Dog Growling: 5 Steps to Try

What should you do when your dog is growling at you? Don't discipline him - or stop disciplining if that's why he is growling.

33

Dog growling is a valuable means of communication, something that dog owners should appreciate and respect rather than punish. Of course, we don’t want our dog to growl at us, but neither do we want him to fail to growl if something makes him uncomfortable; that’s very important information in a successful canine-human relationship.

It’s very common for dog owners to punish their dogs for growling. Unfortunately, this often suppresses the growl—eliminating his ability to warn us that he’s about to snap, literally and figuratively. On other occasions, punishing a growling, uncomfortable dog can induce him to escalate into full-on aggression.

So, if you’re not supposed to punish dog growling, what are you supposed to do? The next time your dog growls at you, try this:

1. Don’t push your dog over his tolerance threshold. Whatever you’re doing, just stop.

If your dog’s growl threshold is near his bite threshold – that is, if there’s not much time between his growl and his bite, get safe. If his growl doesn’t mean a bite is imminent, stop what you’re doing but stay where you are. Wait until he relaxes, then move away, so you’re rewarding the relaxed behavior rather than the growl.

2. Analyze the reason for dog growling.

Why is your dog growling? Does she growl when you touch or groom her? Growling when restrained? Does your dog growl when making direct eye contact? How about when you take something away from him? Or making him do something? If your dog is growling at you all of the sudden, think about what in your shared environment has changed.

3. Explore ways to get your dog to do something that does not elicit aggressive communication.

Try to get your dog to behave without eliciting a growl. Lure him rather than physically pushing or pulling him. Have someone else feed him treats while you touch, groom, or restrain him. If you don’t have to do whatever it was that elicited the growl, don’t – until you can convince him that the activity in question is a good thing rather than a bad thing.

4. Evaluate the stressors in your dog’s world and reduce or eliminate as many of them as possible.

For example, if your dog is unaccustomed to strangers, then having your sister and her husband and three kids as houseguests for the past week would undoubtedly stress your dog. Noise-phobic dogs might be under a strain if city crews have been digging up a nearby street with heavy equipment or there was a thunderstorm last night. The vacuum cleaner is a common stressor for dogs. A loud argument between you and your spouse could stress your dog as well as you, and your stress is stressful to your dog. Harsh verbal or physical punishment, an outburst of aroused barking at the mail carrier, fence fighting with another dog. The list could go on and on.

Keep in mind that stress causes aggression, and stressors are cumulative; it’s not just the immediate stimulus that caused the growl, but a combination of all the stressors he’s experienced in the past few days. This explains why he may growl at you today when you do something, but he didn’t growl last week when you did the exact same thing. The more stressors you can remove overall, the less likely he is to growl the next time you do whatever it was that elicited the growl this time.

5. Institute a behavior modification program for your dog to change his opinion about the thing that made him growl.

One way to do this is to use counter-conditioning and desensitization to convince him the bad thing is a good thing (see “Reducing Your Dog’s Anxieties,” April 2007 WDJ).

Another way is through the careful use of negative reinforcement as in a Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT) program to teach him a new behavioral strategy when presented with the discomfort-causing stimulus. (For much more detail about CAT programs, see “Modifying Aggressive Behavior,” May 2008 WDJ.)

If you need help to create and implement a behavior modification protocol, contact a qualified behavior professional who is experienced and successful in modifying aggressive behavior with positive, dog-friendly techniques. Good places to start your search are ccpdt.org, or my own trainer referral lists at peaceablepaws.com.

Previous articleDownload the Full September 2009 Issue PDF
Next articleUp To Date Canine Health News
WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.

33 COMMENTS

  1. My dog is a pekingnes male. He wont let me groom him, he snaps at me. I can try to get a tick off of him an d he snaps at me. He has left bruises on me and open wound that look really bad.Hes 4 years old and I love him to death but what can I do about snapping and biting?

      • This is the worst advice possible.
        Please don’t make comments like this when you don’t know what your are doing.

        The article even says this. Never punish a dog for showing aggression, you can do serious damage. Change behavior via positive reinforcement.

        • This article is God? Who lets you tell Tamy “don’t make comment like this ” None of these articles help pet owners one bit. They all say to let the dog do what they want, never challenge the dog, And them go send thousands of dollars on a “Professional” to help train your dog. In the real world people that love their dogs don’t have that kind of money and/or time…….. I don’t know the answer to Lousie Comment but neither does this worthless article…

    • I found something very useful on the internet. If you feel your dog getting stressed and he or she growls you do not punish by shouting or hiting but you say “ nonononono no no no go over there” this is telling your dog that when he feels stressed he goes away, to go in a different place. Do not shout just calmly but stern.
      I hope this helps. Also remember dogs have something called me time or personal space. If he growls when u groom him it is probably cos u are hurting him like because there is a knot.
      🙃👍✌️

  2. Why does my 2 yr old chichaua gets grumpy at night, by showing her teeth or a small growl? She only does that night. Thank you.
    V/r,
    Patti

    • The same reason we groan or sigh or suck our teeth as teens… We dont want to do it and dont like that we aren’t getting our way dogs are the same.

  3. There are some points here. But usually
    Just figuiring out whats triggering your pup and then work from there. Of they ate scared and that’s the reason they are growling then you can work with the fear trigger. If they are growling at people while walking on a leash then added training I.E. more Dog parks for socializing , rewarding when they dont growl in a setting they normally do.So much work. 🐱

  4. I have a 2yr old pitty that growls when all the time. He is healthy and and not afraid. He growls when he wants attention, he growls when he is tired, he growls when he is hungry, he growls when you take his leash off. Most of the time he pushes his head into me while growling. He is not food or toy aggressive. We have tried turning away and treats. He even gives kisses while growling. Im stumped.

    • Sounds to me like maybe your pitty is simply more vocal than most dogs?
      We have a 13 yr. old terrier mix (some have guessed Patterdale/Jack Russel), who’s done this ever since shortly after we adopted her, at approx. age 4 months.
      After initially trying to scold her (verbally, NOT physically; I know the latter is a primate behavior, not a canine behavior!), I slowly figured out she wasn’t being aggressive so much as just communicating…although we’re not always sure what she’s trying to say. Sometimes it seems like, “Let’s play!” or, “I’m excited!”
      She’s a strong personality, and can get pretty hysterical at times, shrieking and loudly barking during moments of stress/whenever she feels we’re pushing her out of her comfort zone. When this happens, we usually humor her until she’s calmed down. But we’re no longer intimidated; she’s only ever–and very rarely–tried a soft, warning bite; not nearly hard enough to break skin. We conveyed this was unacceptable by saying a firm, “NO!,” and she’d relent 😉

    • I lost it when I read this!! Our meatball is a golden. He is NOTHING like any Golden I’ve ever come across. He does the exact same things. But he does protect his resources ever since he was neutered. I swear that’s why. Sometimes we are afraid he will eventually snap so, we’re careful as can be. It’s not a fine line, just as it isn’t raising a family.

  5. Thank you for this helpful advice. It’s easy to confuse behavioral training (“stay”, “sit”, and “down”) with a dog’s natural need to communicate. Even people do damage to other people by stifling emotions. Your article really helped me better understand my dog’s needs.

  6. If you don’t believe in these answers then why are you even on this site? Just don’t read it and keep your mouth shut! This is for people who really want help with their situations. So go beat your dog with a fly swatter and see how that works for you!

    • I’m on this site because in looking for helpful answers. With that needing said, the article I just read was garbage! A total waist of my time. Comments are left because there is a “comments” section…. 🤨🤦‍♀️🤷‍♀️ Giving near full control to the dog is absurd! If you don’t believe in beating you dog, fine, don’t do it. But she left her comment no different than you and I left ours. NEXT! 🙄✌

    • Anybody that thinks physical aggression ie beating it with a fly swatter is a good idea is a frickin idiot. They probably think spanking their kids is also a good idea

      • IGNORANCE doesn’t look good on you to compare beating an animal to spanking a child. EXPERIENCE here. Have three children; 21, 18 and 16. Never had to smack their tushies or lil hands often at all and I’m not sure that’s accurate because there are other methods available that do work but inevitably there’s gonna be times that all goes out the window. WHY? Because we’re not perfect and we have to learn as well. GUIDANCE. FREE SPEECH RIGHT OR WRONG AND YOU CAN RESPOND TO OTHERS REMARKS AS WELL RIGHT OR WRONG.

      • Your getting to loose with your terminology. Theres a difference between a disciplinary spanking and a quote beating. Example i was raised in a oldfashioned Puerto rican family so if we went to a store as a child i was told keep my hands in my pocket translation: u break it u buy it. So a slap on the hands to reiterate dont touch the glass statue on the shelf in my opinion is valid as discipline but not something such as punching a child or kicking them to the ground thats yes indeed a beating and can be constituted as abuse basicly its about how far you take it a light smack on the dogs booty with a firm No, bad boy/girl is fine just dont go as far as trying to land a 4 piece combo on it. And ps words count too you can express what they did or are doing with a no or bad etc but its not to go off on them like ” u worthless,stupid,pathetic,etc.. Ill kick your ass!!, all that is unnecessary causes unnecessary drama and strain on your relationship , use the tone of your voice to instruct not the words u say

  7. Please help. My spaniel is coming up to 2, when he is naughty I can tell him bed, he goes. When I tell him off saying “ bad boy, no” he wags his tail but growls. If I go close he still growls. I’ve tried standing still and not saying anything, he continues to growl. I leave once he is quiet. How can I stop this. I have 2 other dogs who have never done this. I will b honest and say the growling scares me. What can I do.?x

    • One thing that may be good is to reward the good behavior. Maybe keep some treats in your pocket and award him once in a while when he’s not growling. Another thing you could start saying is “ah!” As in no. He may think it’s playtime if used too often. I hope this may help, I’m not a dog trainer, but I am schooled in negative and positive reinforcement.

  8. I have 3.5 year old Presa Canary Mastiff. He’s about 110 pounds. I’ve had him since he was 6 weeks old and we’ve been basically attached at the hip since then. I’ve often socialized him since he was young at a dog park and around friends and family. I’ve made sure he had all his vaccinations when they were due. I’ve trained him myself to be pretty obedient: sit, stay, lay down, off, come on command (I’d give him a 3 out of 5). He’s a very affection dog with people. He doesn’t like to leave my side and loves my parents just as much. I’ve never hit him with anything more than a limp paper towel roll maybe a couple of times on the snout when he was younger. My disciplining tool of choice was always a spray bottle with water in it or suspension of affection and attention from me.

    As he’s gotten older, he’s become very protective, which I don’t mind at all. It’s only around things or places that he knows to be mine or “his”. When he meets new people at my house, he’s barking up a storm and ready to pounce until I distract him and redirect his attention long enough to get him to follow me away. I instruct new people to not pay attention to him or pet him initially and just let him warm up to them. During these interactions, I usually have him wear a shock collar or a head lead (I only use the vibration key to break his focus on the unknown situation so he can focus on me, the familiar. I use shock ONLY when I see any imminent danger, but that’s rare with people…even never). HOWEVER, for years, he’s done this low growling when certain people start to pet him anywhere on his body from his scapula up to his head. He doesn’t do this to me really at all (a few times), but he does this with strangers and with family members that he displayed immense affection toward. But this growl is pretty low and gives the impression of “I don’t like you touching me right now, please stop” from him. As soon as this familiar person stops petting him, he nudges their hand and gets closer to them as if he wants them to continue.

    I’ve followed up with the vet to see if this may be coming from any medical issues, but the vet said he seems fine. He did do this growl with the vet at one or two points of the visit but the vet didn’t relate it to anything other than some separation anxiety and being around strangers. When he does this with family, usually I’m there with him and he does it when I’m not. Now here are some details that may or may not be contributing factors to this aggression:

    1. He is an intact male. I don’t believe neutering when he was younger would have prevented this or would correct this now so I haven’t given this much consideration, but I will say it’s possible it could or could have helped.

    2. This growling seems to only be at female family members or women that he’s met before. So maybe the above detail about him not being neutered plays into this a little? But He does this with any stranger, man, woman, etc. so I don’t totally contribute it to that or dominance.

    3. He only does this in confined spaces with these people. So in a house in a bedroom or some room where there isn’t a lot of space. In a small apartment. It’s only ever been while he’s inside confined spaces. If we’re outside walking in an unfamiliar area and strangers want to pet him, he is a teddy bear. He doesn’t growl and he is very playful with new people. An entire family (Parents, 2 boys, and 2 girls) have all pet and hugged him at the same time and he completely melted in their arms. He is the same outside with family members walking him around unfamiliar environments. So this could be a dominance thing or a fear response. I’m not sure what my next steps should be with training. I am definitely considering a professional trainer now since he is still exhibiting this behavior with my mother and sister who feed him and look after him often. He’s never tried to bite them but I won’t disregard that possibility. Are there any techniques I can try on my own to maybe rule out some things? Or any suggestions of things I should be doing now to correct this? With me, he is quite literally my best friend and is very affectionate and loving. We have our moments of disagreements haha but nothing more than a timeout or taking away attention from him won’t fix.

    • Thank you Jay! You explained your situation perfectly and asked the best question that reflects on so many of my own thoughts and concerns with our Golden, 100 pounds himself, that’ll be 2 in March, however, he has been fixed. These problems occurred after this and the training we did prior went out the window. Then with certain circumstances it’s not easy to afford behavioral therapy. He’s the first large breed dog we’ve paired with our family. We’ve been around many dogs in our lifetime thus far and he just doesn’t seem like any Golden we’ve known. The other thing for me is he’s a lap dog, obviously doesn’t know he’s huge he’s a literal teddy bear and my blanket lol!! So, when he does this growling sometimes it’s hard to not overact a bit because he’s in my chair on me, I mean I did buy this chair to fit us both lol but not if he’s gonna growl and spook me. He listens when he wants and pretty much gets his way all the times these days because we want to make sure it’s not something we’ve done even if adebvertingly.

  9. My husband teases our Havanese which has caused some behavioral problems. The worst though is when he wants to brush her, usually in the a.m., she will growl when he attempts to pick her up. Growling increases but usually settles down. This a.m., however, she almost bit him as he was picking her up. Naturally, HE felt he was wronged, etc. by her! My explaining how he was crossing her boundary fell on deaf ears….literally! How do I help him understand that he must respect her boundaries and listen to her messages? She does like him and allows him to touch her frequently. She does NOT like him to get close to me, especially if I’m resting, reading or doing my own private thing in the house. She watches closely to alert me that he is headed my way and barks at him, runs into the room where I am and runs to me while she’s barking.

  10. Worst advice. Ever. Didn’t read rest of comments because don’t want to growl at anyone but omg. No. Do not listen to this. Person.

  11. My 4 yr old Cavapoo literally growls and licks me at the same time when I try to pet him first thing in the morning g or at night. It’s totally maddening, and it’s getting worse and worse. It’s like he knows he’s being bad, but can’t help it, so he’s trying to show me that he’s mad, but we’re still friends. He also does it with a bone, so he’s not allowed to have those any more 🙁

  12. I have a petty mixed we have had him for 4 years we got a new puppy for him to have a friend he was ok with puppy then he was playing with the puppy they seem to be getting along fine they were playing in the yard yesterday I heard the puppy crying loudly zi go out get puppy check him out he’s fine my potty goes inside so I say Bandit what did you do he growled at me never done that before today he was growling at me while sitting with my husband ??? And now he growling and barking???? What is the problem? I thought maybe the new puppy? He has been our only baby for 4 years!!!

  13. I have a 2 yr old Toy poodle. He is SO well behaved – he’s never gone to the toilet in the house, never chewed anything, incredibly obedient etc. But he growls ALL THE TIME! If I stroke him he shows his teeth and growls. The only times he doesn’t growl is when I’m commanding him (because he knows he’s getting a treat), playing fetch or going to walk him.

    I’ve invested more money than I have with this dog – had a behaviourist for weeks etc. But no improvement! It says in the article to Identify what makes the dog growl. My dog growls when you stroke him!! So now what?

    I saved up for a year to get a dog for company and he’s SOO unpleasant. What is the point in having a lap dog that you can’t cuddle or stroke?

    I’ve had German shepherds and a bichon frise in the past and they would NEVER growl at me. Is this normal with toy poodles?
    He is very attached to me – follows me everywhere etc.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here