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Dog Growling Guide: Snarling, Growling During Play & More | Pupford

December 6th, 2023

Filed under Pet Parenting

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Dog growling is one of the many ways our pups communicate, and it's important for humans who interact with dogs to understand what it means and the proper way to react.

Growling is a vocal expression of a dog's discomfort, which generally follows visual cues. Growling gets a bad reputation because humans find it embarrassing and scary if their dog growls.

But the truth is that the poor doggo may just be trying to say, ‘please stop doing whatever you are doing to me because it makes me so uncomfortable’.

In this article, we will explain everything dog parents need to know about growling in dogs. This includes why dogs growl, how to tell the difference between growls, and how you can best train and manage them.

Related Reading: The Canine Ladder of Aggression


dog growling as a sign of aggression

Growling is commonly misinterpreted as plain aggressive vocalization.

A growling dog or puppy is portrayed as a snarling, erratic, and potentially dangerous animal. But primarily, growling is just a form of vocal communication between species.

The low, guttural, rumbling sound may sound terrifying, but it's just their way of telling you, "I feel uncomfortable or threatened in this situation." It's good that your dog is growling because they are telling you that they are not okay with whatever is happening around them.

A dog who has learned that growling is wrong or didn't have the chance to learn about canine communication in the puppy socialization phase is far more dangerous because he won't warn you before he snaps (in other words, don’t punish your dog for growling).

As humans, we put a lot of emphasis on verbal communication, so we're often tempted to decipher our dogs' barks and growls and translate these sounds into meaning. But dogs aren't huge fans of verbal communication – they rely much more on physical body language.

🐶 Don't miss out! Learn all about your dog's signals in the Dog Body Language Course. Get started here! 🐶

Even though your dog might be growling, their primary form of communication is a series of body signals. Examples include:

  • Ear posture
  • Tail positioning
  • Panting, mouth-licking, or yawning
  • Bowing
  • Weight balance and body posture
  • Eye movement
  • Fur / raised hackles

These start subtly but can escalate to more overt behaviors (growling is an example of a pretty overt behavior).

In a study on humans' ability to understand dog growls, most people could correctly distinguish through audio between a playful growl, an aggressive growl of a dog guarding food, and a fearful growl from a dog being approached by a stranger.

This ability to understand growls was stronger in people who regularly interacted with dogs. This brings us to our next point…


dogs playing and one dog is growling because it wants space


Dogs, at times, can be very vocal while playing, either while playing a game of tug-of-war, roughhousing, or playing with another dog. This is considered playful growling and isn’t usually something to worry about.

However, there are times when this playful growling can become more intense, and you may want to separate your dogs to ensure the playful growing doesn’t turn into something else. It’s important to understand your dog’s body language and monitor your dog during play (ex. a play bow is an invitation to play and shows that they are not a threat while showing teeth in a wide “smile” can indicate aggression).

Here are other tips to know if your dog is playing too rough.

Learn more about your dog’s body language in our Dog Body Language course in Pupford Academy+. There you will learn more about calming and stress signals, how to read your dog’s body, and more. 


Pleasure growling is characterized by a low, affectionate growl that may be paired with a moan and can continue for longer. You can compare it to a cat's purr, meaning your dog emits happiness.

Their body language makes it easy to tell that they feel comfortable. Lowered tail, loose stance, and relaxed mouth are all signs of pleasure growling.

But just because your dog is vocalizing out of arousal doesn't mean he would never growl out of fear or anger. Growling is still primarily a warning signal, and every dog differs regarding the amount of play or pleasure vocalization.


A sudden behavior change often comes from pain or severe discomfort, especially when touching an inflamed ear or an injured paw. Several conditions have aggression as a symptom, like hypothyroidism. Getting your dog thoroughly checked by the vet can rule out any underlying diseases and will keep you and your dog safe.

Many dogs dislike being pet on the head or around the muzzle, ears, and paws, especially if it wasn't a part of their socialization training. You can try desensitizing your dog to like being touched in those specific places. Veterinarians routinely need to check the mouth and ears, and groomers (or you) must be able to hold your dog's paw while trimming nails.


Let's fix it: If you want to work on the paws, simply teach your dog the trick "shake," which automatically involves touching his paws without him noticing it. You can use plenty of treats when working on desensitization, but be careful not to encourage undesired behavior, which means removing the treat when your dog starts growling. Getting your dog accustomed to pats also involves learning how to stroke your dog correctly.

🐶 Don't miss out! Learn all about your dog's signals in the Dog Body Language Course. Get started here! 🐶


When it comes to preferences, dogs are not so different from us. Suddenly being hugged by a stranger would throw anyone off.

While some dogs are very aloof around strangers, others dislike certain types of people or apparel. For example, if your dog wasn't properly exposed to tall men with beards in their early developmental stages, they might react particularly fearfully toward them.

If this stranger then decides to approach, alarm bells go off. They'll reject every attempt at physical contact with a low, growly, and clear 'no.' Some dogs don't like their personal space invaded, especially human-oriented breeds who bond with their parents but aren't so sure about strangers.

how you should not greet a dog graphic

Most strangers don't even ask if they could pet your dog; they simply bend over with their whole body and press their sweaty palms onto your dog's head. Bending over paired with immediate physical contact can be perceived as a threat by nervous or fearful dogs.

Let's fix it: Your dog doesn't need to be cuddling with the world, but changing his perception just a little bit will do wonders. Expose him to areas with small groups of people and slowly build your way up to busier streets. Follow these socialization steps and create a positive experience around people by using treats or toys.

You can also ask strangers if they would be willing to throw a treat in front of your dog when passing by or ask them not to approach.

Inform people who request to pet your dog how to approach him properly. They shouldn't bend over the dog and instead come from the side, taking away that threatening body language. For some dogs, a scratch under the chin is much better than a head pat. If your dog is still unsure about people approaching, ask them to kneel with a treat in their hand so your dog can make contact on his terms.

Related Reading: How to Greet a Dog Safely

how to greet dog


Sometimes we may think that growling comes from nowhere, but if we know where to look, we can learn that they did display several body signals beforehand.

dog growling at another dog | Pupford

Some dog body language signs, accompanied by growling, that indicate aggression include:

  • Raised hackles
  • Furrowed brows
  • Stiff tail
  • Tense muscles
  • Snapping/snarling
  • Lunging

Depending on the situation, your dog might try to tell you, "that's enough," or "leave me alone." While growling is not bad, finding out why will help you prevent or manage the situation better in the future.

🐶 Don't miss out! Learn all about your dog's signals in the Dog Body Language Course. Get started here! 🐶

For example, when you pet your dog for a few seconds, and he suddenly gives you an angry growl, he is probably saying he has had enough. He has the right to tell you that, but if occurring repeatedly, it could mean he believes you are in control of the situation and doing something he disapproves of.

Let's fix it: Growling as a warning signal doesn't need to be stopped. Revoking your dog's ability to warn will lead to a much more unpredictable dog (as we mentioned before, NEVER punish your dog for growling). Understand what your dog is uncomfortable within the situation and help them. Did you squeeze your pup too hard, did you grab something from them (resource guarding), is another dog not giving them space? Give them some space, work through triggers, or separate your dogs safely, among other things.

Related Reading: Does playing tug make dogs aggressive?


Dogs can suffer from severe anxiety, just like we do.

Separation anxiety, for example, is a condition in which a dog exhibits signs of extreme distress when being left alone.

Anxiety symptoms in dogs can include…

  • Shivering
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Destructive behavior
  • Urination
  • Drooling
  • Excessive licking, etc.

There are three reasons for fear responses to abnormal stress: fear, phobia, and anxiety. Fear is an instinctual behavior that everyone has experienced several times. It triggers our fight-or-flight response in the presence of a threat.

For example, your puppy could have growled because he heard a loud noise outside the door. Now when fear becomes persistent, it's called a phobia. Your dog could develop a phobia from past trauma with humans or a lack of socialization.

Every time your dog is exposed to that trigger, they will react with a fear response that could include barking, growling, snapping, or lunging. Growling is almost always self-rewarding because it achieves the desired outcome of a person walking away.

Dogs can also develop a general anxiety disorder in which a dog is always on edge and anticipates a threat behind every corner. Petting your dog during fearful phases can actually "hurt" them (by reinforcing the behavior). If your dog is going through a sensitive phase, it's essential to desensitize him to his triggers continuously.


The best thing you can do is understand why your dog is growling and try to help them. Determine the cause, help your dog calm down, work to reduce or eliminate their triggers, and redirect them.

If your efforts don't bear fruit, get to a positive reinforcement trainer for additional help. They'll be able to help find the cause and do something about it.


a dog growling out of fear | Pupford

Dogs and puppies growl for many reasons! The key is to look at the "whole dog", read their body language, and assess the situation to decide how best to move forward.

We recommend the Dog Body Language Course to understand better how to assess your dog's signals daily. Sign up here!

Which of these growls have you heard your dog make? Do you feel like you understand your dog's growls well? Let us know in the comments below!

🐶 Don't miss out! Learn all about your dog's signals in the Dog Body Language Course. Get started here! 🐶


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