Much like barking, growling is a form of doggy communication. In other words, a growling dog is trying to tell you something, and it usually means they're very uncomfortable.
Why is my dog growling?
The most common reasons include:
Dogs growl when they’re scared. It's their way of telling something, or someone, to stay away. Like most animals, dogs prefer to settle a dispute without resorting to violence. Fighting is a risky thing to do. There's always the chance of getting injured, or even getting killed. So growling is used to deter any perceived threats. A growling dog is saying “I don't really want to fight, but I will if I have too”. A fearful dog is always a risk. Stay calm. Avoid eye contact. Then back away slowly. Despite our natural instincts, running away is a bad idea. It can encourage the dog to start chasing you.
2# Resource guarding
Try taking a bone from a hungry dog and they might just growl at you. The message is pretty clear: “this bone belongs to me. I’m not sharing it with anyone.” Dogs can get pretty possessive over their favourite things, including food, treats, and toys.
3# Territorial growling
Dogs are territorial animals, and many of them are natural protectors. Growling is a way of telling strangers or intruders: “this is my space, not yours.”
4# Pain and discomfort
Dogs growl when they're in pain or discomfort, especially if you accidentally touch the sensitive area. Again, the message is clear: “I'm in pain, don't touch me there.” Dogs might also growl during a veterinarian examination. Firstly, the vet will often have to touch the painful area. Secondly, your dog is nervous or stressed; growling is a natural reaction.
Dogs growling at each other
There are different types of growling, and not all are bad. Play growls, for instance, are perfectly normal during a play session. Dogs may also growl when you play tug-of-war or fetch with them. Again, this is nothing to worry about. In fact, it usually means they're having fun.
If your dog is growling at another dog, pay attention to signs that they are just playing. Dogs will use their body language, like play bows and jumps to indicate to other dogs that they are playing. Their mouth and ears will be relaxed too. Also, a well-behaved, playful dog will be able to stop when you ask them.
Play fighting is important for dogs. Not only are they making friends, but they're also learning how to use their bodies. It's also an effective way of establishing boundaries and hierarchies. Play fighting looks much looser than real fighting. The dogs’ bodies will appear relaxed, and they'll often switch between dominant and submissive positions. It might be accompanied by some light growling, but this is nothing to worry about.
However, if they suddenly tense up, go rigid, or bare their teeth, then they're probably getting ready to fight for real. Once this starts, one dog will need to back down. If not, a fight will definitely break out. Keep an eye out for these signs, and remove your dog from the situation as quickly and as calmly as possible.
Dog growling but wagging tail: are they happy, scared, or angry?
A growling dog might be wagging its tail. A wagging tail only means that your dog is agitated, so it can be interpreted in many different ways. For example, dogs wag their tails when they're happy or excited. They wag their tails when they’re angry or preparing to defend themselves. Scent hounds wag their tails when they catch a scent. To put it simply, a wagging tail is a sign that your dog is getting ready for action, good or bad.
Dog growling at owner
Remember, if your dog is growling at you then it's usually for a reason (or at least that's the way your dog thinks). Your dog might be nervous, afraid, or even in pain. Give them a bit of space, then identify whatever is making them uncomfortable. Excessive growling, or growling for no particular reason, may indicate an underlying health issue. Alternatively, your dog might need some more training or socialisation. In this case, consult a professional trainer for more advice.
Not all growls are created equally. Some are completely harmless, others are an indication that things could turn nasty. Placing them in context to the rest of your dog's behaviour (or the situation) is really important. You'll most likely know a “bad” growl from a “good” one.
The most important thing to remember is that you should never punish a growl, because your dog is only trying to communicate with you. If, for instance, the growl is an attempt to ask for more space, and instead of complying, you punish your dog, then your dog has no other option than to make himself more clear, by biting, for example. If, on the other hand, the growl is a playful behaviour and you punish it, your dog won’t understand your random aggression and will become anxious and scared at the idea of playing with you in the future.
The next step is to identify the growling triggers. Deal with those, and you'll deal with your dogs growling.