skdt blog

What's in a Growl?

I work with a lot of different people, who have a wide variety of experiences with dogs from very little or no experience on up to the folks who have had dogs all their lives. There's a particular topic that I tend to spend a lot of time talking about with people from every point in the spectrum of dog experience.

And that topic is growling.

SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI

More often than not, I hear in sessions that people are worried about their dog growling. They don't want their dog to be "aggressive" toward their kids or their neighbor's dog; they are worried that the growling is a sign that they're in over their heads and their, otherwise, sweet, loving SideKick is not who they thought they were.

I completely understand the concern and I certainly wouldn't want any of the family members, friends, neighbors, etc. to feel worried about a dog's behavior or scared of the family dog.

However, growling does not an aggressive dog make. Even if a dog does a lot of growling, they are very likely not an aggressive dog. To figure out what's going on and to help the family, more information is needed; I need to ask questions:

  • What happened before the dog growled?

  • What happened after the dog growled?

  • Where did it happen?

  • When did it happen?

  • How often does the dog growl?

And so on...

It's important to get a clear picture of what is happening before, during, and after the growling to get a really good idea of the context. Dogs do a lot of growling and understanding context can make a HUGE difference in how we handle the behavior and how we can work with it!

Let's take a look at a few common situations I talk about with my clients:

Playing with other dogs

There's a fine line between play fighting and actual fighting between dogs, but barking and growling and other vocalizations can frequently be heard during really good play between two dogs. Especially if you're still seeing loose, wiggly bodies, play bows, and dangling tongues (among other things), growling itself isn't a signal that the dogs are fighting. Depending on the dogs, growling can be a sign that the play is escalating and getting a bit heated, though, so taking a little break can be a good thing.

Playing with humans

SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI

Dogs that are vocal during play with other dogs tend to also be vocal when playing with their humans; my Ruby is one of those dogs - particularly when playing tug (and no, playing tug doesn't make a dog aggressive). She's a big fierce warrior - but it's all bluster! Growling when playing with humans, as with growling during play with other dogs, can be a sign that the play is escalating, but that's not always the case.

Resource guarding

When a dog has something they consider to be a prize - their dinner, a special chew, an earplug they found under the bed, etc., they are very likely to growl when someone tries to take it from them. Sometimes, a dog may growl when someone is simply in the vicinity or tries to come closer to them when they have their prize. This growling is telling the person, "This is mine; back off because you're making me uncomfortable." Guarding a resource of some kind is a totally natural and normal behavior (honestly, we humans do it all the time when we lock our houses and cars, label our lunches in the work fridge, and set out place cards for assigned seating); but we have language and words to tell others not to take our things or touch our stuff. Dogs have growling (and other behaviors) to discourage others from approaching or taking their prizes.

Body handling