Some forms of stimulus generate an instinctive response in us people, as an innate, evolutionary response that helps humans as a species to survive. One of these is the sound of a growling dog; which is the type of noise that immediately catches the attention and demands respect, and one that can generate a fight or flight response in other dogs, as well as of course in people.
Growling is just one of many vocalisations dogs have at their disposal, and is one that most people think they understand very well – usually to mean “danger.” Virtually all dogs growl from time to time, and it is a rare dog owner who can say that they’ve never heard their dog growl in any context or situation. For some dogs, growling is a regular part of their daily vocal arsenal, and might be something that their owners hear regularly.
Growling can of course be a problem in some cases, and it tends to alarm other people as well, which means that many dog owners want to stop their dogs from growling, or tell them off for doing so.
However, growling is part of the complex canine language that humans don’t always instinctively understand or interpret accurately, which means that the ways in which we respond to a growling dog are not always appropriate – or safe.
With this in mind, this article will tell you five things you need to know about a dog that is growling. Read on to learn more.
A growl is first and foremost a warning; understanding this is key to understanding a dog’s use of this type of vocalisation, its intended applications, and why they might be behaving as they are.
The growl is designed to let another party know (usually a dog or person) that the dog doing the growling is approaching the stage when they will have to decide between fight or flight, or that they’re getting annoyed and want respect.
It is like a person who feels threatened or that is getting irritated asking the other party to back off, or saying “I don’t want to fight you but I will if I have to,” whether or not they intend to follow through with the fight or not.
Many dog owners wish to train their dog not to growl, or tell them off for growling. However, growling is a symptom, not a cause – and conditioning a dog not to growl might be highly problematic.
This comes back to the prior point, that a growl is a warning. It is the dog’s way of saying “I don’t want to hurt you and if you back off/stop that/deescalate things, I won’t.”
However, if you condition a dog not to growl, you do nothing to tackle the thing that causes them to feel threatened or irritated or otherwise on the alert stage preceding fight or flight – and so if or when the dog crosses that line into fight or flight mode and chooses fight, that is the first you’ll know about it.
This can, in the case of defensive aggression, result in what looks like an unprovoked flashpoint, snapping or attack, because the dog has been taught to mask their warning and natural growling communication, or punished for giving it.
One of the most dangerous situations that can arise and yet one that is all too common comes about in families with a dog and children – parents are often very sharp with the dog if they growl at the child, often punishing them acutely. However, this can be extremely dangerous, as the dog will go straight to the defence rather than giving a valid warning.
Ensure that you teach your children to behave appropriately around the dog and respect the dog’s space, as well as supervising and appropriately managing your dog.
We tend to think of a growling dog being an aggressive dog; but more commonly, growling will be fear-based, and taking the form of a precursor to defensive aggression.
Anger and aggression are usually rooted in fear (other than in the rare cases of dogs that are deliberately trained for aggression) and so growling itself tends to be fear-based; a growling dog is more likely to be feeling threatened than aggressive.
However, a dominant dog might also growl to assert their authority or serve as a check to another dog or animal that is pushing boundaries; and such a growl is usually controlled and delivered with confidence, rather than aggression, and will end as soon as the other party complies.
If a dog is growling at a person, this will usually be either because they feel threatened (as may be the case with a dog that is hugely anxious, shy, has been mistreated, or is het up for some reason) and want you to back off and give them some space; or because they see themselves as dominant to you.
Dogs that are the alpha in their human families usually end up in that role because their handlers don’t even realise that they’re not providing clear leadership, and that the dog is actually the one in charge!
This means that assuming your dog is growling for one of these two reasons (fear/feeling threatened, versus trying to put you in your place or exert dominance) you need to definitively identify which it is, because how you address things for each respective cause will be hugely different.
A dog that is growling due to fear needs help to become more comfortable and confident with humans; whilst a dog that is growling as they see themselves as the dominant party needs to be corrected, have their proper position re-established, and taught to respect their human leaders accordingly, with the appropriate calm, confident and clear but empathic correction and leadership.
Whatever the cause of the growling, there are certain approaches that historically used to be put about as an effective way to resolve growling for good and put your dog in their place that should never be attempted, and which are very dangerous.
The old advice like “bite back” if your dog bites you, growl back if they growl, and stare at your dog until they look away are all poor advice, which may well escalate the situation and force the dog into fight mode, which can result in them attacking you or snapping.
This is perfectly true for a dog that is growling due to fear or insecurity, and perhaps even more likely to happen than with a dominant dog as they’ll feel forced and trapped and will respond instinctively if they can’t get away.
When it comes to a dog that is growling in a dominant manner, you need to be confident, firm and in control of the situation, which means assuming this demeanour and position, as opposed to growling back. Growling back essentially means letting the dog know that you see them as an opponent, not a subordinate, and that you respect them as an equal; not, as you might think, that you’re in control.
You are the boss of your dog – this is not something to get into a dispute about with them, much less at risk to your own safety!