“My dog growls at my kids." “My dog growls at strangers.”  “My dog growls if I try to take his bone.”

I get called for growling issues quite frequently because people think their dog is aggressive. Sometimes this is so and sometimes not. While growling can be very scary it’s not necessarily aggression and, in fact, not all growling is bad. There are many different forms of growling which I have put into six categories and, although it may sound funny, in many ways growling can even be good. So, before we worry about how to make the dog stop growling, let’s take a look at why the dog might be making these scary noises.

The 6 Types of Growling

  1. Play Growling: Dogs get into so much trouble due to the scary sounds they make when playing or wanting to play. I remember some clients about a year ago who were afraid to let me come into their house because of their “aggressive” dog. They had the dog on leash and he was lunging, growling and really putting on quite a show. I asked them to let him go and you should have seen the look on their faces. “Really? Are you sure?” they asked with eyes the size of saucers. The dog was aggressively playful but otherwise totally harmless. I got down on the floor and wrestled with him and played some tug-of-war with him. He was growling like crazy but definitely not aggressive. He was really just starving for someone to play with. Play growling can appear to be very ferocious to the novice dog owner. It can be heard in dog-dog play activities but also when playing tug-of-war or rough housing with humans. This is “good growling” and nothing to worry about. If things get too rowdy simply take a break or interrupt the dog’s play session. Let the energy come down before starting back up. If you are a novice dog owner you should consider finding a balanced dog trainer that has playgroups or puppy socialization classes to learn what is play behavior and what is not.
  2. Pleasure Growling: Some dogs will growl affectionately, when being petted, for example. They may also growl as a request for attention. This is usually a low growl with loose body language that owners tend to think seems like the dog is trying to talk. It may even sound like words such as “Wi wuv woo” and in a sense they are talking…they are communicating in a vocal fashion. Most people figure this out but sometimes they mistakenly think the dog is threatening them.
  3. Threat Growling: Threat growling is used when the dog wants to increase the distance between themselves and a perceived threat. This is seen in dogs that are fearful, territorial or possessive. For example, a dog may growl at people he doesn’t know because they scare him or because they have entered his property or because he has a bone. They are saying, “Go away!” and may bite in order to make that happen. This is concerning, especially with dogs known to bite. Threat growling can be very subtle to the untrained eye. It may be at low volume accompanied by a closed mouth, dilated pupils, stiff body language and no breathing. Owners often don’t recognize a threat unless it comes in high volume and a ferocious looking snarl. Once those fangs come out, pretty much everyone gets it! This is the point when people realize that their dog is not a furry baby but is, indeed, a predatory animal. Hey, I’m just sayin’…if your baby did that you would be calling an exorcist, not a behaviorist! As a pack oriented predatory animal, growling is hard-wired into all dogs, it does not need to be learned, they just do it instinctively. The interesting thing is, that as scary as it appears, this aggressive display is actually good because it serves as a safeguard against injury. Growling is a form of “ritualized aggression” which serves to maintain order in the pack with minimal injury. This is why most dog fights look and sound so horrific but in the end the dogs are covered in slobber, not blood. If you have ever seen true aggression, then you know how powerful a dog's jaws can be; they can tear flesh like it’s made of butter! It’s amazing that so few injuries happen considering the number of dogs there are. Unfortunately, domestic dogs sometimes lack bite inhibition and emotional control. This is why training and socialization are so critical.
  4. Aggressive Growling: Aggressive growling comes from a dog that intends to do harm and wants to decrease the distance between themselves and the object of their aggression. This can be the most dangerous but not always the most obvious. The most dangerous dogs are often the most subtle. These guys don't just want to make something go away, they are not fearful and not just putting on a show. They want to establish dominance, fight, attack or kill. Some dogs, just like some people, learn to enjoy fighting, they seek it out and look for a challenging opponent. Others have massive prey drive and want to hunt other animals. Most prey aggressive dogs are fine with other dogs but some seem to look at small dogs as if they think they are rabbits or squirrels. Far less common are the dogs that will seriously attack humans. Many dogs will bite but very few dogs will fight a human to any serious extent, that is why fatal dog attacks are so rare and usually involve children or the elderly. Maulings and fatal attacks also tend to involve packs of dogs, not single dogs. Hopefully you will never have to deal with aggressive growling but if you think your dog is in this category, even a little bit, you need professional help asap!  
  5. Frustration Growling: Frustration growling is often misinterpreted as aggression but it is more likely to be what trainers and behaviorists call "reactivity". This is generally some combination of play growling, threat growling and a general lack of frustration tolerance. It is similar to aggressive growling only in that the dog wants to get closer to the object of their desire (usually other dogs) but the intent is not to do harm. These dogs may want to chase something like bikes or skateboards but often just want to play, get some attention or investigate something. You have probably seen this in the form of a rabid looking dog lunging and snarling at the end of a tight leash. They can generally be seen towing a human behind them that is doing one of three things….hanging on for dear life, pulling on the leash saying “No, no, leave it” or waiving cookies in the dog's face saying “Watch me, watch me, watch me.” You may also see this in dogs that are behind barriers such as fences, windows or in cars. Sometimes people think their dog is aggressive due to these displays because the dog’s never had the opportunity to approach another dog or a stranger and they are afraid of what he might do. Other times it’s easy to recognize because the owners know the dog is fine when off-leash and barrier free. These dogs are generally not dangerous. They can, however, become aggressive or get themselves into a fight due to the frustration of being restrained. If allowed to approach while in that frustrated, overstimulated state, they may bite or nip or simply approach too abruptly which may not be appreciated by the dog or person on the receiving end of it. This may lead to a fight or a legal matter which could have been easily avoided with some training. If you have a dog like this, you just need to get some basic obedience and leash handling skills from a balanced trainer. The leash needs to be loose and the dog calmed down before allowing the greeting to happen. (See: DVD and Letting Dogs Meet: The Three Second Rule)
  6. Fight Growling: Fight growling is what you hear when dogs are fighting or when a play session is turning into a fight. It is difficult for the novice to tell the difference between rough playing and fighting between dogs but there is definitely a difference in tone and body language. New dog owners are so nervous when they first start coming to puppy class. They are constantly trying to stop their puppy from playing because they think they are fighting. A real dog fight, on the other hand, is totally unmistakable. I have never heard anybody witnessing a dog fight say, “Oh, they're just playing.” It’s knowing when they are just playing and when the playing is starting to turn aggressive that’s the trick to successful play sessions.

What’s Next?

So now I hope that you have a better understanding of growling and whether or not you need to do anything about it. The key takeaway is that not all growling is a problem, so you may not need to do much other than relax! On the other hand, some growling is very serious and needs to be addressed before someone gets hurt. What to do about correcting serious growling is a huge topic, way beyond the scope of this article, but if I could leave you with one tip it would be this: The growl itself is not the problem, it is a symptom of a problem, most likely many problems, and getting to the root of the problem is the best long term solution.

– Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

©  Thriving Canine 2014

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