Features October 2009 Issue

5 Steps to Deal With Dog Growling

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.

[Updated March 13, 2018]

Growling is a valuable means of communication for a dog—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.

Dog Growling

Donít punish your dog for growling; you need to know when heís uncomfortable so heís not pushed past his ability to cope. Note: Play-growling is perfectly acceptable. As long as youíre sure heís playing, thereís no need to modify this behavior.

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 your dog is 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 and trulydogfriendly.com, or my own trainer referral lists at peaceablepaws.com.

Comments (37)

My pit bull is almost 2 and she's recently started to growl at me after I give her food..I used to be able to put my hand right in her dish, now I cant even touch her and this morning when i went to greet her like i normally do she was weary and growled again? I backed away and sat down and called her to me and she came fine and licked me and was normal but something's wrong? What could be up?

Posted by: Missliss | October 29, 2018 7:26 AM    Report this comment

I feel for you...we had problems with our dog also. He used to hate other dogs. Both my husband and I work a lot and had no time to take our Bud to dog training classes. We asked one friend who works in foster care (he is always surrounded by dogs) what we should do. He recommended one online dog behavior trainer. I love this trainer bit.ly/2NW0msw It helped us a lot, and I strongly recommend it for you.

Posted by: Garry15 | September 24, 2018 7:05 PM    Report this comment

I took my puppy from a dog foster home about a year ago. I love him to bits; he has a great personality, and I feel that he loves our family so much. BUT, whenever I take him for a walks, we have problems. My husband and I were thinking about taking him to 'doggy school', but then again, itís extremely expensive, and the nearest 'doggy school' is far away from us. Maybe you have some advice? THANK YOU!!!!

Posted by: AmyPaige | September 24, 2018 6:58 PM    Report this comment

When my dog growled at i moved my face from beside his...I was invading his space we love like that but he had every right do to us getting into a bed of chiggers and i had given him benadryl for the itching i feel he was woozie did i mention hes a Rotti/Mastiff and a 140#s it didnt scare me i just stopped what i did at that time im not getting rid of a baby i raised from 8.9 ounces because of one growl.

Posted by: Ladyofalldogs | July 8, 2018 5:26 PM    Report this comment

I adopted almost two years ago a female 4 year old silky terrier dog and for the past eight months shes been growling a few times during the night waking me up. A new neighbor moved in next door my Zoe growls when she hears the lady out in her terrace but at times she also growls if someone walks in the hall (I live in a high rise building. Zoe was fine no growling the first year and a half when I brought her home. When she growls I say "be quiet" 2 - 3 times. I appreciate your thoughts and advise.

Posted by: Bivi | March 14, 2018 1:43 PM    Report this comment

Has anybody noticed/reported on odd behaviours in furbabies after smart meters are installed on your house or that of close-by neighbors? I'm wondering whether some of this "out of the blue" behaviour changes are due to that.

Posted by: Yoda | November 25, 2017 8:20 PM    Report this comment

Recently, my miniature poodle has been growling and barking at me in the morning. The dog sleeps in a cage in my room and he doesn't bark until the final time that I leave out of the room. This behavior is unusual because he never did this before and it is starting to be consistent. It is very annoying there has also been times where he was sleeping in his bed in the morning and I will get up and he will jump on me and bark at me. I am not sure if this is separation anxiety but he always jumps on my boyfriend when he is leaving or he would jump on us when he gets excited but he never barks at my boyfriend when he is leaving. Before he used to bark when we go put him in his cage and leave out but we learned to tell him stop and that we were leaving and that we will be back and he will eventually stop the behavior. In the morning time we tell him to stop and he was stopped and sometimes he will why after. I'm not sure how to stop this particular morning barking and growling at me Behavior

Posted by: KilahB | October 10, 2017 7:21 AM    Report this comment

I have a 4 year old Jack Russell Chihuahua mix male I have had since he was 5 weeks old. In the last few weeks he has started to growl at my husband and I with fur standing on his back while we are petting him. Nothing has changed in our home and I don't know what the issue is. I know he has no physical problems and he is not hurt so why all of the sudden is he growling. Please help. I love him but I will not have an animal in my home growling at me because I'm concerned with having my grandkids around him with the fear he may bite them.

Posted by: Kathelms | August 22, 2017 11:11 AM    Report this comment

I'm guessing the dog you adopted had been abused by boys and maybe it scared him

Posted by: Handstopaws | April 11, 2017 1:57 PM    Report this comment

@Big Lenny

Pitbulls seem to have a bad rap because of dog fighting and things, but they're actually one of the gentlest breeds. As for the growling he was probably just terrified at the screaming so he responded in his own screaming-growling.

Hope this helps!

Posted by: Handstopaws | April 11, 2017 1:56 PM    Report this comment

Acquired a two and a half year old male German Shepherd in October 2016. He's been so friendly as we've together since when he was a puppy. Not friendly with the visitors in most instances. I discovered about a week ago that twice rodents strayed into our premises. Twice the gsd killed it and ate everything raw!
However, I noticed that he now growls at any slightest touch from any of house old member he has hitherto been friendly with. I mistakenly stepped on his legs and he growled so fiercely almost bitting me.
Was eating rodents raw + the intestines the cause of this sudden change in behavior and what are the remedies?

Posted by: Foladet24 | April 3, 2017 6:00 PM    Report this comment

Shell, re: your new bulldog-it does sound as though the dog comes from a chaotic environment, which makes one wonder how stable and rewarding it views humans as? Why should it trust you if its prior experience is that life is scary? Sounds (possibly) as though the contained environment of the car resembled a den, and dog felt safe there, and was reluctant to leave it. Could you provide a safe, den like haven in your home? When in the car, you can keep dog on a very long leash, so that you do not have to put your hand close to a growling mouth. But keep in mind that leashes can get caught on things, so don't leave dog alone with leash on. A tasty treat (fresh chicken, cheese, etc.) will likely lure dog out of the car. If you start pairing the word "treat" with the treat, he will learn that a treat is forthcoming, and hence, even the word alone will prompt good behavior, when you don't immediately have one, as long as you reasonably quickly provide one (the word is serving as a bridging stimulus, like a clicker). You may want to reread a good book about training dogs with positive behavior modification, such as Karen Prior, Ian Dunbar, etc. It doesn't seem as though dog has much trust/reliance on you yet, but is that surprising? Dogs shape up pretty quickly when they are in a safe environment that has a balance of structure, affection, fun, exercise, training, good nutrition, treats, and companionship. And they are unbelievably motivated by treats:) Good luck.

Posted by: hilfri | March 19, 2017 4:07 PM    Report this comment

Our 12 year old dog has never growled until recently. Twice in the last few months she has growled -- I think it was due to something seen or heard outdoors. I wonder if a hearing or sight loss might be the root.

Posted by: AnniefromOregon | December 27, 2016 2:07 PM    Report this comment

Growling is communication! Treat it as such. Try as much as you can to find out why the dog is growling. Fear and pain and the most common reasons.
Except of course for play-growling which can sound very fierce.

Posted by: Jenny H | December 27, 2016 12:13 AM    Report this comment

My female fox terrier loves my boyfriend very much he walks her feeds her shows her lots of love...however in the evening she lays across me and if he approaches she growls and shakes...any idea why

Posted by: tiny | September 20, 2016 5:23 PM    Report this comment

We had problems with our dog also. He used to bark and chew shoes, table etc when we were not at home. Both my husband and I work a lot and had no time to take our Bud to dog training classes. We asked one friend who works in foster care (he is always surrounded by dogs) what we should do. He recommended one online dog behavior trainer. I love this trainer http //bit.ly/1SGzTK7
It helped us a lot, and I strongly recommend it for you.

Posted by: AmyPaige | September 18, 2016 11:23 PM    Report this comment

My dog growled tentatively whenever we got near him while he was lying down. After finally getting some much needed dental work one, including the loss of many infected teeth, he not only stopped growling, he became a vastly more relaxed boy. Special note: he ate kibble with no reservations before the work. I always have teeth checked when there is any odd behavior. So far, aside from the above, we have discovered a tumor in one dog's mouth and stopped the road to starvation in a new adoptee.

Posted by: Janet H | August 28, 2016 9:27 AM    Report this comment

My recently adopted dog (4 weeks ago) is around 9 years old but only growls when I lay down to sleep. She is not house trained so I am not letting her on the bed after a few accidents. Obviously, I can't stop trying to sleep, so I feel like my situation is very different from the ones mentioned. Any help is appreciated!

Posted by: ebbe0 | July 17, 2016 6:28 PM    Report this comment

Just adopted a 2/3 yr old Cockapoo who is as sweet as can be but when he has something important that he shouldn't have and I attempt to retrieve it using several different positive tactics, he growls, snarls and I know he will bite. Obviously, I let the situation calm down but this has happened several times and I am at a loss.

Posted by: Pogoe | July 12, 2016 10:42 AM    Report this comment

The only time my dog growls at me is when I have her food in my hand on our way outside to feed her. It's like she is trying to hurry me up. "I am really, really hungry". When I am going to be home late from work, my sister feeds her, but she doesn't growl at her, just at me. Am trying to stop this, but maybe I shouldn't, if she is just communicating.

Posted by: Ld5town | July 11, 2016 12:41 PM    Report this comment

@Big Lenny, quisha616, and tonebea,
Dogs are not mind readers. They don't know what you expect. They can only communicate non-verbally. That means we humans with our big brains have to figure it out. Learn canine body language and barking (read Turid Rugaas, B. Handelman), learn how dogs sense/perceive the world (read Alexandra Horowitz, Patricia McConnell) and you will have an idea of what your dog is afraid of or angry at. Yelling and being aggressive with your dog is a good way to get him to growl at you. The definition of alpha or boss is 'the one who controls the resources', so humans are already there, we have nothing to prove.

Posted by: Ritesaidfred | July 10, 2016 11:09 PM    Report this comment

@Big Lenny, quisha616, and tonebea,
Dogs are not mind readers. They don't know what you expect. They can only communicate non-verbally. That means we humans with our big brains have to figure it out. Learn canine body language and barking (read Turid Rugaas, B. Handelman), learn how dogs sense/perceive the world (read Alexandra Horowitz, Patricia McConnell) and you will have an idea of what your is afraid of or angry at. Yelling and being aggressive with your dog is a good way to get him to growl at you. The definition of alpha or boss is 'the one who controls the resources', so humans are already there.

Posted by: Ritesaidfred | July 10, 2016 10:39 PM    Report this comment

This was a good article, and hopefully will keep some dogs in their homes instead of being sent to the shelter.

Nanci & Bonz

Posted by: CyberDaze | July 10, 2016 2:37 PM    Report this comment

We adopt a puppy from the humane society and he growls and both my husband and son. I need help in stopping her from this before she bites one of them. Does anyone have any ideals? I don't want to have to return her to the pond.

Thanks Katie

Posted by: katie | April 7, 2016 2:29 PM    Report this comment

@KJohnson my dog definitely growls to communicate many emotions. He growls when I give him belly rubs to express happiness and comfort. He growls when he wants to express he wants something, maybe for me to open a door. Sometimes he growls in response to me speaking to him sort of like a way to respond to me.

He may also growl to express he doesnt like something, but not in an aggressive way. For example, he doesnt like when i try to pick him up and move him while in the bed. To me it doesnt seem aggressive either, he just wants to communicate with me.

Its not aggressive at all in many cases. He may growl in an aggressive way too, but not often. Maybe if he doesnt like another dog. Anyway, with my dog growling can mean a lot of things.

Posted by: BaileytheDog | January 25, 2016 12:39 PM    Report this comment

My dog seems to growl as a way of talking, sometimes it's sounds more like he's excited in a good way, sometimes it just sounds like he's complaining in either case it's not accompanied with aggressive behavior. I didn't see any of this mentioned in the article, is every growl taken to be a warning of aggression?

Posted by: Kjohnson | January 10, 2016 11:39 AM    Report this comment

@tonebea if you are the top dog you better act like one before your dog messes you up if you can't put then in their place you ain't the top dog.

Posted by: CurtisAnthoney24 | September 19, 2015 10:17 PM    Report this comment

I've never owned a dog and my girlfriend has, my pit bull is 2.5 and he growls often and the last time it really scared me he showed his teeth and his hair stood up.

I am concerned that he may bite me or one of my guest. I was so upset my girlfriend said she will get rid of him today.

I am just not sure, the growling occurred when I let him out in the yard before work to do his business. I was ready to go called him he ignored me. Then I got mad marched out to him and screamed go home and he growled, showed his teeth and went in house to his crate with me close on his tail.

As I closed crate he continued to growl till I walked away. Did I mention he is a putbull .

Posted by: Big Lenny | September 17, 2015 12:28 AM    Report this comment

This is crazy....I had to find a place to share....I have 2 pitbulls (hence my name)....The first and only time either one ever growled at me was when I was smoking a cigarette....I put it out, and he came and licked my hands....I thought "no way" so I light another.....he wouldn't come to me even when I called him..I put that one out and he came and licked my cheek.....growling is not always aggressive...apparently sometimes it just means stop killing yourself

Posted by: 2pitz | August 1, 2015 8:32 PM    Report this comment

Call a professional and understand your dog.

Posted by: Eggers | July 14, 2015 4:14 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for this article; I see that my new dog is completely stressed. She was my son's dog and he broke up with the girlfriend and took his dog. Their household consisted of kids and another dog who was actually beating her up. I'm sure there were considerable fights going on and when he asked me if I would take her I said of course. She was perfectly docile the first couple of days and he has visited both days. I thought we were out of the woods. This morning I took her to the pet store to get a harness and she wanted to leave as soon as we could. Then I drove a short distance to a park to walk her. She was curled up on a blanket with her face in the corner on the floorboard, wearing the harness and when opened the door, she appeared asleep. So I spoke to her and reached for the leash and she came completely unglued, snarling and barking. I waited and talked soothingly and then just stood there and finally closed the door and brought her home. Same thing happened at home, she did not want to get out of the car and snarled and barked. I left the door open while I filled up her water bucket and then had to reach for the leash quickly as she was growling and barking. She is an English Bulldog. I ended up pulling her out and putting her old collar back on but did not take the harness off. I had planned to take her riding around with me to do errands and reward her with the trip to the park, but now I'm a little disheartened. She had shots yesterday at the vet and I can imagine that she is overwhelmed with everything. Any advice?

Posted by: Shell_n_NM | March 25, 2015 12:36 PM    Report this comment

To quisha616 maybe your dog wasn't hungry and didn't want the food .would you like to be told that you had to eat even though you weren't hungry? Maybe she doesn't feel safe in the carrier have you made it a comfortable place where she feels safe? To tonebea how would you feel if you were never allowed to say how you feel? That is a silly remark even dogs low down in the pack bark, whine and yes even growl. It's how they say what they are feeling. This article is all about teaching us how to better communicate with our dogs so we can make their lives happy as well as ours.

Posted by: Jenny81 | February 5, 2015 9:29 PM    Report this comment

This article is great advice.

Kate, you can try giving her a different job to do when she behaves like that towards your husband. Like, say for example, ask her to sit or ask for a "back up" and then reward the correct with something really good. (This worked for my intact male and is what I show students in obedience class.) Your husband should also analyze his behavior... is he appearing threatening towards you in the dog's mind? Is he leaning in towards your dog or making direct eye contact or yelling? That's all hostile and aggressive behavior in a dog's mind. Turid Rugaas has a great little book "On Talking Terms with Dogs" (~28 pages) that is a good primer for understanding some triggers for behaviors and also dog body language

Personally, I never correct my dogs for growling and that includes growling at me. I never want them to "keep it to themselves" then surprise bite because I took their warning system away.

Posted by: ghost | January 2, 2015 11:26 AM    Report this comment

I agree with the comment below. I love my dog but she should never at anytime growl at me her owner! She growled at me and my husband twice because we told her to eat and then we put her in her carrier at night. We are the ones who take care of her and we don't appreciate those growls. So I do not agree with this article at all. I will not change my routine to accommodate her. I just hope she doesn't continue it.

Posted by: quisha616 | December 23, 2014 12:32 PM    Report this comment

Figure out what I'm doing to make him growl and change my behavior? I don't think so. My dog should not growl at me for any reason. I'm top dog and my dog should know that. And MY dog does. This article is way off base.

Posted by: tonebea | December 15, 2014 7:12 PM    Report this comment

Hi, my dog has slowly began to growl and sometimes bite my husband and I. Even if we pat her or walk past her. She is only 3 yrs old and sometimes has bitten our visitors before. I have tried different techniques but nothing seems to work. Can someone shed some light on what I should do next?

Posted by: kate-043 | August 25, 2014 11:50 PM    Report this comment

We have a weird Papillon who growls a lot and it took us years to realize that these aren't always "growls" but sometimes other vocalizations more akin to moaning or even you might say purring! He does growl as well, when playing or real defensive growling when feeling crowded or threatened. The trick is knowing which is which. He growl-moan-purrs when being scratched and rubbed, but it can turn into a warning if you hold him too tight.
Since we've started to better understand his communications, he's started to use them more effectively and his other favorite vocalization that he uses to great effect to get us to do what he wants is the quiet whine. He looks us straight in the eye and whines when he wants us to turn a bit so he can jump in a lap, when he wants us to go with him (me to come outside where Daddy is or Daddy to come upstairs where I am, for instance), etc. So I'll ask him "where's Daddy?" and follow him outside or wherever. We think it's a good thing for him to know how to do, lead us to the other, so we've used his own desire for us to be together to train him.
The point is, keep an open mind to your dog's vocalizations. When I was a kid my friend had a Dalmation that would snarl fiercely when she was petted, but she wouldn't have bitten anyone. It's just what she did. Remembering her helped me understand my boy.

Posted by: Rebecca Forry | July 20, 2013 6:45 PM    Report this comment

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