Understanding Your Dog’s Growl

January 22, 2014

By Langley Cornwell

When we first introduced our most recent dog into the family (consisting of two humans, one resident dog and one cat), we noticed that he growled a good bit. At the time, he was trying to get his bearings and learning how to assimilate into our routines so we weren’t necessarily worried about the growling. Even so, it was disconcerting. Because I wanted to reach a state of harmony as quickly as possible, my first instinct was to correct his behavior. That would have been the wrong thing to do. It’s important to understand why your dog is growling rather than immediately try to hush him.

Why do dog’s growl?

Dogs are expressive animals, which is one of the things we love about them. They communicate when they are happy or sad; they communicate when they are nervous, fearful or angry. We mostly understand what a dog is communicating by observing his face, ears and body posture. When a dog growls, however, the reason can be ambiguous to us. Why is he growling? Is he going to attack someone or something?

A dog growls in order to communicate, and as responsible pet owners it’s important for us to try and understand what prompted the growling. Generally, a growl indicates that your dog is unhappy, uncomfortable or afraid. He may be reacting to a perceived threat, or he may simply be playing. In fact, growling is divided into three escalating categories: play-based growls, fear-based growls and growls of warning before aggressive or defensive action is taken.

What are the types of growling?

1) Play-based growling should not be a cause for concern; it’s the way some dogs express pleasure. In fact, you’ve probably seen puppies growling at each other during rough play like tug-of-war or wrestling. To make sure play-based growling doesn’t escalate into a problem, periodically stop the activity that is causing the dog to growl and issue a common command. “Sit” or “drop it” are good in this situation. When the dog obeys the command, reward him with a high quality treat like CANIDAE Life Stages Bakery Snacks. After that, you can resume play time. These periodic breaks teach your dog the difference between full-out roughhousing and stopping on command to take a break.

2) Fear-based growling is a dog’s way of saying “back-off.” He could be fearful or nervous, or he may be resource-guarding. If the person or animal that elicited the growl respects the dog’s wishes, then the situation is quickly resolved.

3) Growling that indicates imminent aggressive or defensive behavior is serious. It’s time to remove your dog from the situation and/or remove the cause of irritation before this growl escalates into aggressive action.

What should you do?

When your dog growls, try to determine what he’s growling about. Take note of where your dog is and whether there are other dogs (or children or cats) around. Observe the dog’s body language. Notice whether you were petting or grooming him, looking directly in his eyes, restraining him, or taking away a toy or treat. Put on your detective hat and thoroughly analyze the circumstances surrounding the incident. If your dog’s growling has escalated into a real problem, you may want to journal your observations to determine common growling triggers and work out solutions.

Armed with this information, you can usually piece together what’s bothering the dog and who or what is causing the aggression. Then you can change the triggers and use preventive measures so it doesn’t happen again. When in doubt, consult your veterinarian to eliminate health problems and find a good animal trainer/behaviorist to help.

Photos by smerikal

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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  1. Jeff says:

    Our chihuahua growls a lot and it was difficult to understand at first because she growled at everything, even while enjoying belly rubs. Over time now we’ve come to understand her language and understand it’s just how she talks, tells us what she likes and doesn’t like and she’s never used it as an aggression tool. In fact with small children she’s very submissive, it’s really cute.
    Without us as humans taking the time to learn this or had she been rescued by others that wouldn’t have been as dog educated she may have faced some real challenges if not turned back into the rescue.