Ever had a day where your hair just doesn’t look right, you forget your phone on the kitchen bench, there’s too much traffic, you get to work late, your partner calls to ask if you can run an extra errand and suddenly more than a few expletives come tumbling out of your mouth before you can stop them?
Stress works differently than a lot of us think, it isn't about a single situation (after all, that bad morning you had wasn't really that bad, was it?) What is important in these situations isn’t the stress itself, it's the ACCUMULATION of stress hormones.
Every time you encounter stress your body releases stress hormones like cortisol (thanks, body!). These hormones don’t leave our body just because the stressful situation passes, they tend to make camp and stick around, sometimes up to a few days. That means the next time you get stressed your body adds more cortisol to the amount already in your body. Get enough cortisol hanging out in the blood stream and it just takes something tiny (why is everyone calling me today?!!!) to send you over the edge (*throws phone*)
Dogs are exactly the same.
Remember this when your dog experiences stressful situations. Even if we have a few seemingly small events - a vet visit on Thursday morning, a thunderstorm Friday night, all the grandkids over on the Saturday... how much sneaky cortisol is hanging out waiting to send your dog over the edge? It can happen even during a single walk, it just takes a few small triggers to end up with enough cortisol and other stress hormones in the blood stream to make a dog feel like they just don’t have the patience to put up with something they’re normally OK with, and this is when a growl, snap or bite can happen.
Every dogs' 'threshold' for stress is different, but always remember we all need time to de-stress when we have a hard day. Just don't forget that includes your dog too.
If your dog growls, snaps or shows any sudden unusual behaviour, your first stop should be the vet. Pain, and especially chronic pain can create a multitude of different (generally undesirable) behaviours.
Older dogs in particular should be regularly checked by a vet, hip pain or arthritis in particular can take your dog from OK to growly with just one pat. After all, you probably don’t like people hugging or trying to play with you when your back is sore either!
3. You’ve punished the warning signs away (or don’t know how to recognise them)
Dogs do most of their communication via body language. In fact, they have so many non-verbal signals I could fill this entire page, but we’re all busy so let’s just name a few of the more common ones, these are called ‘displacement signals’, which is when your dog is trying to show you it feels uncomfortable or stressed:
Dry shake off
Head turning away (usually from another dog or human trying to interact)
Lifting up one paw
Dogs will use these subtler signs to ask you to move away before they bring out the more obvious ones like growling. In fact, they’ll almost always give a number of fiddle signs, before resorting to a growl. All those behaviours we deem ‘aggressive’ are just communication. It is up to you to know enough about dog body language to notice the lip lick, the paw lift and the freeze and act accordingly. It’s no different than coming home and reading the body language of your housemate and realising that he's in a terrible mood. Your behaviour will (and should) change to accommodate that mood. So you might forgo commenting on the unwashed dishes in the sink (you don’t want to add to their trigger stacking!) and instead just give them some time to cool off.
While us humans don’t like our dogs growling, if you tell your dog off ( the classic, ‘ah ah!’) they will stop growling. Congratulations, now I want you to take all the batteries out of your smoke alarm. If you punish the growl until it disappears then the likelihood of the bite ‘coming out of nowhere’ has just increased tenfold. I don’t know about you, but I prefer a warning signal I can’t miss!