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What Dogs Growl Mean

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Many people ask me about why dogs growl and what it means, Dog growling is not always aggression, its a form of communication in different situations and you as an owner need to learn how to read the body language and the situation it is happening to take a decision to address to it or simply leave it.

There’s no mistaking the low menacing rumble of a dog’s growl. Dogs use this vocalization in all kinds of situations from guarding their favorite bone to playing tug-of-war. But what is the underlying motivation for growling? Is it aggression, fear, bossiness, or something else? And what can you do about it? Read on to learn why dogs growl, what it means, and how to handle it.

Dogs try to communicate with people in different ways, one of which is growling. As pet owners, we often assume that dog growling is a signal of displeasure or aggression, but it isn’t always that simple. There are a range of things that your dog may be trying to convey when they make these growling noises, and if you listen closely, they may not all sound exactly the same.

Why do dogs growl?

Dog growling is simply a method of communication – it’s your dog trying to tell you something. Dogs growl to communicate lots of different things, from fear and aggression to encouraging play. That’s why you need to understand the types of dog growl to interpret what the sound means.

Always pay attention to the situation that your dog is in when they growl. You may find that your dog makes different types of growling sounds in different situations, and learning to recognise the circumstance of each dog growl will help you to identify what it is your dog is trying to say. Those sounds may seem similar to us, but it’s all about context! Where one growl may be saying: ‘I feel threatened’, another could be saying: ‘I’m having fun!’

Dog growling when playing

You may have noticed your dog growling during play. It can seem strange when dogs do this – why would they suddenly make a sound of aggression when you’re having fun together? The simple answer is: they aren’t!

This type of dog growling indicates that your pet is having fun; your dog might even be trying to tell you that they want to keep on playing! Although it’s hard for the human ear to pick up on subtle differences in dog growling, play growls can be distinguished from other more aggressive types of growl.

Although every dog is different and has its own vocal range and individual ‘voice’, in general dog play growls will sound higher pitched than other kinds of growling. They will also often be shorter and may be accompanied by body languages like bounding motions, or your dog bending down onto their front legs, raising their rear-end in the air.

Don’t be intimidated if a dog growls during play, with either a person or with another dog. Do keep an eye on the situation in case it escalates, but usually growling during play indicates that a dog is just having fun.

Aggressive dog growling

Aggressive dog growling is all about an expression of power. A dog might be trying to establish their position as the ‘alpha’ over another animal, or they may have spotted something that has triggered their natural hunting instinct. It’s important to not encourage this kind of dog growling and to try to separate your pet from what is triggering their aggression. Always be cautious and take into account the situation your pet is in when dealing with aggressive dog growling.

It is usually quite clear when a dog is growling out of aggression as opposed to when they’re having fun. This type of dog growling is distinguished by being quite loud, with long, low, rumbles. Your pet’s posture might also change, with raised hackles and lunging movements.

Dog growling as a warning

This deep, rumbling type of growl usually occurs when a dog feels threatened or possessive. Why do dogs growl as a warning? In most cases, it is because you are encroaching on their personal space. This type of growl isn’t intended to be aggressive – it’s a polite warning to show that a dog is feeling uncomfortable.

Don’t ignore warning growls: pay attention to whatever it is that is causing your dog to feel threatened or afraid, and try to remove the cause of the issue. Your dog doesn’t want to escalate the situation, they are simply trying to tell you: ‘please give me space!’

Pleasure growling

Although dogs don’t exactly make audible sounds in the same way that cats purr when they are experiencing pleasure, you may have noticed your pet make a strange sort of purr-come-growl sound upon occasion.

A pleasure growl sounds very low and rumbling and may last much longer than other dog growls. It’s relatively clear from the situation your pet is in if they are emitting a pleasure growl: if they are having their belly rubbed or something else they really enjoy! They might be baring their teeth and technically ‘growling’, but this type of dog growling couldn’t be further from the typical interpretation of an aggressive growl. What your dog is saying here is: ‘I love this! Please don’t stop!’

Frustrated dog growling

Have you ever arrived home to a dog desperate to see you, but you’re separated by a fence? In this kind of situation, dogs often start growling. It’s easy to misinterpret this growling as aggressive because your pet will also be running around anxiously.

Your dog is in pain.

Most dogs are incredibly stoic, and it can be difficult to tell that they are in pain or not feeling well. Nevertheless, growling can be an indication of pain or illness.

Some dogs who are in pain or sick will only growl when you physically touch them, but others may do so if you only come close to a sore hip or paw — physical contact may not even be necessary.

Note that because we may be are unaware that anything is wrong with our pooch, these types of growls can seem somewhat surprising.

If your dog’s growling is caused by pain or illness, you may notice the following clues:

Sudden change in behavior

Growling or snapping at movement around her

Growling or snapping at the touch

How to Tell the Difference

How can you tell the difference between happy growls and stress growls? Look at body language. For instance, if your dog is giving you a submissive grin or play bows, then it’s likely any growling is just fine. If your dog seems stiff and is staring with a hard expression, that growl is serious.

When you know a dog well, sometimes the tone of the growl can help too. A loud, higher-pitched growl might tell you something different from a soft, lower-pitched one. However, when in doubt, act as if the growl is a threat. Especially with dogs you aren’t friends with, it’s better to mistakenly end a fun game than misjudge and wind up injured. Particularly with young children, teach them to treat all growls with caution.

Don’t Punish Growling

Hopefully, you now recognize that you should never correct growling. It’s either benign or a symptom of stress in your dog. If you punish your dog for growling, you will only inhibit growling. You won’t have done anything to address the underlying issue. For example, punishing your dog for growling in the presence of other dogs will stop the growling. However, your dog will still feel uncomfortable around other dogs and also around you which is worse. Even worse, the lack of growling might fool you into thinking otherwise. Meanwhile, your dog is still stressed and just might snap without the benefit of a warning.

Unfortunately, when you punish your dog for growling, you also exacerbate the underlying issue. For example, if your dog growls at another dog and you punish the growling, your dog will likely think the other dog caused your negative action. Now your dog’s discomfort will be even stronger. After all, other dogs bring about your anger.

How to Handle Growling

The most effective way to deal with growling is to determine what’s bothering your dog and then treat that underlying issue. First, in the immediate moment, do whatever you can to change the situation to suit your dog. If your pet is stressed by the presence of another dog, cross the street, leave the dog park, or do whatever you need to do to help your dog relax. If it’s coming too close to your dog’s bone, back off and let them be.

Next, determine what specifically led to the growling. For the time being, if you can eliminate that situation from your dog’s life, do so. For example, if other dogs stress your dog, don’t take them to the dog park. If your dog guards their bones, stop giving them bones, and so on.

Finally, permanently address the growling with a behavior modification program. Techniques such as desensitization and counterconditioning can change your dog’s attitude toward the underlying issue that caused the growling in the first place. For your dog’s sake and your own safety, you need to help your dog become comfortable with the things that once caused them so much stress. These aren’t overnight solutions and might require the assistance of a dog trainer or animal behaviorist. But if you manage your dog’s environment while you help them become comfortable with their stressors, ideally, they will never feel the need to stress growl again. But if they do, now you’ll know how to handle it.

Here we will give you links to one of our preferred Trainer and Behaviour Modificator Michael Ellis, check his videos



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