becomes better and better at the Look at That! Game, you can slowly get closer to people. Or you can let people get closer to you if your dog is wary of people moving toward them. Your dog should be able to eat treats the whole time while playing this game.
As you progress with this game, your dog will begin to point out people they see in their environment and then check back in with you, rather than growling at the person. A nice check-in from your dog is much preferred over a snarky grumble!
Treat and Retreat
This simple, yet effective game was created by trainer Suzanne Clothier. This is a great game for dogs that are concerned about people in their home, but can be used in other outdoor scenarios as well.
You may think that having strangers give your dog treats will make them like people. This can actually backfire. It puts the dog in conflict: they want the food, but they’re scared of the person. They muster up the courage to go in for the treat, but then realize how close they are to the person, and freak out.
The Treat and Retreat game uses food, but in a different, more effective way.
Step One: The person throws treats away from your dog. Give the person a supply of treats. Ask them not to make direct eye contact with your dog. When they enter your house, or your general vicinity if doing this outside, have them toss a treat behind the dog.
The dog will have to move away from the person to get the treat. Not only do they get a yummy snack, but they also get more distance from the person. And that distance is what they’re asking for when they growl. So they are getting double rewards!
Repeat this with different people, in different rooms, in different environments.
Step Two: The person alternates tossing the treat behind the dog, and between them and the dog. Once the dog is doing well with step one, it’s time to slightly increase the difficulty. Start with a treat toss behind the dog. Then have the person toss a treat in front of the dog. The dog will have to move toward the person to get it. Then another toss behind the dog. Go back and forth between these two treat placements.
Again, repeat this with different people and environments. You want to see your dog looking happy and confident with this. Loose body language and easy movement are good signs.
Seeking Professional Training Help
It can be a challenge to change your dog’s growling behavior. While the principles behind management and behavior modification are simple, sometimes having an experienced professional can help you see more progress.
Growling fits into the larger category of dog behavior known as “reactivity.” You may see that your dog’s growling is accompanied by barking and lunging too. You’re certainly not alone in this challenge. Many dogs have reactivity issues. It can feel overwhelming and frustrating. A professional trainer can offer you support and personalized advice to help your dog.
If you’d like help creating an effective management and training plan to help your dog’s growling, click here to talk with one of our behavior consultants.
Alisa lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and two dogs, Ruby and Lazlo. She loves exploring local nature preserves, creating new vegetarian dishes, and reading a good novel. Alisa is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, and has a wide range of training experience from shelters, to youth programs to dog sports. She’s very passionate about agility, and uses her blog, The Kindred Canine, as an outlet for this obsession.