When it comes to dogs communicating with us, the most common way that dog owners are aware of would be barking. However, growling is another important form of communication that often gets lost in translation.
A way to signal much more than just aggression, it’s understandable that many of us might instinctively try to stop our dog from growling because we assume that it is acting out. However, the next time your dog emits a low grow, make sure to keep a lookout for contextual clues and body language before you decide to shush your pooch!
To help you gain a better understanding of growling in dogs and better identify the root of the problem, here are the reasons why they growl, appropriate ways to manage them, and possible consequences of dismissing growls:
Causes of growling
When a dog growls, chances are, it’s telling you that it’s unhappy or uncomfortable with something. Most dogs would use their body language to communicate this to you first, but in the event that you’re unable to pick up on their subtle clues, that’s when some dogs may resort to growling to let you know how it feels.
Typically, a growling dog might be experiencing fear, pain, protectiveness, or possessiveness, but it can also be encouraging play.
1. Stress and fear
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When placed in an uncomfortable situation that makes your dog feel threatened, your dog may react by growling if it’s unable to put distance between itself and the perceived threat. This often comes with body postures that also signal fear, such as cowering, lip licking, and baring of its teeth.
These situations can vary greatly from dog to dog, depending on what it is fearful of, but whether it’s a stranger, a piece of new furniture in the house, a loud noise, or a new environment entirely, your wary dog is simply growling as a way to tell the strange presence or situation to “Go away and give me space.”
While often misunderstood as aggressive behaviour, this is in actuality a polite warning from your pooch and a sign that it doesn’t want to escalate the situation further. To mitigate this, pay attention to where your dog’s growling is directed at and try to remove the cause of the issue.
You may also help your dog overcome its fear for a more long-term solution, but do take note that this would require plenty of time, patience, and positive reinforcement. The method to help your dog get over its fear would depend on what it’s fearful of (i.e. swaddling your dog might help it cope with thunderstorms, while desensitisation might help with its fear of strangers), so it’s best to consult your vet or a professional animal behaviourist for the best way to go about it!
2. Possessiveness and/or protectiveness
Also known as possession aggression, which can sometimes take the form of protective aggression, some dogs growl when others (both human and animal) approach what they deem as theirs or a member of its pack. This could extend to their food, toy, bed, or even owner, and is their way of defending their resources and protecting their pack members.
A natural behaviour that originates from its instinct to react to a perceived threat, it’s a useful behaviour in the wild when resources are scarce and there is strength in numbers. However, it’s important to not encourage this behaviour as it could lead to more aggressive behaviour like biting if your dog’s growls are constantly ignored, and potential squabbles if you live in a multi-dog household.
Some reasons for this kind of resource guarding behaviour may include:
An acquired behaviour learnt from its mother or littermates
The sudden introduction of a new addition to the family, which your dog may deem as competition
Fear of a perceived threat.
To curb possession aggression in your dog, introduce something that your dog might find even more valuable than what it’s guarding and only offer it to your dog if it listens to your command to “drop” what it’s guarding. Once it gets the reward, you may let it have what it was guarding as well. Repeat this often enough and your dog will come to understand that there is no need to protect its possessions.
Alternatively, if your dog has food aggression, try placing several dog bowls around a large room and put bland food in one bowl. As your dog is eating, put a more desirable food item in another bowl that is within its sight, but at a distance. This is to encourage your dog to willingly move away from a resource and also associate you coming close to its bowl with good food.
However, if your dog continues to show aggression, we recommend consulting an animal behaviourist to help you out with the behaviour correction!
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In a similar vein as possession aggression, territorial aggression is when a dog feels the need to defend its territory, and is often a sign of an insecure canine rather than an aggressive one. More often than not, people and other animals that are less familiar to the dog will most likely be the targets of such territorial aggression because the unfamiliarity of the stimulus can often trigger a defensive response in an anxious, insecure dog.
If you notice your dog growling at visitors or strangers near your home, it’s best not to resort to punishment to stop it from growling — this will only add on to your dog’s anxiety and fears! Instead, whenever a visitor comes over, ensure that you have your dog on a leash and collar so that you have effective control over it.
Use commands to make your canine friend sit and stay by the door until it has calmed down, and reward your dog accordingly for every command followed. If it’s unable to calm down though, remove your dog from the area before admitting guests into your home and leave the behaviour correction to a professional as soon as possible.
4. Pain and discomfort
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Unbeknownst to most, growling is actually also a way for your dog to express pain and discomfort. If your dog is suddenly growling from being touched at a specific area when it has never expressed any aggression towards you for doing so before, this could be a telltale sign of an internal injury or illness.
To be sure, keep a lookout for these other symptoms of a dog in pain:
Excessive vocalisation when it does a certain action eg. whining, whimpering, yelping, and howling
Constant localised grooming in an attempt to soothe themselves and clean and care for their injury
A loss of appetite
Panting or shallow breathing
Difficulty sitting or lying down
Withdrawing from affection or constantly seeking affection.
In such cases, it’s best to rush your pet to a vet as soon as possible for a medical checkup!
Finally, most dogs growl whenever they are playing as well! Be it with you, with one another, or on its own with its favourite toy, play-growling is a natural thing for dogs to do as it serves as a verbal cue to the other party that it’s enjoying the rough play and would like the other party to continue.
It’s natural for first-time dog owners to mistake these growls as aggressive behaviour and scramble to break up the roughhousing, but it’s really nothing to be concerned about if you pay close attention to the growls — friendly, fun-loving ones are usually higher in pitch and softer as compared to sharp, threatening, warning growls.
Friendly growls are often accompanied by wagging or upright tails, perked ears, and back hair that is smooth and not raised as well. However, if you notice that your dog or the other party is starting to avert its eyes, pin its ears back, tuck its tail, and has its hair standing up along its backbone, it’s time to stop the play session with a command to sit or stay down, as things are escalating into a potential fight.
Rather than assuming it’s misbehaving and punishing your dog for growling, it is important that you try to understand your pet’s source of fear and stress and tackle the root of the problem.
More often than not, warning growls are a cry for help from your furry friend. Ignoring or dismissing these growls may not only result in an increase in their anxiety and an escalation of the issue, but could also lead to a late discovery of an illness.
Attempting to stop your pooch from growling through scoldings and punishment is also not recommended as this just communicates to your pet that they’re not allowed to voice out even when they’re unable to remove themselves from the uncomfortable situation, which could inadvertently lead to them jumping straight to biting in order to escape or get what they want.
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Since dogs can’t express themselves the way we do, they try their best to let us know how they’re feeling through body language and verbal cues like whining, barking, and growling. What we can do on our part as pet owners is to pay close attention to them and their surroundings to figure out what exactly is our pet trying to convey to us!