A dog has many forms of vocalization and communication. There are high and low-pitched barks, yelps, yips, whines, and howls, and then there are growls. Yes, growling is just one more form of communication. Sometimes the growl can be scary, but to a dog, it is just a way to communicate. Like any other form of canine communication, a growl should be interpreted in the context that it occurs.
New puppy owners are sometimes startled when they are playing with their puppy and the puppy growls. Puppies, and adult dogs, frequently growl when they play, particularly when they are tugging on a toy. Dogs will sometimes growl when they are roughhousing with doggie playmates. The play growls often sound fierce and the dogs’ vocalizations can get very loud—to the level of sounding scary.
Some dogs even talk-growl, kind of a contented grumble. Rottweilers are known for “talking” with contented grumbly growls.
If a dog has a special toy or chewy and another dog approaches, they may tell the other dog to leave them alone by growling. In most cases, the approaching dog will respect the communication and move away. That scenario is normal and healthy.
How do you tell if the growl is worrisome? As with all forms of canine communication, you must observe the dog’s entire body to understand the context.
If two dogs are playing and one growls—but he continues to play and interact with the other dog—then the growl is most likely a play growl. With healthy interactions the dogs’ bodies will be loose or wiggly. If one pauses in play, the other one will, too.
If you are playing tug with your dog and he is growling, tossing his head, and pulling back, he is play growling. But if you drop the tug, then reach for it and your dog growls, his body goes still (trainers call this a freeze), head lowered, and stares at the toy while growling, then make note of the behavior and stop playing tug.
A dog fearful of other dogs or people may growl when another dog or a person approaches. It is his way of saying he is nervous about the approach and wants the dog or person to move away.
Growling over toys or treats between dogs in the same household can be a normal dog behavior. The growling dog is communicating to the other dog he is not willing to share and the other dog better back away. In good dog relationships, the approaching dog will back away, basically saying “That’s cool; it’s yours. I respect that.” The growling behavior becomes a problem if the growling dog then charges and attacks the approaching dog or if the approaching dog doesn’t pay attention to the warning and a fight ensues.
Sometimes a dog may growl when his owner attempts to take away a toy or treat or growls when his owner approaches his food bowl. While the dog is communicating his displeasure at you taking his “treasure,” the behavior is something that should be modified with assistance from a reward-based trainer.
So why would a positive trainer say he likes a growl? Positive trainers will tell you a growl is a good thing. It’s because we know a growl is just communication. It’s a warning without a bite, and it tells us the dog is either afraid, uncomfortable, or stressed, and there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
What you should NOT do if your dog growls is punish him. While that may be your first reaction, several things can happen if he is punished for a natural behavior—his attempt to communicate. Punishment may temporarily stop or suppress the behavior, but it does not get to the root of the problem. A dog that is physically punished for growling may skip the warning growl the next time and bite immediately instead. Additionally, physical punishment builds distrust between you and your dog. Punishment doesn’t teach a dog anything. Instead, work on teaching him he does not need to growl to be understood, and there is no reason for him to growl in that situation.
If your dog growls when you approach his food bowl or his toy, seek help from a reward-based trainer to teach him the approach of a person predicts good things happening. He could get an even tastier morsel in his bowl or something better if he gives up his toy.
If your dog growls when visitors come to your house, pair the appearance of strangers with high value treats and allow him to move away from the strangers.
If your dog growls when you handle his paws or attempt to put a harness on him, work slowly to pair the touch and movement with good treats. If he growls when you pet or handle him, he may be trying to tell you he is in pain. A trainer certified in fear-free training techniques specializes in this type of behavior modification.
The solution to this type of behavior is called desensitization and counter-conditioning.
It is a process of slowly increasing pressure or closeness as the dog becomes comfortable. Seek the assistance of a qualified professional to guide you in setting up these behavior modification steps.
(Note: If your dog’s growl at another dog has started fighting in your home, you will need to take immediate steps to address the fighting and prevent injury by managing the dogs’ contact with each other until you can get professional help.)
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