A Growl is a Good Thing

Has your dog ever growled?  If so, you’re not alone.  Whether it’s in one of our group classes or in an in-home behavior consultation, people seem to be either embarrassed or angry because their dog has growled.  Just as it’s unrealistic for a person to go through their entire life and never raise their voice, it’s also unrealistic to expect your dog never to growl.

In reality, a growl is a good thing!  A growl is your dog’s way of saying they’re not comfortable with whatever it is that’s occurring at the moment they growled.  Whether it’s growling at another dog, a person or perhaps you’re not even sure exactly what the dog is reacting to, from the dog’s point of view, there “is” a reason.

Unfortunately, in response to the dog saying “Help! I’m not comfortable with this situation,” most often, the owner’s response is to shout at the dog or put their hands over the dog’s muzzle in an attempt to keep them quiet, adding an additional layer of stress on top of an already stressed dog. Think about it.  If you were already uncomfortable with a specific situation and were trying to let your friend know by raising your voice and your friend slapped their hand over your mouth in an attempt to quiet you, would that make you more comfortable?  I doubt it.

Here are five things you can do if your dog growls:

  • Embrace the situation.  Realize your dog’s vocalization is a sign your dog is uncomfortable.  Don’t be embarrassed.
  • Assess the situation.  Look around and attempt to determine what the trigger (the stimulus) was that caused your dog to growl.
  • Increase distance between your dog and the stimulus.  Sometimes distance alone will help your dog become more comfortable.
  • Be prepared to remove your dog from the situation if increasing distance didn’t help. Don’t be tempted to make the dog endure an already uncomfortable environment which can increase stress and also exacerbate the dog’s behavior.
  • Change your dog’s opinion about the thing that made them growl.  Perhaps it’s a small child and the dog hasn’t been around children.  Instead of a dog thinking “child = bad thing!” you want them to think “child = good thing!”  Counter conditioning and desensitization is the appropriate way to accomplish this and very effective when implemented slowly and consistently over time. If you feel you’re over your head, call in the help of a dog trainer who uses positive techniques and who is also skilled in behavior modification.  Here’s info on how to choose a dog trainer.

And a final note of caution:  Never, ever punish your dog for growling.  Punishment might make the dog stop growling, but the underlying emotional stress is still there.  If you use punishment, you’re merely taking away the “warning signal…..the growl” which is your dog’s way of saying, “I’m uncomfortable!” and the dog may go straight to a bite.

So, if your dog growls, consider it a good thing and do the work necessary to help your furry friend in the midst of a stressful situation.

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Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a Pat Miller Certified Trainer-Level 2, a dog*tec Certified Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina.  She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S.   www.coldnosecollege.com

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18 thoughts on “A Growl is a Good Thing”

  1. This is such wonderful information, we have a little Foster that didn’t know it was polite to growl and went straight for the bite it was a shock. I am happy to say he has learned to growl if stressed and now we know when something is wrong. Biting is in the past I hope, he has started positive training classes also.

  2. I have an Irish Wolfhound x who has a selection of growls and various other noises, he is very vocal and he growls when he plays but its more of a rawl rah rawl noise. To start off other dog owners can be alarmed when he plays, but i find that their dogs are accepting of him and want to play, doing play bows and bounces like he does. A lot of owners take their dogs away from him, not understanding his and their dogs body language. The ones who give it a go are always laughing by the end of our dogs play session and his succession of noises and both dogs leave with very happy waggy tails.

    1. Hi Joanne, indeed many people confuse “play growling” with an aggression. We also have one dog who is quite vocal when he plays. And as you point out, it’s always important to ready the body language of both dogs to make sure they’re both comfortable. Even if one dog is “play growling” the other could perceive it as threatening. If that were the case, then a more suitable playmate might be a better idea. Sounds like you’re having some fun with your dog!

  3. So glad someone commented on play growling! My dog sounds like he is killing me, and we do play rough! People actually thought he was attacking me once. Doesn’t help that he is a pit bull mix..though we keep our distance from people in a field by my home, sometimes people hear him and freak out. I have taught him when I cross my arms across my chest, that’s enough and he sits down. Amazes people every time 🙂

    1. Yes play growling is very common and by some often confused. Our own dogs tend to do some growling during play. The key is in the context, what else is going, on and what is the rest of the dog’s body language telling us.

  4. Great info….but what if your dog is growling at YOU?? I have a 2 year old shih tzu mix. Rescued at 10 months. When I first adopted her she disliked men tremendously and would get a little sassy with the hubby. But has grown to love and trust him more and more. However, not too long ago she was in desperate need of a bath. I approached her saying, “come on little girl, lets get a bath” She knows what bath means and usually doesn’t agree to it, but this particular time she literally growled at me, and I swear her eyes looked like they glowed red…..seriously!!! What do you do about that????

    1. Alice, Whether the growl is directed at you or someone else the steps to take are the same. In this case it seems that even the word bath brings on an negative response so the first step is just don’t use the word. After that it’s a process of counter conditioning to help her learn to tolerate, even enjoy bath time. The process isn’t fast but with consistency and time you can get there. If you are not in our immediate area let us know and we’ll be happy to refer you to a qualified positive reinforcement trainer skilled in behavior modification who can work with you to make bath time less stressful.

  5. I have 2 dogs, one is 15 yrs old (tasha) and has never growled, showed her teeth or bit anyone. Lately, however, she’s been growling at my other dog (angel) and Angel has been attacking tasha. Angel pulled out tasha’s nail, blood all over. Last night when tasha growled at angel, angel attacked tasha again this time angel bit tasha’s mouth and tasha’s tooth came out….again…blood all over. Tasha is sick and I think she wants me next to her and not angel. Angel wants me by her so it’s been difficult dealing with this problem.

    1. Hi Rosemary, I know how unsettling it is when there’s discourse between dogs in the home. In your situation, because you’re only now experiencing some aggression with Tasha who is 15 years old, I would make an appointment with your veterinarian. I recommend that a senior dog who has a sudden change in behavior, especially aggression, see a vet as soon as possible to have a thorough checkup, a full blood panel and a full thyroid panel. There could be a variety of medical reasons for the sudden displays. However, in the interim, I would also ask you to seek the counsel of a positive trainer who has behavior experience who can help you implement some sound management techniques so the dogs are prevented from getting into scuffles and who can help you with some training strategies. Let me know your zip code and I’ll try to find a trainer near you I can refer.

  6. Thanks for this article. I hope lots of folks read it. I have a Boston Terrier who is very quiet and rarely vocalizes. His brother has a lot to say about everything. Their play growls and business growls are very different. They’re kind of like a baby’s cries — you learn what the different growls mean and can hear the difference — play, uncertainty, mom there’s a possible danger, I’m gonna snap, etc. Growls are good.

    My sister has an Akita who plays with my Bostons. The first time she heard the Akita talking to the littler of the Bostons, she thought he was in danger. She wondered why I was just sitting there smiling, as she raced over to break things up. The Akita has such a deep rumbling voice, that her play voice sounds menacing. The body language and the tone of voice all said relaxed play, but all she heard was the deep voice. Her business growl (which is rare to be heard) makes my hair stand on end. So glad I’m part of her pack.

    1. You’re welcome, Katherine. It’s so important to learn to ready dog body language and stress signals, so that you for being a good observer. Learning dog body language and stress signals helps us keep our dogs more comfortable and will also help us know to when to intervene and redirect.

  7. Hello, we have 4 rescues, all mixed breed. Two have recently been fighting, Scooter, 20lb beagle mix and Shelby, 80 lb lab mix. We have had Scooter since birth, (we took in the mother and she had two pups, we have them both) and he is now 5yrs. Shelby we brought in as an 8wk pup, she is now 2 yrs. Scooter has always growled at everything, us, handling, muzzled at the vet, other dogs, he has OCD, is very possessive of toys, snaps at the other dogs, but when he wants to play he is sweet as pie. Shelby, like the others, has just put up with him…until now. Two weeks ago, we were playing with one of the others outside our fenced area and the energy was high. All were barking and excited, then all the sudden Shelby attacked Scooter, as I’m sure he was snapping at her face as he has done so many times before. We broke them up, no one was hurt, we chalked it up to just too much excitement. Well, it has happened twice since then, the last time resulting in a tooth hole in Scooter’s neck, it was VERY hard to get her to let him go. We have kept them separated since, he is terrified of her now, but still growling and acting normally (for him). We don’t know what to do, he is a fearful dog, we have tried training him ourselves, he has never bitten anyone but is just a little meanie. We bought a muzzle for her yesterday so at least we can get them in the same room as anxiety seems to be building, she doesn’t understand the confinement away from him, wags and cries to get to the other side of the baby gates, but we are just too afraid to let them get face to face for even a minute. He needs socializing (they all do) we live in a remote area and they don’t see many people or any dogs, so we do plan to get them out more for that. Is there a quick fix, or any advice you can offer? We live east of Franklin, a bit far to come to your classes. I think Scooter is the problem, but we hope if he can be trained that Shelby doesn’t already have this mean streak left now, she is a gentle soul until now. We are at our wit’s end. BTW, we have recently started them on raw diets, I know they say there is no link to aggression, but they are REALLY excited to eat now, and that is one change we relate to their recent excited behavior. Any help will be greatly appreciated!

    1. Hi Darlene,

      You certainly have several situations which should be addressed to help the dogs in your care become comfortable with one another. Keeping them separated until you can get some professional assistance is a smart move. No matter what the classification of aggression, the underlying cause is stress. Even before addressing the individual issues with each dog, I always recommend a vet visit with a full medical work up. Ruling out any medical issue is important before addressing a specific issue with a dog. I have a multi-pronged approach to modifying behavior which is managing the environment so the dog is unable to practice the unwanted behavior, removing stressors, behavior modification to help a dog become more comfortable with the particular stressor/trigger and positive training. Quality food is certainly important, just as it is with us humans. Muzzling w/o desensitizing the dog to the muzzle only adds an additional layer of stress. You could certainly use the help of a skilled trainer who is also schooled in behavior modification and one who does private sessions. There’s no quick fix or magic button, though with the right behavior modification program and the slow and consistent application of that program, most all dogs can make progress. If you’re East of Franklin, are you closer to Asheville than us? If so, then I can certainly recommend someone in Asheville who you could travel to see who could help.

  8. hi there, We have a male chihuahua, he has just turned 1. He is over loved by us all, including family and friends that visit, always buying him treats, weather is toys new bed to eatie treats. He too growls, we have a 7 yr old, they get on well most of the time, cuddle play. But when Ozzie is on the window-cill barking at things in the street, my son will try to move him from the situation, Ozzie will growl, and in the past has bitten my son a few times. If he does bite, we put him in his time out cage, we do the same if he get’s out the gate and doesn’t come back when called. My teenager’s on the other hand, when Ozzie growls them, from even moving him from a warm spot lol, they will turn it straight into a game instead. Is that a good thing they are doing? Ozzie seems to like it. Another thing, i havn’t mastered the toilet training thing as yet, i had but he seems to have lost it, not sure if its raining. Seems to go in the same spots.Thanks

    1. Hi Ree, No mat­ter what the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of aggres­sion, the under­ly­ing cause is stress. Even before address­ing an individual issue with a dog who is growling/biting, I always rec­om­mend a vet visit with a full med­ical work up, which includes a full thyroid panel (even borderline low thyroid can cause behavior issues. Rul­ing out any med­ical issue is impor­tant before address­ing a spe­cific issue with a dog. I have a multi-pronged approach to mod­i­fy­ing behav­ior which is man­ag­ing the envi­ron­ment so the dog is unable to prac­tice the unwanted behav­ior (supervise, supervise, and supervise some more when children are involved), remov­ing stres­sors, behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion to help a dog become more com­fort­able with the par­tic­u­lar stressor/trigger and pos­i­tive train­ing. Qual­ity food is cer­tainly impor­tant, just as it is with us humans. I don’t know exactly what you mean by “turning it into a game.” If Ozzie is uncomfortable and likes to protect his space, it’s important to help hem change his feeling about that and there’s a systematic way to go about that. I certainly do distance consults, though I would imagine I could refer you to a trainer skilled in behavior who could assist you to help Ozzie. Let me know your zip code and I’ll take look at who I might know in your area. You should buy the book “Living With Kids and Dogs Without Losing Your Mind, by Colleen Pelar. Thanks for seeking help for Ozzie. Here’s another blog post you’ll find helpful: https://www.coldnosecollege.com/blog/training-tips/strategies-to-prevent-dog-bites

  9. Thanks for a good article. My reactive rescue that used to growl at strangers and guests. Without knowing anything about fear aggression (or training in general), I used to punish her for growling. Eventually, she completely stopped growling and went straight for more aggressive behaviors. At that point, we got help and have been very successfully addressing her fear with +R and counter conditioning.

    But I really wish I knew how to restore her healthy growl — what a help it would be in bad situations that still come up if strangers could hear her growl and back off the way they used to. I would reward her for growling but I can barely even induce a play growl during tug anymore. Do you have any advice for retraining her to growl?

    1. Thanks for responding and happy that you were led to positive training and counter conditioning! I personally would leave well enough alone. It sounds like you’ve made good progress with your canine kid and I wouldn’t want to teach a dog to growl (unless it was to be used as a trick and with a dog how had no former behavior issues and no punishment associated with a growl). Perhaps teach your dog to “bark” on cue, train it positively, make it fun, put the “bark” on a very subtle body language cue (finger scratch to chin) and then cue your dog to bark when you’re uncertain of the stranger. Thanks for having your dog’s best interest at heart.

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