Should you be concerned when your dog growls?
Growling indicates various things, so it’s crucial to distinguish between the many different types of growls that dogs can produce when interacting with you, other humans, and other animals.
What do dog growls mean?
Recognizing the different types of dog growls is essential to keep yourself, other people, and other animals safe.
Growling lets dogs express themselves in a way humans can easily interpret — if we take the time to learn the language.
Types of growls
Growls are a form of communication for dogs, so you must understand growling behavior.
Growling doesn’t always mean your dog feels threatened.
Learning what your dog is trying to tell you will help you live in harmony with one another. If you don’t learn your dog’s growls, miscommunication is bound to happen.
Fortunately, with some observation and friendly play, you can learn to distinguish between the different types of growls your dog projects.
A warning growl tells the other person or animal not to come any closer. It is deep and rumbling, somewhat like thunder. It will grow louder as you approach the dog (which you definitely shouldn’t do).
This is your dog’s way of displaying discomfort.
Consider the situation. If the dog is resource guarding, hovering over a resource like food, they’re on alert, and a long, low growl indicates a warning. This growl says, “Don’t come any closer or I may bite!”
Dogs may also issue warning growls when they feel cornered, threatened, or scared. In this case, yelps and a downward head position can accompany warning growls. The dog also may show raised hackles.
If the dog is terrified or has seen something traumatic, it may avert its gaze while retaining the growl.
When dogs offer warning growls, they’re not hoping for an escalation of the situation but asking you to stay away to avoid a conflict.
This isn’t an aggressive dog’s growl (or matching the mindset). We’ll get to that type of growl in a moment.
Play growls are usually short and accompanied by playful, telling body language.
Think about a puppy at play: It will typically put its butt in the air and its front legs downward (just like a “downward dog” yoga pose), wag its tail, and bark.
Check for confirmation in the tail. Dogs with curly tails, like pugs, will display a wagging, upright, curly tail when they want to play.
Dogs with long fluffy tails, such as huskies, will have a loose upright wag. Dogs often express play growling when playing tug of war with a rope.
Related to the play growl is the pleasure-seeking growl. This is the guttural noise your dog makes when it nudges you and wants a petting.
In the instance of play, the dog is typically acting to match the noise, seeking eye contact and moving in a taunting way to invite play and touch.
If your dog gets too involved in play and escalates into roughness, your dog may still be growling.
Track the tone of the growls to ensure it doesn’t veer into a resource-guarding warning growl, and check the body language that accompanies the growl. This can occur more often with puppies who are still learning.
Aggressive growls are often loud and occur in multiple “warning shots.” These indicate that the dog will move forward and possibly attack.
Sometimes, aggressive growls are barely audible to humans and can occur right before what we may interpret as a “sudden attack.”
Listen carefully for the growl if a dog is backed up or curled away. A soft, aggressive growl could indicate that it is preparing to strike.
Have you ever observed your dog trying to figure out a puzzle? What about when you’ve kept it in a separate room for a long time?
In addition to whining or making playful noises, the dog might offer up a growl. This commonly occurs when dogs are on leashed walks and prevented from meeting other people and dogs without a proper, calm greeting.
This type of growl signals frustration. All the dog wants to do is meet, greet and likely play! However, the leash or barrier prevents it from doing that.
You can cut down on the frustrating growls by teaching your dog that it will experience the reward of a greeting if it stays calm and sits beforehand.
Not sure? Trust other dogs
If you’re unsure about the type of growl another dog is putting off while you’re walking your dog, trust your dog’s instincts.
How is your dog interpreting and reacting to the strange dog? By paying attention to both dogs in the conversation, you’ll be able to decipher what’s happening between them and potentially diffuse a dangerous situation before it can begin.
A safer way to observe involves watching dogs interact at dog parks. You’ll hear plenty of the play growling here but other types of growls, too.
In addition to playing, dogs engage in other forms of socializing and boundary-setting at parks. Pay attention to which types of growls accompany various types of body language.
What to do if you can’t interpret dog growls
If you’re unsure what a dog is trying to communicate with its growl, assume the growl is a threat and allow it some space. This is also a safe behavior to model for others, especially children.
Suppose you believe your dog’s growling to be repeatedly aggressive. In that case, it involves serious attempts to bite rather than nip, or your dog has bitten someone after a fierce growl — consider the immediate intervention of an animal behaviorist.
A professional can help you better understand and communicate with your dog, and they can help you figure out what is causing your dog to feel uncomfortable.
It may be helpful for you to record your dog’s different growls so you can see whether your interpretation is correct when you interact with the animal trainer.