Dog Growling
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.

Your dog’s growling could also be a sign of a medical condition. If your dog suddenly starts to growl when he is approached or touched, it may be a sign that he is in pain. Dogs with arthritis, abscessed teeth or other forms of illness or injury may experience increased pain when they are moved or are touched and will growl to avoid increased pain. A pet in pain is also more likely to bite than a healthy pet. Pregnant or lactating dogs, or dogs in false pregnancy, are more likely to be protective and defensive with people and other animals and are also more likely to growl at approaching humans.

All of these situations — growling when approached or handled and growling as part of resource guarding — require professional help. Talk with your veterinarian as soon as possible; have your pet’s health evaluated and, if necessary, ask for a referral to a behaviorist or trainer who can help you teach your dog strategies for coping with these situations.

Growling as a Form of Expression

Your dog may be using growls to communicate with you and with other dogs. Your dog may growl at another dog as a way of communicating — specifically, he may be telling the other dog to back off before a confrontation occurs. Many times, the other dog heeds the growl and gives your dog the space he desires. There are dogs, however, who will not back down when they are growled at; in this situation, a fight may ensue. If your dog’s warnings to back off go unheeded, his growling may increase into other aggressive behaviors, making it difficult for him to be around other canines. Some dogs do best with only select doggy playmates, while others should be limited to socializing only with humans.

Your otherwise-friendly dog may also growl as an expression of barrier frustration. A dog on a leash may growl or bark when he is on leash or behind a fence, even if he is comfortable with other dogs when he is off leash. Dogs who growl in these situations need to be trained to relax when on leash or behind a fence, as territorial or frustration-based behavior can escalate over time. Your dog should never be chained up outside, as this can lead to extreme territorial and protective behavior, which puts the dog, other animals and people in danger.

For dogs who take awhile to warm up to visitors or are aggressive or fearful in certain situations, immediate intervention with a professional is warranted.

Finally, even though your dog uses growls to communicate with you, don’t try growling at your dog yourself. Forty-one percent of dogs responded aggressively when they were growled at by a human, according to a study done at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Surprisingly, growling at a dog elicited even more aggression than an alpha roll. Rather than trying to dominate your dog, talk with your veterinarian, who may advise you to seek help from a professional who specializes in positive reinforcement training.