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Why does my dog growl?

When most people see or hear a dog growl, they take it to be a signal that the dog is mean. That’s not necessarily true. Here’s some useful information on why dogs growl and when it’s something that you should worry about.

Freeze, flight or fight

In the dog world, when confronted with something they are afraid of, surprised by, or do not like, dogs have three choices:  Freeze, Flight, or Fight. Freeze gives the dog time to make an assessment of the proposed threat. If the dog is on a leash or in an enclosed yard the option of flight is removed. In the dogs’ mind the only option left is fight – which they usually warn first with a growl.

small dog growling

Growling as a warning sign

If “fight” is the response, then the growl is usually the final warning before the bite. You should always pay attention to the growl. Contrary to what lots of people think, you should never chastise for growling, or try to train a dog not to growl.  That will only leave you with a dog that will bite with no warning at all.

Also note that the growl is only one of several warning signs that lead up to a growl or bite. In addition to the growl, you should watch for other body language signals such as ears that suddenly go flat back, a tail that raises stiffly – even it is still wagging, baring of teeth, or the hackles that raise on the back of the dog.

You should never chastise for growling, or try to train a dog not to growl.  That will only leave you with a dog that will bite with no warning at all.

Pay attention to growl variations

Your dog may have variations of the growl:

  • The fight growl above will come from deep in the chest and be lower in volume.
  • Many dogs also have a play growl that they use with trying to entice other dogs to play or give chase. That growl is usually accompanied by a bark that is higher in pitch, shorter in duration, and does not have the accompanying body language cues.
  • An injured dog may growl to let you know that they do not want to be touched because they are scared or in pain. If you must move a dog that is injured and growling, put a towel around their head to protect you from the bite so you can get them to safety and medical care.

dogs playing growling play growl

The guard dog growl

Another common time that a dog will growl is if they are resource guarders – meaning that they are protecting what they perceive to be theirs. We see this most with food, toys, and even the owners. This is one reason why children should be taught at a very early age not to bother a dog that is eating. If the dog sees the child as competition for the food, he will protect it. You will see your dog freeze if someone walks by their food bowl (or toy, or person) to determine what the possibility is that the person is there for their food. If they perceive a threat – they will growl a warning. Heed it and call a professional trainer for help.

Children should be taught at a very early age not to bother a dog that is eating. If the dog sees the child as competition for the food, he will protect it.

Growling is not bad – it’s communication

Overall the growl is not a bad thing – it is the only way the dog can communicate to you that they are feeling threatened enough to do physical harm. You just have to figure out the reason. Use it as an early warning signal and take note of the circumstances and surroundings. I have learned over the years to take the growl seriously – if there is a reason they are uneasy, maybe you should be too.

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