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Why is my dog growling?

Brown dog growling advice © Pixabay

Why do dogs growl? Why is my dog growling at me? Why do dogs growl at each other? Are all growls bad? Lots of good and important questions. Now let’s find out the answers!

By Ashley Murphy

Dog Growling

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 not very happy.

Why is my dog growling?

The most common reasons include:

1# Fear

Dogs growl when they’re afraid. 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 dog is saying that 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, and you're more than likely to lose that race.

2# Possession 

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 that 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

But not all growls are bad. Dogs growl at each other during play.  This is perfectly normal. They may also growl during games of tug-of-war or fetch. Again, this is nothing to worry about. In fact, it usually means they're having fun!

The trick is to recognise the different tones, as well as any other signs that can indicate your dogs isn't happy. Playful growling has a much softer and lighter tone. It also tends to come in short little bursts. If the growl becomes deep and sustained, it's best to end the game and back away. An aggressive growl will often sound like the low rumblings before a thunderstorm, so leave the dog alone.

The same rules apply to interactions between dogs, although there are few more clues. Play fighting is important for dogs. Not only are they're 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." The dog's 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.  But if they suddenly tense up, go rigid, or bare their teeth, then they're probably getting ready to fight for real. Any growling will sound very different from play growling. Again, listen out for the rumbling noise. 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 but as calmly as possible.

Dog growling but wagging tail: are they happy, scared, or angry?

A growling dog will usually be wagging its tail. A wagging tail can mean anything; it can only be understood in the context of other signs. For example, dogs wag their tails when they're happy or excited. They wag their tails when their angry or preparing to defend themselves. Hunting dogs 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 good 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. Your dog might need some more training or socialisation. Consult an expert 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. Just stay calm! Or at least project the appearance of staying calm! The next step is to identify the gowling triggers. Deal with those, and you'll deal with your dogs growling.