Why Dogs Growl (And Why You Shouldn't Stop Them)

Why Dogs Growl (And Why You Shouldn't Stop Them)

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Does Your Dog Growl When You Kiss Him?

When a two-year-old Golden Retriever named Rover started growling after being hugged by a child, Rover's owner decided to nip the behavior in the bud and give Rover a good scolding and a strong leash correction he would never forget. This reprimand was for the dog's own good and to protect the child, according to the owner who claimed that the behavior had reduced and stopped from that day on.

Indeed, Rover no longer growled at the child and Ann Marie carried on thinking that everything was back to normal. She kept a good eye on the dog and child for a while and after a month with no incident, she gave Rover some trust back. She did not know though that inside Rover's mind there was still some big conflicts going on, and that she had only ultimately dealt with the tip of an iceberg.....

One day, the child came back from school and seeing Rover wagging its tails and acting all friendly, he decided to give Rover a big hug wrapping his arms around him and giving a nice kiss between the dog's forehead. Little did he know though that that day would have turned into a memorable one.

Upon kissing the dog, the dog quickly reacts and bites the child on the face. No skin was actually broken but a few teeth marks were left, leaving a memorable emotional scar that could never be removed. Rover indeed was re-homed to a family with no children and Ann Marie still cannot seem to come to terms with the behavior.

''He was such a sweet dog.'' She explains tears in her eyes and a little bit of denial. ''He loved the kid and played with him but to bite like that with no warning is unacceptable." She blows her nose and continues, ''The dog is no longer safe and I could not forgive myself if he would hurt my child one more time."

Most people would normally understand the situation. Rover had proved himself not to be a safe dog around children. Yet, the mom missed one big, crucial, point. Indeed her actions could have led to the very bite if only she knew a bit more about dog psychology.

Growling May Be a Blessing

Of course, Rover could no longer be trusted among children, but the situation could have been prevented from escalating in such a way. Dog owners often do not realize that reprimanding a dog for growling is like telling the dog ''Do not bother to warn you are about to bite next time, just do it.'' Indeed, punishing a growling dog simply put, is depriving owners from a very important sign that can prove lifesaving.

Growling Allows Your Dog to Communicate Stress

If you punish your dog for growling, the dog very likely will learn that growling is not accepted. This may sound like a good thing when it is not. The dog's underlying level of stress is still not addressed, all that is ultimately addressed is purely the silver casing. The dog's emotions causing the stress in the first place are ignored and more trouble will eventually pop up one day.

Indeed, by punishing a growling dog, owners are not only depriving a dog from a very important warning tool, but are also proving to the dog that the owner is unreliable and unpredictable, significantly increasing the level of stress in the dog. More stress does not solve the problem, and next time the dog encounters the same situation he may appear to be OK with the situation when he is not. Eventually, a bite will come and this time there will be no advance warning. It will come straight and mean to the owner's eyes.

A Closer Look Into Why Dogs Growl

Dogs are generally conflict avoiding creatures. In a pack of wolves, for instance, spending time on fighting with other pack members is a total loss of energy that it is simply not worth the hassle. Energy must be saved for more important functions such as hunting or taking care of a litter of pups. Dogs therefore tend to avoid conflict by using body postures and vocalizations. Most dogs know what these signs mean and stay clear out of trouble thanks to them.

Before Rover bit the child, he may likely sent warning signs that may have not been perceived by the child, nevertheless, the mother. Rover may have stiffened his body, when the child hugged him and perhaps licked his lips in a calming signal. Calming signals are signs often denoting stress manifested by dogs and studied in depth by internationally known trainer and author of the bestselling book "On Talking Terms With Dogs" Turid Rugaas.

This body language may have been the canine equivalent of a human saying ''Please don't do that, it makes me feel uncomfortable''. However, since child and mother did not know about such signs, they ignored them all together. Rover though did not forget about the experience. Indeed, as time went by, he grew more and more stressed. Many dogs indeed do not tolerate hugs very well as they are not part of their communication. Some feel quite threatened by them and become quite defensive.

So the child continues to hug the dog until the dog emits that growling sound that alerts the mom. As mentioned earlier she grabs Rover from the collar and scolds him heavily. She keeps child and dog away from each other for some time and then perhaps feeling sorry for the child asking repeatedly for the dog, decides to try keeping them together again. Rover acts well and no longer growls. The issue seems finally solved....

Rover though is more and more uncomfortable and stressed. You could almost hear him saying ''Please, I feel very uncomfortable between your arms, please don't do that, it really scares me''. However, the growling is not a very rational response from a dog, it is rather quite innate. A sort of primal form of self defense . In some way similar to our reaction if somebody gets in our face suddenly startling us and causing us to become ''defensive''.

So deprived of his most useful warning sign, his growl, he must go to one of his rarely used, arm of defense: a warning bite. This is not a bite that breaks the skin, but a bite that warns, that comes out because other signs were ignored. It's a dog's way of saying ''I really tried hard to warn you, but I had to do this to make you understand, this is my wake up call, don't make me go beyond this point''.

Not only has he learned the hard way to stop giving advance notice of an upcoming bite but now since he was scolded when nearby the child, he may even start thinking that being close to the child actually causes bad things to happen. So the stress builds on more. Welcome to the world of the aggressive dog.

How to Deal With Growling

It is very helpful to recognize early warning signs of stress and remove the dog from the stressful situation. If the dog owner recognizes for instance, that touching the head, neck and shoulder area of a dog is too much, removing him from the situation may prevent an ugly case from going forward. Yes, removing him may reward the behavior but this will be taken care of later on.

Taking him away from the situation may cause your dog to think ''Ok, growling worked, good to use it next time again''. Indeed, if the mom told the child upon hearing the dog growl '' Sweet heart, do not hug Rover, it makes him uncomfortable'' and the child stopped the hugging attempt the dog will think ''Weew, that growl sure worked in keeping those arms away from me, a good strategy to continue''.

But a good dog owner will put the dog up for success while ensuring the safety of the child. Close supervision is a must with children and dogs, and no child should be left with a dog unsupervised. While hugging a dog is not recommended, the dog may be conditioned to accept it though effective training techniques. If the dog dislikes being hugged, it may help to touch the dog's neck slightly and give a treat. Pat the dog's head and give a treat. Place an arm on the dog's shoulder and then give a treat and so forth, in a step by step approach performed on a routine basis for days, weeks or months. Eventually the dog will learn that great things happen upon being hugged.

Any dog owner can accomplish this if willing to lose some time on it. Safety though should be top priority and rushing is out of question. Guidance from a dog behavior professional is a must before engaging in such training. The use of a muzzle may help but the muzzle shouldn't mean that you can relax and subject the dog to anything that makes him uncomfortable . While a child must be taught that hugging makes the dog uncomfortable, if the dog is counter conditioned to associate hugs with great things like treats, in the worst-case scenario, should the child still hug, there are good chances nothing will happen.

The same approach can be gradually applied to dogs who growl upon having their paws touched, nails clipped, and so forth. This method if applied correctly should work deep inside the dog's mind and change the dog's emotional state which is what one wants to overcome serious issues as these...Some puppy classes, indeed have decided to incorporate ''hugging time'' in their program so puppies are de-sensitized to being ''huggable adults''

As seen, a dog's growl is something that should be treasured. As Pat Miller, a dog trainer with more than 35 years behind puts it "a growl is something to be greatly treasured'' ultimately goes a long way. Dog owners indeed should be thankful dogs have been equipped with such means to avoid conflicts. Listen to your dog and give him a chance to prove himself worthy of living with you if only you can understand him better and address issues before they are given the opportunity to escalate..

Disclaimer: if your dog is experiencing behavioral problems, please report to a professional dog behaviorist. Make safety your top priority and do not attempt fixing behavioral problems on your own.

For Further Reading

  • Why Dogs Do Not Like to be Hugged
    why dogs dislike hugs, a farricelli Humans appear to love to hug anybody they love: we hug our spouses, we hug our kids, we ultimately hug anybody we ultimately care about. It comes natural therefore to want...
  • Warning Signs of Potentially Dangerous and Aggressiv...
    Fodd Many times dogs owners are faced with behaviors from their canine friends that are a bit far from what would be expected from ''man's best friend''. Such behavior issues are often ignored or excused with...

Christopher Smith on March 18, 2020:

My lab/ great dane mix has started growling at my wife when she tries to get her to go outside. What could be causing this? Sh3 doesn't growl at me when I do the same thing.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 27, 2014:

This hub isn't about dogs who bite but dogs who growl and are punished for growling. Those same methods you suggest to teach a dog to be submissive is often what triggers the biting in the first place. Yes, many people make wrong choices, but there is no such thing as a 100 percent safe dog. If a person thinks there's such a thing as a dog that is 100 percent safe and will take anything from a child, better play it safe and get a stuffed animal instead. And trust me, I have seen many dogs who were taught to be "so called submissive" that had a breaking point and ended up biting "out of the blue" because behaviors were suppressed (no more warning) rather than addressed.

Kidslibrarian on October 27, 2014:

BS a dog that bites a child who hugs it has no place in a family. I can't believe the stupidity by so called "dog lovers" who don't select the right kinds of dogs for the right circumstances. Teaching a dog that he or she is submissive in family situations is not wrong if it is consistent. It is how they communicate.

cosplay on August 05, 2010:

Enough, I enjoyed your article and will read more, I have considered writing a few, it looks like you have a great start on the topics. Thanks, 50

50 Caliber from Arizona on August 04, 2010:

alexadry, kudos on an informative article. I interact with many breeds and run a self supported shelter for "dumped" dogs. Living down a 15 mile stretch of dirt road, I get a fair amount of dogs and have 15 almost at any given time. I see all types of behavior issues, most are PTSD dogs that take different measures to make them ready for re-introduction to new homes. I have 3 female German Rottweilers that live with me. All sheltered dogs have access to the "great room" of the house but not all of the house. I find it most important to people choosing dogs to find a match for their needs, as well as learn to treat a dog like a dog and not a human. I have to admit my Rotty's are spoiled, but they are dogs and we have a pecking order with me being the alpha dog.

Enough, I enjoyed your article and will read more, I have considered writing a few, it looks like you have a great start on the topics. Thanks, 50

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 04, 2010:

Yes, indeed a wrote a whole hub on the issue of hugging:

Barbara Badder from USA on August 03, 2010:

This is a good hub. We reprimand our dog when he growls at other dogs. Maybe we need to stop. I have heard that someone hugging a dog can be seen by the dog as an aggressive gesture. We have 3 dogs and one of them doesn't like to be hugged.

India Arnold from Northern, California on August 03, 2010:

Animal behavior is treasured information for the pet owner. This hub covers a truly un-noticed dog behavior-trigger that may easily be revised when understood by the human. You are a delight to read and learn from. Dog owners owe you a tribute to the welfair of the pet as much as to the human safety issue.

As always, well done!


valeriebelew from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA on August 03, 2010:

Great dog information about understanding dog communication. I have four of the little darlings, and they do communicate if you are able to understand them. (:v

Sweetsusieg from Michigan on August 02, 2010:

GREAT HUB!!! I have spent my life as a parent and dog lover being a mediator between the two, trying to teach my children to respect dogs and not harm them in anyway. Thanks for the insightful info!! I will be sure to keep what you have said in mind.

Anne-Marie from Montreal on August 02, 2010:

I just love your hubs :)

Corin on August 01, 2010:

A very informative and useful hub. I love dogs, I began with one and now I have four : with all the time I spend with them, I learn to understand their behavior. You give really good advises. Rated you up.

Darlene Sabella from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ... on August 01, 2010:

This is an excellent hub, and being a personn that understands dog talk, this is great advise and I hope more folks read this to learn about their pets mental health. Thumbs up...

Sit on the floor near the food bowl. Hand-feed your dog a meal by giving him a handful of food at a time, but do not put food in his bowl. This shows him that you are the owner of the food and are allowing him to eat it. He must see you as the pack leader to stop growling over possessions.


If you adopt a dog with severe aggression, enlist the help of a professional so you don’t get hurt.

Squash possession aggression at an early age with a puppy. It may seem cute to hear him growl and guard things, but the problem will grow if you don’t' squelch it quickly.

Never threaten or scream at a dog who is guarding items. This will only make his aggression become worse. Instead, train him to give up possessions without growling.

If you have a large or very aggressive pet, place a leash on your dog before he plays with toys or has a meal. Have a helper pull him away from a toy or his food when you tell him “give it” and pick up the toy or food dish.

Teaching your pet to stop growling aggressively over possessions allows you to take harmful things from him when he is chomping on them.

Other Types of Growling

Pleasure and play growling are great signs that your dog is happy and enjoys your company. Unfortunately, sometimes dogs, much like humans, experience feelings of frustration, fear, annoyance, and aggression.

One way dogs let you know they aren’t happy is through an aggressive growl. We just covered the two types of “happy growls.” Now let’s talk about the not-so-happy growls.

The Frustration Growl

Let’s start with the frustration growl.

This happens when a dog’s specific needs aren’t met. For example, if your dog is friendly, they might growl in frustration because they cannot greet or play with a passing dog. If you forgot to feed your dog, they might growl to remind you they’re hungry.

Based on your dog’s personality, you will be able to tell when they are growling out of frustration or fear and aggression.

The Fearful Growl

Have you ever wondered why your dog growls at you when you reach for their toy? That’s a sign that your dog is feeling threatened and needs to be left alone. Loud sounds, other dogs, and strangers could cause your dog to react with a fearful growl.

The differences between a dog growling when happy and when they are feeling threatened are very obvious. Our furry friends will let out a very low growl, stiffen their jaws and bodies, and will hold their breath.

When this happens outside, be sure to remove your dog from the threatening situation. If this happens inside or when alone with your dog, remove yourself from the area and allow them to calm down.

Stress causes this response, and they only want to communicate discomfort. This is a dog’s way of saying, “Please leave me alone.”, they do not want to fight, but if the threat is not resolved, they can become aggressive…which leads us to our last type of growl, the aggressive growl.

Aggressive Growling

An aggressive growl is the most concerning of them all. It signals that a dog is extremely stressed, scared, or feeling very threatened. Often, a dog will transition from fearful to aggressive growling due to them feeling as though the perceived threat is not addressed or removed.

This is a very concerning behavior with very different body language from when a dog growls when happy or even when they are frustrated. Unlike play growls, aggressive growls indicate a possible attack.

When acting aggressively, a dog will stiffen and show its teeth. It is very important to avoid any situations that can cause your dog to become aggressive.

If aggressive growling is a problem with your dog, it is extremely important to contact an obedience trainer.

Your dog is not a human being. Stop treating her like one.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone with a deeper love for dogs than Roland Sonnenburg.

Roland, a professional animal trainer, is co-owner of Talented Animals a company with facilities in California, Oregon, and Canada that provides training and support for a wide variety of animals appearing in film and on television. On any given day, Roland might be bonding with a lemur, riding herd on a gaggle of geese. or romping with an entire pack of dogs, including quite a few of his own.

Roland and his partner Lauren Henry adore their dogs and expend a great deal of time, energy, and money caring for them.

What don't these canine experts do?

Treat their dogs like humans. They don't dress them in adorable outfits every day they don't give them ice cream for dessert on a regular basis, either. They certainly don't expect their pooches to be entertained by the television when they're left alone at home all day.

"Seeing your dog as a 'little-furry-human' isn't necessarily wrong," says Roland, who is a proponent of positive relationships between people and their pets. "But it is a failure to accurately see them as what they are. what they want, and what they need."

Many people who love their dogs make the mistake of expecting them to enjoy the same things people do.

Even worse, well-meaning pet owners often expect a dog to behave as a person would in certain circumstances. This is not only unkind and unfair to the animal it can also be downright dangerous. The popularity of social media videos showing patient family dogs tolerating increasingly rambunctious toddlers and running off-leash in potentially dangerous circumstances concerns Roland.

"One of our core responsibilities is to keep our pets safe," he says. "How many dogs are injured each year because they dash into the street after a squirrel or chew on an exposed power cord or get in a fight with another dog while not properly supervised? I suspect one of the most common phrases uttered at the Emergency Room at the veterinarian's is, 'Well, she never did that before.'

"But dogs do these things all the time! We humans have a sense of the future we understand long-term consequences. Dogs don't. They rely upon us to make good decisions that will keep them safe."

And it's not only your beloved pet who can be hurt when you project expectations of human behavior onto her. Roland recalls an incident he read about in which a dog got loose and killed several free-ranging chickens the dog was labeled a "killer" and there was an outcry to euthanize her.

"It breaks my heart to see people surprised and disappointed when their dogs act like dogs. While I can share sadness about the chickens, this dog did nothing wrong in the realm of canine behavior. All dogs are carnivores — predators — and in the wrong situations, most will kill. Similarly, how many people expect their dogs to always be perfect with cats, or small children?"

So stop thinking your dog is just like "Nana" from Peter Pan. She's not, and if she snaps at little Tristan after having her tail pulled one time too many, it won't be her fault. That's how adult dogs manage pesky puppies.

Conversely, don't make the mistake of trying out canine behaviors in order to manage your relationship with your dog, either.

"I remember a lady with a very strong-willed Giant Schnauzer who wanted to be in charge," Roland recounts. "Some trainer told her to growl in the dog's face. The dog, not unreasonably, decided that they were going to deal with this like dogs, and put her in the hospital."

There are less serious, but still important downsides to projecting human abilities, needs, and desires onto your dog. Consider diet:

"People who see their pets as human babies tend to have obese pets," Roland observes. "They think dogs should eat as frequently as humans, despite the fact that canids have evolved differently. They also tend to feed what the dog finds most yummy rather than what will make the dog healthy."

"A friend recently asked me to advise him because his dog had become seriously overweight. I watched him feed her dinner, and I had to bite my tongue as he poured cream and gravy and hid treats in the food, said a big 'I love you!', and gave her the bowl. I asked about all the added yummies and extra affection, and he explained that if he did not do this, she would only eat a bite or two and leave her food."

"The poor dog was actually trying to self-limit her consumption, but he was doing everything he could to lure her to overeat! Other people give their dogs human food because they say the dog enjoys it so much, and the extra food is an expression of love. Love is great, but shouldn't it be guided by reason? Feeding your pet into illness and discomfort is hardly kind."

Then there is exercise — for both body and mind. Most people wouldn't elect to jump off a dock into a freezing cold lake in the middle of winter in hot pursuit of a tennis ball. or to spend hours trying to knaw a tasty treat out of a Ruffhide. or learning tricks such as "roll over" and "say hello". but many dogs absolutely love and need to do this.

Roland explains. "Many novice dog owners try to make their pets' lives easier, while more experienced owners know enough to make their dogs' lives richer. Most dogs love challenge — they feel joy upon accomplishment!"

So go ahead. Throw that stick further and further each time. Throw it into the waves at the beach! Hide a favorite toy in the house and urge her to find it. You might not be too excited if someone asked you to engage in these activities, but your dog will love them. And you might find yourself rewarded by a glimpse into another world.

"Every moment we spend with our pets, they give us the amazing gift of a remarkably different perspective," Roland says. "I am not sure what non-dog-owners do when walking in the woods or on the beach, but for me it is all about finding adventures. A stump for Sequel to jump on, a steep hill for Saga to climb, a dock for Quest to leap from…"

"Those of us who share our lives with animals ought to feel empowered, even obliged, to understand their emotions and feelings," he concludes. "To have authentic relationships with our pets, we need to listen, observe, and consider their perspective. In order to do this, we need to remove preconceptions and assumptions and be open to their truth."

So take Fluffy out of your purse and let her chase her own truth. And maybe even her tail.

Why Dogs Growl (And Why You Shouldn't Stop Them) - pets

Dogs try to communicate with people in different ways, one of which is growling. As pet owners, we often assume that dog growling is a signal of displeasure or aggression, but it isn’t always that simple. There are a range of things that your dog may be trying to convey when they make these growling noises, and if you listen closely, they may not all sound exactly the same.

Read on for more information on the different types of dog growl and what they may be trying to tell you when they do so.

Watch the video: Why do Dogs Growl? How to Stop your dog from Growling. Effective Training Tips