Question: Our new addition is a 2-year old rescue with some behavioral issues. She often growls when our other dog (who we've had since she was a puppy) gets closer to us when we are snuggled with the rescue, or comes to us for attention when we are with the rescue. Sometimes the growl is low, but grows more menacing. We have read that correcting the growl can sometimes result in the dog skipping the growl and going straight into an aggressive action like biting. Is this growling about jealousy (since it often involves one of us humans nearby) and what's the best way to handle it?
Answer: So the first thing is, whoever told you that correcting growling is problematic was right. Growling is a courtesy that lets you and others know that the dog is unhappy and irritated. Second, this is definitely about jealousy and I would begin by not indulging the rescue dog with so much affection. I don’t know what his background is but if it’s been unstable then he can easily develop an excessive level of attachment to you. One way to respond when he starts with the growling is simply to put him off your lap and get up and walk away. While you are not reprimanding the growling you are dissolving the situation that’s contributing to the attitude shift and teaching him that acting out of that attitude will make the thing he’s trying to hold on to go away. Letting this sink in will take some time.
On a deeper level, when you are trying to manage dynamics in your pack it’s important to figure out which of the dogs is the more naturally dominant dog between them and adjust your relationship with them accordingly. That is, you want to be sure to treat the naturally more dominant dog preferentially in such a way that both dogs know it. That way you are reinforcing the social structure that they’ve already worked out between them. Trying to give preferential treatment to the “underdog” as a form of compensation for his lower social status will tend to lead to trouble. Once you’ve figured out the pecking order, help to enforce it. For instance if the “lower ranking” dog makes dominant overtures toward the higher ranking dog you should reprimand the lower ranking dog. Conversely, if the higher ranking dog is needlessly hassling the lower ranking dog, you can reprimand him as well. If you are sending all the signals to the higher ranking dog about his higher status then he should have no need to lord it over the other dog.
With respect to the situation you asked about, this would help to ensure that there’s no confusion about status and contribute to the lessening of tension in the situation described in your question.