Study: Dog Growls Have Different Meanings

A growl is a growl is a growl, right? Not if you're a dog, according to a study accepted for publication in the journal Animal...

Maria Goodavage  |  Aug 4th 2010


A growl is a growl is a growl, right?

Not if you’re a dog, according to a study accepted for publication in the journal Animal Behavior. Growls have unique meanings, and are among the most intense sounds animals make, say researchers. And there’s a reason for that.

dog-growl“A growl is a short-distance warning, not like a bark or howl, which you can hear over a large distance,” study co-author Peter Pongracz told Discovery News. “When a dog growls, the opponent is near, so he/she can hear clearly that the next few steps forward will not be greeted with a warm welcome.”

Among the findings of the research, it seems a growl for “step away from the juicy bone, Bucko!” is significantly different from the growl for “stranger danger!” Who knew?

The study is explained in this article and in the video above. It adds to growing evidence that animal calls are much more intricate and complex than we’d thought. “For example,” the article explains, “prior research suggests chimpanzees communicate information about food quality, while birds, prairie dogs, chickens, squirrels, primates and other animals likely share information about predator types.”

It makes sense. Just because all we hear is “chirp chirp” or “grrrrrrr” doesn’t mean it isn’t rife with meaning. It may not be Shakespeare, but that’s not always such a bad thing.

Could you tell the meaning behind your dog’s growls if you didn’t see why he or she was growling? For me, it’s a matter of context. Jake never growls over food, just at perceived dangers and sometimes while at play. It’s easy to tell when he’s growling to pretend he’s a big tough guy while playing tug-of-war, and when he’s looking out the window and unsure of a guy going through our recycling bin. But if I had only the growls to go by, I’m not certain I could distinguish the two. How about you?