Why Dogs Growl and How to Address Your Pup’s Vocalizations

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Hearing your dog growl can be scary. We love our four-legged best friends as part of the family, but sometimes their communication can be confusing. What does the growl mean — is it a sign of aggression? Did we do something wrong as owners? Is it going to lead to a bite?

We’re here to help! Here’s a look at why your dog might growl in certain situations and how you can keep everyone safe and comfortable.

First things first: Growling is normal canine communication

Dogs don’t speak a symbolic verbal language like we humans do — but they still communicate with us in many ways. While body language usually comes first in a canine conversation, various sounds serve different communication purposes too!

It’s perfectly normal for your dog to growl on occasion depending on the situation and context at hand. A growl often means your companion is feeling uncomfortable and is trying to let you know right away — before escalating to more extreme aggression displays like lunging, snapping, or actually biting.

Growling can mean multiple different things

Just like barking and whining, your dog’s growls can communicate a range of different things. Here are some of the most common causes of growls.

Play growling

Growling usually has a negative connotation that makes owners worry about aggression. This is for good reason — it’s best to err on the side of caution if you’re ever around a canine who’s growling — but sometimes your dog’s grumbles can actually be a positive thing!

Many dogs growl during play when they’re enjoying the game, either while wrestling with another dog or tugging with their owner. A big part of canine play is ritualized expressions of behaviors like running, chasing, barking, and nipping. Play is how puppies learn valuable skills like body awareness and bite inhibition, and it’s how wild wolves start to develop their hunting abilities.

If your dog growls during a play context with loose body language — and if the game seems reciprocal (all dogs or humans involved are taking turns and having a good time) there’s no cause for concern. These playful growls do not mean your dog is aggressive. They don’t mean your pet is dangerous. They just mean your companion is a canine having fun! Their vocalizations are a sign of happiness.

(You can read more about your dog’s body language in this article. If you ever can’t tell if what you’re watching is appropriate play or not, it’s a good idea to call your dog away to be on the safe side and consider getting in touch with a professional trainer who can help you interpret their signals.)

Growling out of pain

Many dogs are stoic when they’re hurt — this used to provide an evolutionary advantage prior to their domestication to live alongside humans — but it’s also normal for your dog to whine, cry, or growl in the context of pain.

This is especially likely if your dog never used to growl but has started doing it all of a sudden, or if the growls most often occur when your dog moves or is touched in a certain way. Think about a human with a sore muscle saying “ow!” when their partner bumps into them. Your dog might be expressing a similar thing.

If you suspect your dog is growling out of pain, get them in for a full veterinary check as soon as you can. No training plan will be effective if your pet is struggling with their health.

Resource guarding

Growling is a common symptom of resource guarding behavior. It’s natural for our dogs to be possessive of their belongings both with dogs and humans — but it’s important they can safely share toys, treats, and other items with other people and pets.

Resource guarding growling typically occurs in the following contexts:

  • When your dog has a high value item (like a favorite chew or bone) or is resting in a favorite spot (like a couch or chair)
  • And another person or dog approaches them
  • And they’re afraid that other person or dog is going to take away what they have

This type of warning growl display is usually accompanied by stiff body language, possible whale eye (showing the whites of their eyes), and baring their teeth. Your dog is essentially trying to protect their possession by telling the perceived threat to go away.

You can learn more about resource guarding in the context of food aggression in this piece.

Defensive growling

Dogs also growl when they experience fear or anxiety. Have you ever seen a porcupine “puff up” to make something scary go away, even though they’re really just scared themselves? That’s what growling displays can often be like in our pets.

If your dog growls when other dogs or people approach them quickly, when something startling happens in the environment (like a person on a bicycle riding past without warning), or in other situations that make them nervous, there’s a good chance they’re reacting defensively — even though the vocal communication sounds like an aggressive growl — and are trying to ask for more personal space.

You can learn more about fear aggression in this article. We also have a whole blog article about various types of reactivity in dogs here, depending on your pet's behavior and the contexts it shows up in!

What to do about your dog’s growling

If you’re concerned about your dog’s growling, the best way to address it is to

  1. Identify the root cause
  2. Treat those underlying issues

In the immediate moment that your dog reacts to something, do whatever you can to distract or remove them from the situation. This might look like crossing the street on a walk, deciding against taking their bone away, or removing your hand if you seem to be petting a sore spot.

Once everyone has calmed down, you can start thinking about how to prevent the growling (and the discomfort at the root of it) from occurring again.

Figure out what’s causing your dog to growl

We went over some common types of growls in the previous section. Spend a few minutes thinking about the situations and contexts that cause your dog to growl and try to figure out what the root cause might be. Are there consistent triggers to the growls? Do they occur only in certain environments or with certain people? Consider keeping some sort of journal or daily log to help you identify patterns.

Change your environment or the situations you put your dog in

Sometimes your dog’s growling doesn’t require any kind of training — it might just be a sign that you need to change something up in your environment. Every dog is an individual with their own temperament and preferences. Some dogs simply aren’t comfortable in certain situations, and that’s okay!

Here are a few examples to think about:

  • If your dog growls when strangers pet them without warning, consider if that’s really something they need to handle in your everyday life. Do they need to be comfortable being touched 100 percent of the time? Or could you stop people from approaching before you get the chance to gauge your dog’s body language to see if they’re excited about a greeting?
  • Similarly, if your dog growls when they’re handled in a certain way, they might just be telling you they don’t like that particular type of touching. This is common in families who have young children. It’s perfectly reasonable for a dog to express discomfort when their ears or tail are pulled! It’s important to teach both dogs and kids appropriate forms of communication and boundaries.
  • Some dogs have natural territorial instincts. It’s important to manage them carefully — you need to be able to maintain control when strangers arrive on your property, of course — but it’s not always realistic to expect our pets to completely give up their innate responses. If your dog grumbles a little when a new person knocks on your door, consider how much vocalization you’re comfortable with and what might be a fair compromise.

There are also ways you can manage your dog’s growling in the meantime, while you also think about a long-term behavioral modification plan if necessary. This might look like:

Develop a long-term behavioral modification plan

If your dog’s growling suggests an underlying problem that you need to fix — for example, if they growl at every stranger as opposed to simply expressing discomfort at being touched in a certain way — you’ll want to develop a long-term behavioral modification plan to help them feel better about the world around them.

This might involve:

What not to do when your dog growls

Growling is valuable canine communication! You should never punish your dog for growling for a few important reasons:

  • If you punish your dog for growling, they will stop showing the growling behavior — but their underlying emotions won’t change. This means that next time they feel uncomfortable, they might skip growling and go straight to escalating on the ladder of aggression.
  • If you create an even more negative association with the things that make your dog growl by punishing them, you risk piling onto their existing difficult emotions and ultimately making situations harder to train through. Think about it: If every time your dog sees another dog they feel scared and growl, and then you get mad at them, now they think that other dogs are scary to start with but also that they make their owner upset too. That’s not a cycle you want to be in! You want triggers to eventually be associated with happiness.

When in doubt, contact a professional trainer

Growling is normal in many circumstances. If your dog only growls on occasion, and if it’s easy to figure out what they’re trying to tell you, there’s no cause for concern.

If your dog growls often, though — or if you’re struggling to identify the cause of their vocalizations — a professional force free trainer can help. They’ll get to know your individual dog, help you understand what situations trigger their negative emotions, and equip you with resources to improve everyone’s comfort in the long run.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Erica Marshall CPDT-ka, CDBC
Owner/Trainer of Wicked Good Dog Training in Christiana TN
Author of "New Puppy, Now What?"
www.wickedgooddogtraining.com