Your Guide to Canine Growling

Dog Growling
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Dogs communicate in a variety of ways; one common strategy is growling. Depending on the context, a growl can be anything from a sign of enthusiastic play to a warning of an impending attack. It is important to understand why your dog growls and when you need help retraining this behavior.

While growling does not necessarily indicate a problem, it can be an important sign of escalating aggression and may not be something you can handle on your own. A fearful or aggressive growl warrants immediate intervention with a veterinarian and possibly referral to a veterinary behaviorist or positive reinforcement trainer.

Dogs who bite without warning often have been punished for growling in the past; this makes them more likely to skip the warning growl and go right to the attack. Rather than punishing your dog for growling, work with a professional to teach your dog strategies for coping with stressful situations.

Keep in mind that depending on the context, growling doesn’t always mean an unfriendly dog. Here are some common reasons your dog might growl.

Growling in Play

Dogs often growl during friendly play with other canines. This type of growling is higher-pitched and shorter in length than other growls. Watch for the proper play signals in your canine to ensure the interaction is friendly and conduct frequent breaks in play to keep arousal levels low.

Your dog may also growl when he plays with you. Structured tug is a great way to bond with your dog, but it must be done with rules like “drop it” and no teeth on human skin. Pay attention to your dog’s body language while you play, as sometimes growling can indicate discomfort. Avoid rough play with hands and physical wrestling. If you are unsure about the distinction between acceptable play interactions and aggression, seek help from a professional.

Your dog may also growl while dreaming, with occasional yips or muffled barks. This is a benign doggy sleep behavior and is nothing to worry about.

Growling as a Warning

A dog who is afraid of something will growl to fend off potential harm; the message is that the dog will defend himself if necessary. The growl is your dog’s way of defusing a potentially dangerous situation before it escalates to a bite or a fight. Some dogs may growl at any unfamiliar person, while others will respond only to specific types of people, like men with beards, or at sights they are uncomfortable with, such as a horse. In this case, remedial socialization help is needed.

Your dog’s growling may also be associated with resource guarding; he may be protecting food, toys or people, or his favorite places, like a sleeping space. Even with the best management plan in place, a guarding dog may escalate his aggression, which is why this behavior calls for professional intervention.  

Your dog may growl when he is handled, either because he is uncomfortable or afraid. He may growl when his collar is grabbed, his toenails are trimmed, his ears touched or his mouth opened. He may also be uncomfortable with direct eye contact, a person leaning over him, hugs or other forward greetings.

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