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Reasons Why Dogs Growl

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

Dogs can growl for different reasons—sometimes dogs growl in playful situations.

Dogs can growl for different reasons—sometimes dogs growl in playful situations.

My Dog Growls at Me Now!

Your dog may growl for several reasons. He may growl at you:

  • If you get too close to his bone
  • If you try to move him off the couch
  • If you tend to abuse him
  • Or he may growl at other dogs and people
  • In many cases, it is a sign of discomfort or a request to send somebody away. For the dog, it is often a way of telling you to stay away, or you may get bit. Often, it will be a slight mumble that may escalate to baring teeth and biting if the warning is not taken seriously.
  • In other cases, the growl is just a symptom of fear, a way for him to protect from a threat. Author and certified dog trainer Nicole Wilde claims: "Whether a dog is growling at another dog or a person, it’s simply a warning. If the dog wanted to attack, he would have. Growling is meant to avert aggression, not cause it."

Distinguishing the underlying cause, whether it's fear, discomfort, or annoyance, is vital for owners to decide the right course of action. An important note: Growling needs to be addressed quickly. A delay in doing so creates a vicious cycle that may be harder to eradicate. It is important to change the dog's emotional response to whatever triggers the growling in the first place.

Let's look at a few examples.

Keeping Strangers Away

A dog that has not been properly socialized may growl at people. It might start this way: the dog has become naturally suspicious of people. People come too close, and the dog is uncomfortable and its body will stiffen. The dog wants to figure out a way of not preventing people from getting too close to him. So, he tries to growl.

The growling works because the stranger is startled and leaves. The dog is proud of himself and will continue this cycle. Once the cycle has set in, and if a stranger doesn't react to the growl, the dog may feel like upgrading. Then, it will bare its teeth while growing and eventually will bite.

In this scenario, the issue needs to be addressed quickly upon the first signs of not being comfortable.

  1. The dog should have been exposed more to people.
  2. Those people should, at a safe distance and with the dog perfectly under control, toss a treat until the dog starts to become more and more comfortable as he recognizes that these people were not a threat.

A great read for this kind of problem is Patricia McConnell's Cautious Canine book.

To Avoid Pain

A dog is hit by its owner as a form of discipline, whether it be because he chews on furniture or urinates on the carpet. He may submit initially, but then one day, out of fear of feeling pain again, he decides to growl at his owner.

This type of growling is fear-related. The dog should not be hit anymore and the owners should work on creating a bond. He needs to be rewarded for wanted behaviors, instead of being punished repeatedly for unwanted behaviors.

To Avoid Annoyances

A dog is reluctant to having his nails clipped, and every time grooming time comes, he puts up a fight. Finally, he decides to growl. Since then, the owner has been intimidated and has given up for some time. Then, when the owner decides to give it another try, the dog will bare its teeth even before it's picked up. The dog has effectively learned to have it its way. Now, because the behavior was not corrected, it has escalated to the point that the dog dislikes being touched.

In this case, the owner should work on making nail clipping fun by rewarding with treats so that the dog does not fear the nail clip or try to avoid it, instead of putting up a struggle.

To Help Keep Privileges

Another scenario is when he refuses to be moved from a bed. Let's say the dog has always slept on the bed with its owner. Then, one day, the owner decides the dog must sleep somewhere else. Upon being moved, the dog growls at the owner, who is surprised and frightened, so he backs away. The growling behavior has now been reinforced, and the dog will use it more frequently to show its power.

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The owner in this situation should train the dog a command so that he can get off the bed without involving physical touch. A "go to your mat" command would have proven helpful in this case. Also, the owner shouldn't allow the dog on the bed one day and not another. They need consistency.

To Acquire Valuables

You give your dog a bone, and one day he stops eating it as you pass by. He stares at you and stiffens its body. You walk away. Next time, when you are too close, he growls again. The problem escalates, and now you cannot get in the kitchen anymore.

In this case, the dog has effectively learned how to keep you away from valuables. The dog believes the bone is his and has a lack of trust as his first thought—that you want to get the bone from him. In such a scenario, taking the bone away is the biggest mistake. He must learn that the bone comes from you but that you do not have any intention to take it away. Rather, start tossing treats every time you pass by. The dog soon learns that good things happen when you come close and that you are the provider of such good things.

Dogs Growl for Many Reasons

As you can see, dogs growl for various reasons. Respected dog trainer Pat Miller claims that it growling is a gift and should be treasured. Knowing exactly why your dog growls is vital in treating the behavior issue properly. Most cases of aggression out of fear or general aggression should be addressed by a professional trainer or behavior specialist.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: My dog has growled and shown teeth at my wife a few times lately. It’s usually when he is sitting with me and she gets near. Is he protecting me? Or is he kind of owning me? He is a four-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier

Answer: I don't believe dogs have a real sense of "ownership" as us humans do, but it may be that your dog feels safe near you and feels threatened or just uncomfortable when your wife comes near. It may be an issue of "trust."

Question: My dog always growls at my sister when she gets close. Why is this?

Answer: Your dog may not feel comfortable having your sister near him/her, or he/she may not like your sister being near you.

Question: My Rottweiler bit me when I tried to hug him. How do I solve his aggressive behavior?

Answer: You would need to see a behavior consultant using force-free behavior modification for safety and correct behavior modification implementation. For the time being, please be careful and avoid placing your hands or arms around your dog, hovering over him or placing your hands near his head or shoulders.

Question: My son and daughter-in-law have a Golden Retriever that always growls at me and no one else. What could be the reason?

Answer: There are various possibilities. A common one is something you may have done or do that makes him uneasy. For example, you may have startled him if you dropped things or carry large objects or maybe sneezed or coughed. Maybe you move fast or talk in a certain way. Maybe he's protective of the children and growls when you approach. It would be interesting to see in what context the growling occurs to identify what triggers him (e.g. walking close too him, coming close to your son or daughter). However, if you mention this happens always, then it likely it started with something you did in the past (or keep on doing) and then spread to your mere presence, hence always evoking the growling.

Question: My sweet pit bull had a swollen paw from foxtails. When I tried to remove them, she growled at me. Should I be concerned?

Answer: Most likely she growled because she is in pain.This is the most likely scenario if you have usually been able to touch her paws in the past with no problems before this mishap.

Question: My dog had tummy trouble, and one night he wasn't in bed. He was on the floor, and he started growling. I began talking to him, and his tail started wagging, but he continued to growl. Do you have any ideas as to why this happened?

Answer: If this is out of character from your dog, there are chances that the growling was a pain response. Your dog's way of telling you "please leave me alone I am not feeling well." I would suggest seeing the vet if this persists.

Question: Why does my dog growl at me when I get close to my husband?

Answer: There may be chances that your dog is protective of your husband. Some dogs guard people as they would with valuable food and toys or sleeping areas. There may be a chance your dog isn't comfortable with you moving closer to your husband if that means moving closer to him as well though. Or perhaps you do something your dog isn't comfortable with such as sitting down quickly, or making a sound when sitting down. Not always things are cut and dry, so you may need a professional to come to your home for an assessment.

Question: My 1 year old dog growls when my son comes down the stairs. Why is this?

Answer: It could be that your son coming down the stairs makes him uneasy. Perhaps he wasn't expecting him to come down, or he walked down the stairs too fast or with an impact, making noise with his feet. To dogs, seeing a person coming down a flight of stairs may seem odd. Since this seems to trigger the growling, you can try practicing some rehearsals and feed your dog high-value treats every time your son comes down the stairs. Your son can alert you before he comes down so you can prepare yourself with the treats. If things seem to escalate and your dog seems unsafe or won't take treats, please see a professional.

Question: My little wire-haired dachshund who is usually very relaxed and sweet natured, has recently started growling at me. He is 3 now and has never done this before, though he has not had the snip. Another person has recently moved into my flat, and I wondered if this could be a factor? He doesn't growl at her though, just me, and not his usual playful growling. The other day I went to pick him up when he was lying on the floor by her and he growled. Very out of character for him. Any deas?

Answer: It could very likely be that your dog is particularly stressed out by these recent changes in the household. When dogs are stressed, they may not sleep as they should, they may startle and they may be over reactive. It could be your dog does this to you rather than to her because you are the one who interacts with him more. Of course, there may be other things going on such as medical issues that may need to be ruled out, but it sounds a bit too much of a coincidence that this growling has started right when this person moved in. So stress may be higher up the possible list of differentials.

Question: Why is my 2-year old Chihuahua lying around and growling when I touch him?

Answer: If this is uncharacteristic for him, it would be important to see the vet to rule out any medical problems. With medical problems ruled out, it could be he doesn't like to handled or he is protective of his bed/sleeping area or just wants to be left alone when he's ready to take a nap.

© 2009 Adrienne Farricelli

Comments

Patti Brasher on July 09, 2020:

We have a pitbull mix dog and when I’m in bedroom and my husband walks in my dog has started occasionally growling at my husband. He acts like he is protecting me but my husband gets upset when he does this. This morning I was getting out of bed and the dog came to my side of bed. As I was trying to get my shoes on my husband walks I. And my dog is just staring at him and growling. It seems it only happens in the bedroom.

Mary on April 20, 2020:

I adopted a 2 month old Shih Tzu. He growls and barks when I couldnt play with him. I tend to ignore so he would stop but I dont know if its the right response. Im worried that if I keep on ignoring him, he will see me as weak and challenge me on hierarchy.

Tiffany on January 23, 2020:

I have a 10 month old Chihuaua, Harley. Usually he growls at my fiance when he is kissing him. But now yes is growling at me whenever I kiss him then he will lick me then try and attack me. So I put him down and he still wants me to hold him and love on him. I am so confused. Also, not sure if this is the reason but ever since I got him (I was still bottle feeding him) he has been an inside dog but recently we had to move in to my fiance's parents and we are about to have a baby so my fiance's father says no dogs in the house. So I have been putting him in a bin with a blanket and a jacket that smells like me. Then putting the bin in a she'd because I don't want my dog (my baby) to be cold. Lately I haven't been able to spend much time with him like I was when he was inside. Could this be the reason he is acting so strange? Please help.

Amber Medina on January 08, 2020:

I have a 2 year old Cane Corso when he has something he should have in his mouth and my boys who are 15 and 11 try to remove it he growls and snaps. Now he is not like this with my husband and I, should i be worried for the safety of my kids? Can he be trusted? I am just worried it will only get worse.

Kelly on November 24, 2019:

I have a Pomklee I have had since he was 6 weeks old he is now a little over a year old he has always been a very love able playful boy my children and I are always hugging and loving on him and he loves it out of the blue I was hugging on him like normal and he growled at me? Why? What do I do about this?

John on October 09, 2019:

My ten year old staffie zeb,keeps growling at my wife,this started at lrast a year ago,my wife only has to walk in a room and he starts,we can luve with, but noe hes even growling at our grand children, i want to put him down, hes getting unpredictable , what should i do.thanks

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 30, 2019:

Hi Winnie, the first time we ever hear a growl coming out of our dog's mouth, it sort of breaks our heart doesn't it? It sounds like you have a very sweet boy, and beagles are normally that way, what comes to mind is that probably he is frightened by something.

Something perhaps happened that made him decide to stay under the table when he is a bit scared of something.

If this happens every evening, maybe something of your mother in laws' bedtime routine doesn't make him comfortable. This can be anything innocent. Can it be she was picking him up and petting him or wanting him to spend time with her in bed and he didn't like that? Can it be she was leaning over him and giving him good night kisses?

Innocent things like this given from a stranger (or somebody they do not see too often) can sometimes have dogs run for cover and not want to interact.

Of course, there may be other things that may trigger this. Perhaps she used to let her shoes fall to the floor with a loud thump before going to bed, used to cough loudly or something else. Nothing bad but some dogs are sensitive and get scared when there are other people in the home and they don't know them too well.

Sometimes we see dogs hide under tables this when they are chased around by children or other pets or when they don't want to do something (like given a bath, have nails trimmed or picked up etc).

The growl is sort of a way to say "I feel safe here, please don't get me out of here." Dogs who are forced out by pulling them can sometimes even bite, out of defense. So caution is needed. Even the sweetest dogs can bite when scared.

In any case, it seems like your dog is happy to see it's you and he comes out from his hiding spot.

Hiding in dogs is highly reinforcing because they feel safe, so it may take some time to get him out of this behavior. Sometimes creating a new bedtime routine can help.

For example, before he goes to his hiding spot, you can try to engage him in some game or let him do some tricks and reward him with some tasty treats or set up a treasure hunt by hiding some of his kibble around the home.

As new positive associations are made, he might feel safe again and stop feeling the need to hide.

Winnie1218 on September 30, 2019:

My almost 4 year Beagle boy is a rescue we've had him for almost 2 years, he is very sweet and a good boy. He plays indoors with us runs around like a crazy dog, rolls on the carpet and makes a grunting noise. lol He has a big backyard to play in, we are a busy family with sports after work so he does not get a walked until the weekend. He sleeps in a kennel, We recently got him a XL kennel and he seem to like it just fine, I left his medium size out to see if he preferred to go back to smaller kennel just in case. My mother in law was in town for a month so he spent more time inside, he started going under her bed & she loved him, pet him all the time and feed him more than usual against our request not to. Lately, I heard that same grunting noise and then it get a little more like growl but hes under the table and he looks like hes looking at someone in the upper corner of the table, he starting to do this every night? When he sees me he stops and comes out and wags his tale or runs to me for love. I crawled under the table to see if there was something there and another time to see what he would do.. he does nothing hell move out the way, is this something I should be concerned about?

TIA

Jade on July 14, 2019:

My 6 year old Chihuahua has suddenly started growling if I don’t let her play with other dogs, if I let her go near them, she is perfectly happy, her tail is wagging, but sometimes she can get a little over excited and scare other dogs, (believe it or not), so on occasion I hold her back and she growls, I then feel like the other dogs owner is thinking she is aggressive and they usually pull their dog away. Is she growling at me in frustration because I won’t let her play?

Tammy Nichols on June 19, 2019:

I have a 13-year-old Chihuahua every time my husband gets up to go to work or if I need to leave the house she gets to the point she will growl every time you make a move. And I want to know why and what I can do to stop it.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 02, 2019:

Marsha, so sorry to hear this happened. Perhaps when you walk into the living room and she's next to your husband, you can toss some tasty treats her way. Do this as often as you can so that she learns that when you come close great things happen. However, have a behavior professional help you out initially to make sure you do it right without putting your dog over threshold.

Marsha on May 28, 2019:

My husband and I purchased an american bully about 8 months ago, she was 6 months when we got her. My husband has been the sole care taker, however I have taken her out for walks a couple of times, but havent lately. My husband took her out of her cage for a while and as i was walking into the living room she was laying beside my husband and when i came in she looked up and growled at me.....my husband said it was alright cause her tail was wagging, but now i am terrified of her!

Laylanie on March 24, 2019:

My dog growls when i look in one ear. Could he be in pain?

Hes not one to growl ever. Hes genuinely sweet and loving.

Justin McK75 on March 03, 2019:

My dog is a 1 year old shortly. My girlfriend's daughter comes to visit about 3 X's a month and everytime she does he snarled and snaps at her. This is the only time he exhibit's this behaviour. I cannot understand why he's doing this. I find myself fairly intuitive with him but am baffled by this one . Ant help would be very helpful.

Kales on February 19, 2019:

My younger dog often intergects herself when paying attention to my senior dog, the big issue is that some times She starts to growl or get mean when the senior dog for eg is invited on the couch she's on too, or if I started paying attention to the jealous one first and the senior one walks by / near she growls ! We got the younger dog when she was about 2/3 months old.. so she's been around my senior dog all her life... what's going on!!

Austen R on January 03, 2019:

Whenever I put my head near my dog she growls and moves away, I’m extremely worried and believe she hates me. What does this mean?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 27, 2018:

If your Rottie is touch sensitive, it may be worthy having your behaviorist guide you through a desensitization and counterconditioning program. Please play it safe.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 27, 2018:

Tracy, some dogs become more reactive at night if it's dark and they are more prone to react rather than "think" does this sound like the case?

Lovmygrandpup on December 26, 2018:

My son and his pit moved in with me last January ( he sold his house so was with me till found another ). He last week moved into his new house after him and the dog where with me for 11.5 months. The dog was attached to me before they moved in and even more so after. When they moved to the new house a few days ago I went over for the first few days to clean and unpack visit with the dog and let home out so was there Wednesday Thursday and Friday. And Sunday. Didn’t see them on Monday ( Xmas eve). But when they came over to my house on Xmas the dog found one of his gifts under the tree we let him open it It was a ball ( a hard one being a pit he chews thru most toys ) he usually will bring you the ball for u to throw but when I tried to play with him he growled. So I just let him be. After a while he came to me. And dropped the ball when I went to pet him he growled again. Which he has never done before. My son scolded him he even growled at him. He put his muzzle on him and a time out. Later when I petted him he was ok at first but the growled again. Could this just all be because of the moving to a new house. And when they came over he was confused? (S.n. I went over to his house today dog was happy to see me. Should we be worried?

Becca Kay on December 09, 2018:

My boyfriend and I got a puppy, she is 6 weeks old. We’ve had her one week and she is very loving and happy, BUT. When my boyfriend is around, she only wants him. I’m the one who nursed her back to health and is training her, but when he’s around, she growls if I pick her up or move her at all. Even if I’m putting her closer to him. Does she not like me, or is she possibly possessive of him?

LizJaunich on December 03, 2018:

I have a two year old male rottie, that I adopted from a shelter at 6 months. The first 6 months of my pups life were hard, and it will always impact him physically and mentally. Sine he has live with us and essentially become our child, he has hit the jack pot. Vader can be aggressive to other people, I believe he is protecting his pack, We adopted a Pyrendoodle (his behaviorist suggested us to get another dog to ease his anxiety of not being around me) In Feb of this year, and he loves her and protects her but gets really angry when she goes up to people with out his permission.

Vader and I are thick as thieve, we both equally think the sun rises and sets upon the other, but recently ( 6 weeks or so) he has been growly at me. Especially when I hug him, I have always hugged him and he appeared to love it, now not so much. I thought that maybe he was made at me (he is moody) for getting a second job on the weekend, so he hangs out with his daddy more. Which is great because their bond wasn't so strong before. Today Vader lunged at me, when I was saying goodbye. I think he thought I was going to take his biscuits That I just gave him. Oddly enough I burst into tears because my feelings were hurt, and he followed me and came over to say he was sorry.

As I was taking to him, My hand passed over his chest area (which is getting broader lately) and he growled at me again. My husband can touch his chest and not get growled at so what's the matter with me doing it? I know he is trying to tell me to stop but on the other hand he cannot continue to growl at me or lunge. Help please.

Tracy Doughty on November 27, 2018:

My Amstaff behavior toward my husband is confusing and scary ...one day my amstaff will let my husband walk him give him treats then that night he will have the most vicious growl and will be in a attack position im called to the rescue and have to come in between them this is all the time i do not hit him i use my stern voice and have to repeat myself several times to get his attention ....what do i need to do?

Mohamed Altamimi on November 27, 2018:

Why my 3 years male gsd aggressive towards babies while very friendly with adults ?

PEGGY on September 20, 2018:

WHY IS MY DOG ALL OF A SUDDEN BITING ME?

Swampy Joe on September 05, 2018: