Dog Growling — 4 Things to Know

Dog growling is an early warning system — and your dog shouldn't be punished for it! It's your job to figure out what your dog is trying to tell you.

A black and white dog, ready to bite.
A dog growling and showing teeth. Photography by Robynrg / Shutterstock. Shutterstock.

The little dog had been in our training center for 15 minutes before he noticed the giant painting of a dog hanging on the wall. His eyes widened as he took a step toward it, growling. “Pssht!” his owner hissed, snapping her fingers at him. He jerked in surprise, then sat down and licked his lips. The dog growling didn’t happen again, but he continued to stare at the painting, trembling slightly, paw raised.

First, why does dog growling happen?

A dog growling and looking angry.
Why does dog growling happen? Photography ©Volodymyr_Plysiuk | Thinkstock.

Dog growling happens for a variety of reasons. Fear, insecurity, guarding behavior, offensive aggression and play can all elicit dog growling, although to an expert these growls are each unique in their tone and pitch. Outside of play, dog growling serves as a warning that all is not well in the dog’s world. Something is off, and our dog is doing us the courtesy of sharing that information.

Responding to dog growling

“Why did you just snap at your dog?” I asked the little dog’s owner.

“I want him to know that I won’t tolerate that behavior,” she replied.

It’s human nature to respond negatively to a dog’s growl. Dog growling is an undesirable behavior and can oftentimes be a precursor to a bite. However, as I explained to the little dog’s owner, it’s important to suppress your urge to correct your dog for growling. Thank your dog for growling, and remove or redirect him from the situation that’s provoking the dog growling. It’s better than the alternative.

Here are four things you need to know about dog growling:

1. Dog growling serves as a warning signal

Dog growling tells you that your dog is unhappy or uncomfortable. Something is wrong. Think of it as an early warning system.

2. Punishing a dog for growling takes away your early warning system

Dogs who are punished for growling oftentimes learn not to growl. However, getting rid of the growl doesn’t fix the underlying cause for dog growling, which leaves us with a dog who is just as upset as before, but now has no way to express that discomfort except for escalating his display. The growl may be gone, but now you’ve created a dog who will bite “without warning.”

3. All dogs warn

If your dog doesn’t warn before he bites, it’s either because you’re missing his precursor signals or because he no longer feels safe displaying them. Either way, the fault here lies at the other end of the leash.

Dogs who go straight to biting without displaying lots and lots of precursors are much more difficult to treat. I would much rather work with a dog who stiffens up, displays whale eyes, hard-stares me, curls his lip, growls, freezes and then (finally) bites, than a dog who goes straight from a freeze to a bite. It will be much easier to keep the situation safe with the first dog. The latter case is much riskier.

4. If your dog growls, he believes he has a valid reason to do so

The little dog was understandably worried by what he perceived was a giant dog, frozen and staring at him (both confrontational and potentially aggressive behaviors) from across the room.

His owner would have done better to acknowledge his fear, using treats to reward him for looking at, and later on investigating, the frightening painting (and she will in the future, as she now has the tools to better deal with situations that make her dog uncomfortable). In this situation, the dog growling was merely a symptom of his insecurity. Treating the underlying cause will make the symptom disappear far more effectively than suppressing it.

Tell us: What situations cause your dog to growl? How have you addressed dog growling? Please share your stories in the comments!

Thumbnail: Photography by Robynrg / Shutterstock.

This piece was originally published in 2017.

About the author

Sara Reusche is the owner of Paws Abilities Dog Training in Rochester, MN. She has more than a decade of training experience. Sara became a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in 2005 and a Certified Veterinary Technician in 2006. She has also worked as a dog groomer, vet tech, doggy daycare attendant, and animal shelter caretaker and trainer. She spends most of her time working with serious behavior cases and has a special fondness for reactive and anxious dogs. This post previously ran on her dog behavior blog, Paws Abilities, and is rerunning here with her permission.

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24 thoughts on “Dog Growling — 4 Things to Know”

  1. My dog growls when she is hungry. Not a mean growl, just hey I'm starving here. She wags her tail when doing this also.

  2. Pingback: Dog Growling — 4 Things to Know – The Dog Delight

  3. Having real troubles with my recent adopted chihuahua, I’ve trained as a trainer myself but still struggling.. he growls if you reach to pat him and eyes dilate.. he’ll follow through with a bite if you keep going! I’ve countered the triggers I was seeing but behaviour still there.. end of the night he’s worse and can get savage over bed

  4. We recently adopted an older dog, he’s around 6. Anyways, he’s taken to me quite quickly and easily. He also has taken to my wife, though he’s definitely my dog. Anyways, there are a few things where he will growl at her that we’re trying to figure out.

    First, in my computer room, if she comes in while he’s resting there, he growls at her, but is okay with being pet by her as well. The other place, which is more baffling, is our guest bedroom/her sewing room. We’ll hang out in there and we’ll have our dog get on the bed after we’re in there working, or she’ll be working and I’ll be on the bed. If she leaves the room and comes back in, he growls defensively for small time, and when she got on the bed, he growled more, but was also nuzzling her hand to get pet. Is this him being territorial of spots he thinks are his or some other behavior?

  5. I would luv to know why my 1 yr old Aussie makes growling noises at some people that come to our house The senerio will be like this Sitting on the floor playing and he will go up and start licking my friends face The minute she goes to pet him he will move back and make growly noises. It’s such mix messages his bum will be going but he will bark What is going through his head? My response will be “that’s enough” quite sharply Perhaps I should be saying “it’s All good” instead?

  6. My 2 year old white German sheppard some times when we are walking will for no reason come up behind a person and go to growl behind them……when I shout she comes back , she usually ignores dogs and people just once in a while why.

  7. My Rotty growls and rumbles when I or my wife are scratching or petting her. The better she likes it the louder she gets. It unnerving but funny she is 95 lbs and never has shown any aggression toward any thing but she sure has a mouth full of stabby teeth. She also farts something terrible.

  8. I adopted a small mixed breed male from the shelter two years ago. I had (at the time) a 14 year old female. He growls at her when he is near me and she tries to get close to me as well. She is now 16 and slowing down, so I’d like more cuddle time with her. I’m not sure how to stop him from growling at her. It’s really the only thing he growls at.

  9. My dog growls at other stranger dogs that get near her. How do I comfort her if I am not sure the cause of the growling….that’s the challenge……

  10. I adopted a rescue Maltese about 4 years ago (at age approx. 4.5 years). She was in a hoarding situation probably since she was born (in a closed up room with 18 other Maltese). She has chosen me as her one and only person. She growls and barks when anyone else comes near her including my husband. When he takes her out to go potty she now viciously growls and barks at him. She will not let him put on her leash or coat. I put them on then she will go out with him, but rushes back to me. She growls & barks when he enters the room we are in (she is my shadow and near me most of the time). This has been going on for most of the time we have had her, but getting worse – now she is starting to nip him. This behavior must stop, but I don’t know what to do.

  11. My dog growls at me when I stop brushing her. She is quiet when I begin brushing her again. She signals she has ban enough back brushing by walking away. She also has a very quiet growl, almost like a cat purring, when she is getting her back brushed. Not the same demanding growl as when I stop brushing before she has had her fill of brushing.

  12. After jumping on my deaf, partially blind mini poodle, I have made it a rule to
    never get anywhere that dog. Her owner says she only does it to my dog and another one in the neighborhood.
    The reprimand is just a tug on her leash and saying “NO”.
    And apologizing.

  13. My 4 month old miniature Dachshund growls and shows his teeth at myself and my wife. It seems like he wants us to play with him and when we don’t play he becomes aggressive! He done Puppy Training and the trainer said to take his upper lip and press it against his teeth?? Help, love this little guy!

    1. If he has a favorite ball or rubber toy, throw it and let him fetch it. Sometimes they’ll come back so you can throw it again, sometimes they’ll bring it and plop down by you to play with it. See which one he does. Even if you absentmindedly throw the ball that’s often good enough for them.

  14. If your dog growls show it a video of the Chinese dog meat slaughter house, that will surely resolve this issue.

  15. My Negan is an APBT. He has distinctive growls for different situations, and I love that! It’s easy to tell if it’s a strange car, a rabbit, or his housemate is getting on his nerves. But one growl amuses and confuse me. He will push a stuffed animal on me until I take ahold of it. If I just tug it a little, he’ll tug back and run off with it. However, if I pet it and say, ” Oh sweet bear. I love him.” He will give a gravelly sounding little growl and take it back! He’s two years old, but still likes to suckle on his furrier toys. He was taken from his mother at four weeks due to her health, so maybe he wants to share this with me, but then changes his mind! Lol!

    1. Elizabeth Whipple

      Sounds to me that he is resource guarding you. To the average person it looks like jealousy. That you are paying attention to his lovey and he doesn’t care for that. Trainers will tell you that dogs don’t have the capacity to “feel” jealous. But, to me that’s what it feels like when my dog and my foster dog are competing for my attention. However, according to my trainer they are both resource guarding me.

    2. When my dog does that, he’s signaling that he wants to play. He wants to be chased and if I catch him he wants to play tug of war. If I don’t play, he’ll growl at me and look me pointedly in the eye until I get the hint.
      Try chasing your dog with the toy and see if he responds to it.

  16. Hi my dog growls usually when a stranger dog approaches her, she doesn’t know the dog. She never growls at people….so I usually keep her away from stranger approaching her, she accepts them in a moderate distance, once we walk together with the stranger dog and his/her master then she becomes friendly towards the other dog, I respect that and she has made many friends that way. But when I leave her with my daughter and her friend they reprimand her, with me I understand that she doesn’t like strangers to get close to her and sniff her butt. Please let me if there is something I need to do to relax her, she never barks at them, she only growls.

    1. Hi my dog loves to meet people, but if a dog she never met before gets near her she growls …. She will eventually be friendly as long as the dog respects the distance, after a good walk she accepts the closeness …. This happens all the time she only walks with a leash …. So I try to always do as she likes it and she behaves well …. She doesn’t like either if a friend dog approaches a stranger dog, she barks at the dog, like protecting her friend or showing that she dislikes the closeness…. What should I do?

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