Skip to main content

Why do dogs growl? This is what they’re trying to tell you

Almost nothing makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up faster than hearing the low, menacing growl of a dog. Whether it comes from an unfamiliar dog you meet unexpectedly or from your own furry family member, the sound is unsettling and, often, more than a little terrifying.

You’re wise to be wary, but you don’t need to be terrified. While a growling dog may seem menacing, that’s not always the case. In fact, dogs growl for a variety of reasons — it’s part of the way they communicate. The key is to understand what a dog’s growl means so you can respond appropriately.

angry dog pastel fence

Why do dogs growl?

As a dog owner, you’re probably deeply familiar with the different types of barks your dog emits. Some can be demanding (like at dinnertime), while others are playful or intended to alert you (like when bunnies hop into the yard uninvited). Dog growls are similar. It’s simply part of their language. Here are some common types of dog growls and what you should do when you hear them.

The aggressive growl

For most, this is the first thing that comes to mind when they hear a dog growl — and one of the most frightening. You can tell whether your instincts are correct by looking at the dog’s posture. If his fur is raised and he is crouched low or lunging, you can assume the loud growls you hear are an expression of dominance and power.

What to do: If it’s not your dog, back away slowly. If it is your dog, determine what is causing this reaction and remove your dog from the situation immediately. Since this type of behavior can ultimately cause injury to others, seek advice or training from a pet professional.

angry puppy under the bed

The warning growl

If you’ve invaded a dog’s territory and you hear a low, rumbling growl, it might be his polite way of asking you to leave him alone. Sometimes this sound is barely audible, but you can usually tell what he means by his stiff body posture.

What to do: Pay heed, for sure, but also look for the reason behind the behavior. In this case, he may be feeling threatened, fearful, or possessive. Once you understand why he is growling, you can rectify the situation. If you notice this behavior increasing, consult a trainer for tips on how to reduce your pup’s anxiety.

The frustrated growl

You may have heard this type of growl from your dog when you’re late fixing his dinner or he wants to go outside and play. This growl isn’t nearly as low as some of the others and may sound more bossy or manipulative than threatening.

What to do: This type of growling can become problematic, especially around others who don’t understand your dog’s way of “talking.” Obedience training can help curb this nasty habit. (After all, patience is a virtue, regardless of whether we’re human or canine.)

The growl of pain

If your dog growls when you touch him or when you approach to pet him, he may be in pain. This can sound a lot like a warning growl, especially if he has an illness or injury and wants to be left alone.

What to do: If you suspect your dog may be sick or injured, don’t delay. Seek immediate veterinary care. If it isn’t obvious why he’s hurting, you need professional help to find out exactly what’s wrong.

The playful growl

You’ve probably heard this kind of growl while playing a friendly game of tug-of-war with your pup. With tail wagging and feet firmly planted, he’s fully engaged in doing his best to win the toy from your hand just so he can bring it back and go another round.

What to do: Enjoy the game but be mindful of his behavior. If the growling becomes more intense or he becomes aggressive, stop the game and take a break for a while just to make sure he knows who’s in control.

The affectionate growl

If you’re petting your dog and he begins to growl softly, he may just be content. Some canines make a soft growling noise that sounds a bit louder than a cat’s purr when they are receiving affection. You can tell the difference between an affectionate growl and a warning growl by your dog’s body language. If he’s relaxed — maybe on his back with his legs in the air begging for a belly rub — it’s most likely a growl of affection.

What to do: Keep petting him! According to a study conducted by scientists at Washington State University, petting a dog for just 10 minutes a day lowers your heart rate, relieves tension, and reduces stress. Knowing that your dog is receiving a similar benefit is even more reason to relax and enjoy the moment.

Your dog can growl for many reasons. The first step is to identify the underlying cause of this behavior. Once you do, you’ll know what actions to take to make your four-legged friend feel better.

Editors' Recommendations

Debbie Clason
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Debbie Clason's work has appeared in Family Life Magazine, Sports Illustrated, The Lutheran Witness, Massage Magazine…
What does it mean when a dog’s teeth chatter? The answer is concerning
The most common reasons behind this odd behavior
A golden retriever smiling and showing his teeth

Did you know that dogs and humans have similar brain structures? Just like us, dogs experience emotions like happiness, anger, excitement, love, and disgust. However, a dog's brain is more similar to that of a human toddler than that of an adult, meaning their range of emotions is somewhat limited. Your dog's expressions can run the gamut from a playful smile to an aggravated sneer, but some behaviors leave even the most seasoned pet parents scratching their heads.

Have you ever wondered what dog teeth chattering means? There are several causes of dog jaw chattering. Some are simple and easily remedied -- such as extreme emotions -- and others require a trip to the vet. Here's what it means if your dog's teeth are chattering.
Why do dogs chatter their teeth? 

Read more
Coconut oil for dogs: The pros and cons you need to know
What are the benefits of coconut oil for dogs? It's complicated.
Coconut oil next to a coconut

If you've followed human wellness and nutrition trends over the years, you likely know olive oil is the golden child of oils. Lauded for being a healthy fat that can protect against heart disease, even cardiologists recommend consuming olive oil. Yet, coconut oil has also come into favor recently for health benefits ranging from weight loss to immune system and improving cognitive functioning in people with dementia. Keyword: People.

What are the benefits of coconut oil for dogs? Are there even any? Is coconut oil safe for dogs? These are all excellent questions and ones to ask a vet before giving any human food to a pet, whether you're allowing them to ingest the item or applying something topically. Some foods are toxic to pets, and topical application of some products can exacerbate the issues you want to fix. Where does coconut oil fit in? Here's what we do (and don't) know about coconut oil for dogs.
What is coconut oil?

Read more
Can you give a dog Benadryl? You’d better follow the correct dosage guide
Antihistamines can work wonders for pets with allergies
A golden retriever wearing a scarf and holding a handkerchief in his mouth

Just like us, dogs can suffer from allergies. While we can use a nasal spray or take an allergy medication, our dogs rely on us to treat their symptoms. Diphenhydramine, the generic name for the widely used name brand Benadryl, is commonly prescribed by veterinarians to treat seasonal allergies, anxiety, and even motion sickness. Have you ever wondered, "How much Benadryl can I give my dog?" We'll walk you through everything you need to know about giving dogs Benadryl, from the correct dosage to potential side effects.
Benadryl dosage for dogs 

Always speak to your vet before giving your dog any medication or supplements. Because your vet knows your pup's medical history, they can make the proper recommendations. Benadryl should not be used if your dog:

Read more