Many owners, especially those new to dog ownership, can get anxious about growling. They wonder if this signals they have a vicious dog or an animal that has decided he wants to be in charge? Some of us become socially embarrassed and chastise our pet to mitigate those potential judgements and show we are ‘good, aware’ owners. Others feel offended that ‘bowzer’ has the temerity to answer back and feel compelled to take steps to show who is really boss round here. The dog may be labelled as ‘nasty’ or ‘iffy’. 

To be clear, we cannot deny that growling may be a prelude to a full- blown aggressive response but the key is in that word prelude. A growl is a red alert signal, it’s the clearest warning your dog is worried, uncomfortable or riled, and it gives us an opportunity to go to action stations, to ensure safety and calm all round.  

Of course, not all growls are even bad. Growling can occur in play, as in a game of tug; it can be a signal of pleasure when you stroke your dog and it may also indicate the dog is in pain. Getting to grips with different growls and what they mean is all part and parcel of successful communication with our dog and every dog is a bit different in how they do that. Growling tells us how the dog is feeling, not necessarily with conscious intent, but it is a valuable window to his emotional state and it is normal. 

Sometimes behaviourists and trainers advise clients to ‘ignore’ the growling. I have to admit that this is not that helpful and even misleading, as growling is something we certainly need to notice. However, in this context what is really meant by ‘ignore’ is shorthand for don’t chastise your dog. The last thing we want to do is repeatedly tell the growling dog off, whether with a stern ‘no’ or a sharp jerk on the lead. None of those approaches is going to address the real problem and that is the strong emotions that produce the growling. 

 In response to chastisement the dog will quickly learn not to growl but the negative emotions involved will likely get more intense, especially when the additional unpleasantness of owner punishment is added to the equation. 

The key point is that growling mostly indicates the dog is getting upset about something. He may be frightened or unsure of toddlers; he may be threatened by a dog coming towards him out on a on a walk. He may be super frustrated because he is a young, hormonal male that feels a primal urge to duff up the competition. He may even get anxious or angered around his food or favourite toys, worried someone/anyone is going to take (steal) it. 

Any dog can learn to limit or even stop himself growling, but he cannot control his emotions. So, what can happen next is the dog that has quietly seethed or agonised inside on multiple exposures to something he hates, fears or is frustrated by, flies off the handle and bites, seemingly ‘out of the blue’ or ‘without warning’.  

Don’t ignore growling but don’t shut it down either. Instead, take a careful note about what is going on when your dog growls, does he look relaxed or tense? What is the context? If your dog is growling a lot in certain situations, seek advice from a dog professional. 

Leonie St Clair I