Over the years I have worked with alot of growling dogs. The subject came up this morning with one of the dog lists I'm on. So I thought I would disect a growl. Dogs speak with their body and sound, first they signal with their body and if that doesn't work it is escalated to a growl. If your dog is growling at you; it means that you missed or ignored the first threatening body language which is a freeze. It can be very small but it's there.
Many people consider a growl to be just their silly grouchy dog; but what a growl tells you is that some work needs to be done. It may be that your dog considers themself to be the boss and is issuing orders; not good. A growl gives you alot of information; it can tell you that there is an order confusion in your pack or that they are very uncomfortable with what you are doing. Maybe the dog is new to the pack and close proximity makes them uncomfortable, maybe your growls only when you lean over them to put their collar on. Or perhaps your dog growls when someone enters the room they are eating in.
The old method of dealing with a growl use to be to alpha roll the growling dog. No matter what the reason was for the growl; this was the solution. This is one of the worst things you can do; it can further escalate the problem. Because a growl can come out of so many situations; there is no one answer to get rid of growling. I remember a friend of mine who is also a trainer; telling me a story of a little terrier who never growled, only bit. He had been taught to never growl by receiving a slap everytime he growled. So soon that communication signal was gone and he became an unpredictable biter. My friend started from the beginning and taught this boy to warn people with a growl again.
A growl is a heads up for you. Hey, I intend on enforcing a rule; or I am uncomfortable with this. When Luke was around the age of 9 mos old he growled at my son. My son was 10 at the time and tried to physically push Luke off of the couch; Luke wasn't having it and clearly considered himself above my son in the pack. I quickly moved in an got Luke off the couch and he was not allowed back on again for over 6 months. I had my son work with Luke and made a point of having my son beside me on the couch with Luke on the floor. There was no hitting, no yelling; just a simple "this is how it really is."
So now Luke will be 8 in August and still asks to come on the couch; which I believe all dogs should do.
Another very good example is growling when uncomfortable. Tilley; yes my amazing Lassie dog use to growl. She has never growled at a family member but she use to growl at men who came into our house. She was extremely uncomfortable with them in the house and would lurk around the back wall and growl. I'm glad she did because it let me know how uncomfortable she was; so that I addressed the situation head on. She now is drawn to men and is quite the flirt.
The important thing is to never ignore a growl, you could end up on the receiving end of a bad bite. Or worse still, someone else could get bitten. Listen to your dog.