No owner wants to see his dog show his teeth at him, another person or another animal. However, when a dog shows his teeth, he is communicating valuable information: He is uncomfortable. To change this behavior, you must first understand the motivation.
Why Dogs Growl
Dogs show teeth for many reasons, many of them indicating some type of fear or guarding behavior. However, your dog also may growl because he is in pain. If a dog who has never demonstrated this behavior is suddenly doing so, don't start a training program without first contacting your veterinarian. Health problems may cause behavioral problems, and the sudden appearance of a new behavior is usually medically related. Maybe your dog is sick or in pain rather than showing fear or guarding.
Even if you eliminate health problems as the cause of the new behavior, do not punish your dog when she growls. She likely is indicating discomfort, such as feeling fear. If you punish, you may stop that behavior, but you will not stop the underlying discomfort. This means your dog may stop showing her teeth but may escalate the behavior to snapping or biting if whatever makes her uncomfortable continues.
Determine Underlying Motivation
Once you rule out health issues, you should determine why your dog is growling. When does he do it? If it is in the presence of new people or animals, this indicates fear. If it is when you try to take an object or move him from a spot, he is guarding. Training will depend on the motivation.
Desensitizing to Fearful Stimulus
If your dog shows her teeth when presented with a specific stimulus, such as children, strangers or dogs, desensitize your dog to the presence of that stimulus. For example, if she is afraid of children, invite a child to your home but keep the child far enough from the dog that the presence does not elicit a response. Reward her for looking at you and sitting politely rather than growling. If she does show her teeth, move her farther away so she can be successful. Keep sessions short, maybe only five minutes in the beginning. If your dog shows brave behavior such as moving toward the child to sniff, give lots of rewards. Eventually, your dog will be excited to see children. Don't let them pet her until she initiates contact. Make sure your dog feels safe. If she growls, move more slowly in your training.
Eliminate Guarding Behaviors
If your dog shows his teeth when you try to take an object from him or ask him to move, he is exhibiting guarding behavior. Never get into a physical confrontation with your dog. Instead, teach him to trade you and walk away from the item. Do this by asking him to "leave it" with items that are of low value. Hold the item in your hand and say "leave it." When your dog backs away, reward with the item or a favorite treat. Gradually build up to more high value items, always rewarding with something better. If your dog growls, you are moving too quickly. Teach your dog to go to a spot and stay there until you have picked up the guarded item and removed it. If your dog leaves the item alone, you can grab it and reward with something else.
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