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Labrador Retriever mix makes a growling/groaning noise

My 3-year-old Labrador Retriever mix is eager to please and very obedient. However, when I ask for her paw or tell her to lie down, she will do it immediately but also makes a growling/groaning noise. She sometimes makes this noise while being petted with her tail wagging the whole while. I have read much on dominance, and think I am doing all the right things. Can you tell me what to do when she does what I ask but growls, too?

I don't think your dog is being "dominant" or disrespectful toward you. I think this is "background noise," which you may have accidentally reinforced, resulting in your dog becoming a "Chatty Cathy." Ignore her noises, and respond to her silences! The best way to reward "good" behavior is to clearly identify it and cause the instant it occurs to seem to be the turning point resulting in good things coming your dog's way. When she gets a behavior "right," identify the moment she is correct by "marking" the behavior with a sound, or secondary positive reinforcer, that promises primary positive reinforcement is impending.

"Clicker training" is a very popular, hands-off (no corrections or punishment) method that relies heavily on a secondary positive reinforcer (the clicker sound) that has been strongly associated with a primary positive reinforcer (usually food). At the instant a dog offers a desired behavior, the handler "marks" it with the secondary reinforcer, also known as the bridging stimulus. This makes it easy for the dog to identify the exact instant its behavior was "right" enough to earn a positive result, and it becomes very likely to offer the behavior more and more willingly.

I do basically the same thing, using a variety of primary positive reinforcers (play, touch, freedom, rest-whatever the dog seems most interested in at the moment) associated with a secondary sound ("good!"). When I want to see a dog repeat a behavior, I make it in the dog's best interests to do so by using my secondary sound at exactly the "right" instant. It is important for you to focus on your own dog's good behaviors and stop reinforcing (i.e., totally ignoring) the vocalizations. The problem is, if you ask your dog to sit and she complies and growls at the same time, you will be rewarding both behaviors if you positively reinforce!

If you were to stop giving commands that put you in the position of having both a desired and an undesired behavior happening at the same time, it would allow you to avoid the concern of reinforcing the unwanted with the wanted. Instead, once you have "built your bridge," associating the signal sound to the good stuff it will begin to promise, start interacting with your dog in ways that may inspire (but not prompt!) her to vocalize; when she does it, ignore her. When she does not, or when she stops, mark her silence "good!" and begin to pet or do whatever you do to make her feel good. Soon you will have effectively shaped her behavior into voluntary silence, at which time you could resume obedience training. Just be sure you are not rewarding her "back talk" with any of your own comments, or you will be teaching your dog to engage in conversations!


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