By John Gilpatrick
We’ve been conditioned by movies and TV for decades to believe that a growling dog is an aggressive dog, and while that might be true in some cases, behaviorists say this is very often not the case.
The truth is that dogs tend to growl because they’re afraid of something, not because they want to go on the offensive against it, says Linda Case, owner of AutumnGold Consulting and Dog Training Center in Illinois.
“Growling is often a warning for you to stay back,” Case says, “but it’s generally more because they’re fearful. Maybe they feel cornered, or perhaps, because of their history, they are afraid of physical reprimand.”
Katelin Thomas, an associate certified dog behavior consultant and owner of K9 Turbo Training in Michigan, says growling is often a late response to something frightening in the dog’s environment.
“By the time we get to the point where the dog is growling, we’ve probably let his discomfort go too far,” she says. “There are earlier signs—the tongue flicks, the body stiffens, ears go back, you see the whites of the dog’s eyes—that tend to happen before the growl. If the growl happens, we either missed the other signals or the reaction happened very quickly.”
If you spot these early symptoms or your dog does start to growl, it’s important to identify the cause and either remove it from your dog’s environment or remove your dog from its environment. Here are five common reasons why your dog is growling.
They Don’t Like What’s About to Happen
Dogs pick up on patterns. They tend to know when they’re going for a walk and when it’s time to eat, and as you start to get ready for those activities, you’ll often see your dog’s energy spike. They’re about to have some fun or get something good.
The opposite is true, as well. Growling can be a common response when dogs don’t like what’s about to happen, Thomas says. “You might see it at a vet office, when they don’t want the tech to get near, or they don’t want their nails trimmed, so they growl at the vet.”
They Don’t Know What’s About to Happen
Just as common are dogs who growl because something unfamiliar is taking place or something or someone unfamiliar has entered their space.
“A man might wear a hat, and they’ve never seen the hat before,” Thomas says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean something bad has happened before that they associate with the hat. It just means they aren’t familiar with it and therefore treat it with some natural skepticism.”
Extensive socialization when a dog is young will help prevent many of these situations, but if you’ve adopted an older dog, be aware that something familiar to you could be brand new and scary for him.
They’re Resource Guarding
Dogs might also ask for space around what they see as their food or their toy, especially when it comes to other dogs.
“It’s very common for rescue dogs, because the shelter environment often has them housed so closely together, to learn to resource guard and take that into a new home,” Case says. “You also tend to see it in dogs that have a history of neglect or dogs that have run free for an extended period of time. Some dogs also are just predisposed to this type of behavior.”
But resource guarding can be dangerous if it goes too far. Your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist, or a knowledgeable trainer can help you teach your dog to relax around food or toys.
Dogs can’t use words to tell you when they’re in pain, so they may growl. It’s up to you to spot other clues that let you know something is wrong.
Case says one of these clues is growling when you touch a specific area. Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor for petMD, adds that “the more obvious symptoms of pain include limping and growling or yelping when touched, but sometimes the signs are more subtle. Dogs who hurt may pant, be reluctant to do things they usually love, not eat normally, or simply withdraw from family life.”
While it’s ideal if you identify and treat pain before it gets to this point, if you notice growling for this reason, it’s time to visit your vet.
They’re Having Fun!
Some dogs also tend to growl when they’re having a really good time, Case says. This type of growling is often seen when dogs are playing with one another or if the play is associated with tug toys.
“Play growling is a pretty harmless expression of feelings, and context and body language make it pretty easy to identify play as the source of the growling,” Case adds.
Play growling should still be monitored closely, however. “Sometimes, puppies will play too rough, and that induces an aggressive response,” Case says. If you suspect this, it’s time to separate the dogs.
What to Do About Dog Growling
Because growling generally indicates something unpleasant in a dog’s environment, it’s important not to dissuade your dog from communicating this emotion, Thomas says.
“What you want to do is remove the dog from the situation and make a note of what specifically might have caused the growling and address that later in training,” she says.
Whether it’s a nail clipper, the scale, or some new piece of furniture, try slowly conditioning your dog to accept the item. If he remains relaxed in its presence, give him a high-value treat, like chicken. If he chooses to eat and remain actively engaged with you, the conditioning is working. It’s vital that you identify what is making your dog uncomfortable so you can help him learn how to deal with similar situations in the future.
“Give the dog a lot of choice,” Thomas says. “That’s how you know if they’re ready or not. If they want to keep going, make sure you do plenty of reinforcing with treats and by telling them how much fun this thing is.”
The sooner you get on top of the situation, the better, Coates says. “The longer a behavior continues, the harder it is to change. Don’t wait to address your dog’s growling.”
If the conditioning and reinforcing isn’t working, if the cause of growling is another pet or person in the household, or if your dog is truly acting in an aggressive manner (lunging, snapping, biting, etc.),Thomas recommends consulting with a certified professional trainer or veterinary behaviorist to identify and address the issues.