Why Do Dogs Growl?
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz May 01, 2020
The sound of a dog’s growl can be chilling. It can be especially alarming when it comes from our beloved pet. This article will discuss the many reasons why dogs growl and why sometimes growling can be a good thing. By improving our ability to communicate with our dogs, we can minimize negative experiences and provide a safe home for our pets and families.
What Is A Growl?
A growl is a low-frequency guttural vocalization that dogs use to communicate. This sound is produced in the throat when air enters the larynx and passes over the vocal cords, causing them to vibrate and produce noise.
Do All Dogs Growl?
Every dog has the ability to growl. However dogs are individuals and will vary in how often they growl, what causes them to growl, and what their growl sounds like. More fearful dogs may have a lower threshold for what triggers them to growl, as opposed to more confident dogs. Dogs that have been punished for growling in the past may be less likely to growl in the future (but may be more likely to advance to biting to communicate their displeasure). Some breeds are known to be more vocal, such as huskies, and may growl quite often as a way to ‘talk’ with their humans.
What Affects The Sound Of A Dog’s Grow?
Dogs have the ability to alter the pitch, formant, and duration of their growls to portray different meanings. In general, growls associated with aggression are longer in duration than those associated with play (Taylor et al., 2009). The size of the dog can also affect the sound of their growl. Larger dogs typically have longer vocal cords, causing their growls to have a lower pitch and different temporal structure (Riede and Fitch, 1999). Dogs and humans can read the sound of the growl and the context of situation and react accordingly.
Why Do Dogs Growl?
Growling is a simple way for dogs to communicate their feelings with us and other dogs. Growls may be used in a variety of contexts, both negative and positive, and are discussed in further detail below.
- Social conflict
We probably most often think of growling as being an aggressive behavior. Dogs use growling to communicate during displays of aggression with threatening individuals. Research has shown that dogs will use the sound of their opponent’s growl to determine whether or not to engage in a fight. Since the sound of a dog’s growl is linked to body size, dogs can size up their opponent without risking physical injury. Dogs are more likely to engage aggressively with dogs they perceive to be smaller than them, giving them the advantage in the fight (Taylor et al., 2010). By using growls to estimate body size, dogs can minimize their chance of injury and increase their odds of gaining food, territory, or social rank. If the social conflict does advance into a fight, growls may continue, often in combination with other vocalizations such as barking or yelping.
- Resource guarding
Dogs can be protective of their food, toys, or any other item they deem valuable and may use growling as a threat to keep others away. Territory can also be viewed as a resource that dogs may work to protect. This could include your dog’s favorite lying place in your home or even your backyard. These growls are typically accompanied by stiff body language and bared teeth (Borchelt, 1983).
Throughout a dog’s life they may be subjected to fearful events. Often these events are necessary to provide proper care such as visits to the vet or groomer. As pet parents, it is important that we teach our pets that these experiences are not something to be feared. If dogs aren’t properly accustomed to these events, they may growl towards us, the vet, or the groomer to communicate their fear. Some other instances that may trigger fearful growling include being approached by a stranger or when a dog is put into a situation in which they feel trapped such as a pet carrier. Other behaviors that may accompany fear-based growling are defensive postures such as tucking their tail, putting their ears back, or hovering (Borchelt, 1983).
Dogs may also growl out of frustration. If you’re a dog owner, chances are you have experienced this sort of growling before if your dog has lost a toy or kibble under the couch. Dogs will vocalize to express their frustration of being unable to retrieve their valuable item. If they learn that this growling gets their owner to help them, they will be more likely use growls to ask us for help again in the future. Dogs may also growl to get our attention if there are asking to go outside and are being ignored.
Growling when being handled or petted can be important indicators of pain in dogs (Mathews, 2000). If a dog is sore from an injury, they may wince and growl when that area is touched. If a dog has an upset stomach they may growl at us when we’re putting on their harness or when we try to pick them up as a way to tell us “Ouch, that hurts!”.
Growling is typically associated with aggression or other negative emotional states. However, this is not always the case! Dogs will also growl to communicate pleasure and excitement. A great example is growling during a game of tug of war. Dogs may also growl during play fights with other dogs. We can distinguish these growls from aggressive growls by reading the context of the situation. Happy growls are typically associated with loose body language and other play behaviors such as play-bows or bouncy, exaggerated movements. Research has shown that dogs have the ability to recognize the difference between playful growls and threatening growls based on their sound alone (Faragó et al., 2010)!
When Should I Be Concerned About My Dog’s Growling?
Dog parents have a responsibility to understand why our dog is growling. If you notice a sudden increase in growling from our dog, especially when being petted or handled, it is important that we take our dog to the vet to address the underlying issue. Your dog may be in pain and growling is their way of telling you that they don’t feel well.
We should also pay attention to what triggers our dog to growl. If we notice patterns such as growling when we approach their bones, we should adapt ourselves accordingly. This is especially important if children are around as they may risk being injured by a territorial dog. If we know a dog is defensive of it’s food or certain toys, we can be sure to feed them in a protected place or we can remove those toys when children are coming to visit to help reduce stress for the dog or injury to a child. From a young age, children should be taught to leave a growling dog alone in order to prevent bites.
What Can I Do If My Dog Growls At Strangers?
If your dog is growling at strangers this is likely related to fear. New people can be stressful for dogs as they don’t know how they may behave. By increasing your dog’s confidence around new people, you may decrease the likelihood of them growling. Make sure any interactions your dog may have with strangers are positive and not forced. If your dog growls at strangers passing by on walks, consider bringing treats along and feeding them to your dog as a distraction while the stranger passes by. Overtime your dog may start to associate the sight of strangers with treat time and may be less likely to growl. Don’t allow strangers to interact with your dog if your dog is growling and showing other signs of discomfort.
How Can I Train My Dog To Stop Growling?
It’s critical to understand that growling is a form of communication from our dog and should not be punished in any way. Instead, we should work to understand what is causing the dog to growl and explore ways to adapt the environment to make the dog more comfortable. We can ask ourselves the following questions to help determine why our dog is growling.
- Is the dog engaging in play while growling? Are they showing loose, relaxed body language, and other play postures such as play bows? If so, this growling is likely positive and is nothing to worry about.
- Is the dog in possession of food or a toy? If so, the best option is to respect the dog’s space and avoid taking the food or toy away from them. If the resource does need to be removed from the dog, do so by enticing them away with a more desirable item.
- Is the dog in a fearful situation? If your dog is growling due to fear of new people or husbandry procedures, try not to force the dog into these situations. Instead, let your dog work on their own pace and try to make these experiences positive using praise and rewards
- Does your dog growl when being touched? This could be a sign of pain and a vet should be consulted.
Overall, the best option to get your dog to not growl is to avoid the stimulus that is causing them to growl. If this can’t be avoided and you are worried about the dog becoming more aggressive please consider consulting with a professional behaviorist.
What To Do If You Come Across A Growling Dog
If you happen to come across a growling dog, you should proceed with caution. It is likely that the dog is fearful and could potentially be injured. Here are some steps to consider:
- Do not approach the dog!
- Remain calm and move away from the dog in a predictable manner.
- Make sure the dog doesn’t feel trapped or threatened by your presence by giving the dog plenty of space and avoiding direct eye contact.
- Move to a safe location.
- If the dog is a stray, call the appropriate authorities to report the dog.
- Direct the authorities to the dog so they can provide the appropriate care to the animal.
Growling is a natural behavior that dogs use to communicate their feelings. Improving our communication with our dogs can help ensure that all of our loved ones stay safe including our pets, our families, and ourselves!
Riede, T., & Fitch, T. (1999). Vocal tract length and acoustics of vocalization in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Journal of Experimental Biology, 202(20), 2859-2867.
Taylor, A. M., Reby, D., & McComb, K. (2009). Context‐related variation in the vocal growling behaviour of the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Ethology, 115(10), 905-915.
Taylor, A. M., Reby, D., & McComb, K. (2010). Size communication in domestic dog, Canis familiaris, growls. Animal Behaviour, 79(1), 205-210.
Borchelt, P. L. (1983). Aggressive behavior of dogs kept as companion animals: classification and influence of sex, reproductive status and breed. Applied Animal Ethology, 10(1-2), 45-61.
Faragó, T., Pongrácz, P., Range, F., Virányi, Z., & Miklósi, Á. (2010). ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour, 79(4), 917-925.
Mathews, K. A. (2000). Pain assessment and general approach to management. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 30(4), 729-755.