Dogs growl; growling is one of many vocalizations that dogs use to communicate how they feel about, people, situations, and objects, as well as other things. When you hear a dog growling it is an instinctive reaction to want to keep your distance. The oldest and most primitive parts of the brain recognize this sound like a warning, and in many cases that is exactly what it is.
However, as a dog owner, it is important to understand why your dog is growling and how to deal with the underlying cause. Doing this stops the situation from escalating and reduces the risk of it happening again.
Understanding Dog Growling
Growling is one of the ways that dogs communicate with humans and other animals. Dogs growl when they are in pain, when they are afraid, or when they are protecting territory or possessions. Humans often have a fight or flight response to dog growling, meaning that you either back away from the sound or punish your dog for growling.
Backing away can be a sensible first step, particularly if you are unsure why your dog is growling. This is because growling is often a warning of more aggressive behavior that may occur if the right steps are not taken to prevent it. However, punishing your dog for growling is rarely effective and can be detrimental to your dog and your relationship with them.
Punishing your dog for growling teaches them that this behavior is never acceptable. In doing this you are taking away their ability to warn you of dangers, including that they are preparing to bite. Often dogs who bite without warning have been trained not to growl and therefore believe they are doing the right thing.
As well as initially giving your dog some space, the most important thing to do when your dog is growling is to determine the cause of the growling.
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Determining the Cause of Growling
When your dog growls they are trying to tell you something. It is a clear sign that there is a problem; this could be pain, fear, or the need to protect an item, space, another animal, or a person. Understanding the cause and dealing with it appropriately helps your dog to understand that you are listening and that growling itself is not wrong.
If your dog is growling as a reaction to pain, you will most likely notice other changes in their behavior as well. They may not be eating or playing as much as normal, they may also be lethargic or experiencing weight loss. You may also notice that they are licking or biting one specific area more than usual or experiencing hair loss. Your dog may also only growl when you touch a specific area on their body or they move in a specific way – laying down, when they put a specific paw down, or when moving positions.
Like most animals, dogs experience fear. Growling is one way they can communicate that they are afraid. Fear is most likely to be the cause if growling occurs in unfamiliar situations or surrounds, or if they are approached by strangers. If you are with your dog when this happens they may also be growling as a warning that they are protecting you. If you were to react negatively to them growling in a situation where they feel they need to protect you, this could be very confusing for your dog.
Not all dogs are good at sharing and even those that are will have items they don’t like other dogs, children, or you touching. Possession aggression occurs when someone gets to close to the object that your dog doesn’t want to share. It is a warning not to come any closer. Possession aggression needs to be dealt with as soon as it occurs as it can lead to further guarding behaviors if it is allowed to continue. However, it is also important to remind children and visitors not to take the dog’s toys or enter their sleeping area.
Dogs do not just guard their own possessions, they also guard you and their home. When someone that is unknown to your dog comes to close, they growl to warn them that they are there and that they are ready to protect their home and family. While it may be frustrating that your dog growls at the mailman every morning, not dealing with the growling properly could lead to your dog staying silent when someone you don’t want in your home tries to enter.
It may sound strange, but dogs also growl when they are having fun. Growling when playing is most common when dogs are playing together. While this is a perfectly natural and safe behavior it should still be monitored. Changes in the body language of either dog may mean that it is time for playtime to end. Similarly, if a puppy is playing with an older dog, the older dog may growl to indicate they have had enough, the puppy should be removed from the situation at this point. Not only does it keep them safe but it teaches them the correct response to a warning growl and reduces the risk of them getting hurt in similar situations when they are older.
Dealing with Dog Growling: Next Steps
If your dog is growling because they are in pain, then the first and only course of action is to go to the vet and determine the cause of that pain. Effective treatment and pain relief should immediately reduce the amount of growling. Giving your dog a little extra space when they are unwell and ensuring they are comfortable, especially at night can also help to reduce instances of growling.
Where the cause is fear, possession, or territorial, the first step is to remember not to suppress the growling as this removes your dog’s ability to warn of any escalation in their behavior.
Remove potential stressors from your dog’s environment while you try to determine the causes of the growling. This better helps you to understand what is going on in your dog’s world that could be causing the behaviors. While long-term you cannot stop the mailman from delivering your mail, you could wait for them and meet them at the door in the short term to see if this makes any difference.
It is also important not to simply ignore it. If you ignore your dog’s growling, you could be missing vital signs that something is wrong. You also put you, your dog, and others at risk over the longer term. A dog that is allowed to growl whenever someone it doesn’t know approaches you is likely to begin to growl at anyone, even if they do know them. If the growls are ignored the situation could easily escalate.
The best way to deal with growling is to contact your local veterinarian or dog trainer and discuss your dog’s behavior with them. Most dogs just need a refresher on how to deal with situations that cause fear. Territorial or possession growling may require further support from an animal behaviorist is basic training programs fail to solve the problem.
If your dog starts growling, then take additional care around them and ensure others do the same until the cause of the growling has been determined. Not only does this help keep you, your family, and your visitors safe, but it reduces any fear and anxiety your dog may be feeling.