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Dog Snarling: What to Do When Your Dog Growls at You

A dog growling, snarling and showing teeth can be downright frightening! But does it always mean that the dog is about to attack? 

Dog growling and snarling happens for a reason. It could be because your dog is unhappy or stressed, or it could feel afraid or threatened, and that's not all. Dog growls could also be out of playfulness, or be the start of more aggressive behavior, like an attack.

Do you want to learn what Lassie is trying to tell you with that snarl? Since people can't speak 'dog language' let's try to figure out if there's a way to translate what your furry friend is frantically trying to tell you.

Different Types Of Growls

Just like people, dogs are emotional creatures, and they need to communicate how they feel.

If you listen quickly, most growls sound similar, but if you pay attention, you'll begin to notice that each growl has its unique reason and sound.

A growl could mean that Pongo wants to play. Or it could be a warning that your pup is ready to pounce on a perceived threat.

Pay attention to what the growl sounds like and also to the dog's body language. You'll soon learn whether it's out of aggression or not. 

What is growling, and why do dogs do it?

Just like people use words to speak, dogs use barks and growls to get their message across verbally. A growl can be low and guttural, soft and brief, or it can be loud and go on for a long time.

Either way, it can sound quite scary! 

Since we humans use verbal communication, we feel the need to analyze and understand our furry friends' vocal commands. The trick is to listen to your dog and pay close attention to what their body language is telling you. Some of the physical cues are:

  • How your dog's ears are positioned.
  • The position of its tail. 
  • Mouth actions like licking, panting or even yawning.
  • Is your dog bowing down?
  • How your dog's body weight is distributed through physical posture.
  • Are your dog's eyes moving? 
  • Raised fur.

When you pay attention to these cues and what happens after they happen, you'll soon learn what Taffy is trying to tell you and whether she feels playfulness or aggression.

Below are some hints to help you translate what she's saying. 

Different Growls and what they represent

What sound does a dog make when it's in pain or frightened? How different is that from when it's feeling happy? What else causes dog growling?

#1 Feeling threatened

A dog that experiences an unfamiliar situation or is overwhelmed by its surroundings may feel threatened. This feeling may cause it to growl. This could be because of an intruder, or another dog approaching, or something as harmless as you dropping something on the floor.

The following physical signs could mean that Fido is feeling threatened:

  • Lunging.
  • Barking.
  • Attempting to run away from the situation.

#2 Feeling anxious or fearful

When a dog is growling, it may be feeling fearful or anxious. While some dog breeds are generally more anxious, there may be good reasons for the dog to begin growling out of the blue.

Dog growling is typical in dogs with a history of neglect or abuse. Certain circumstances may remind the poor pup of what they've been through and may trigger anxiety or fear and cause dog growling as a response. 

Other fears can range from being washed, brushed, visiting a vet, having a collar put on, or even cuddled! 

These tell-tale signs may accompany growls that are born from fear:

  • Lip-licking, yawning, or other mouth ticks.
  • Looking in another direction or needing to flee.
  • Slow movements or standing frozen in position.

If the fear comes from trauma, it is best to have your vet recommend a certified dog behaviorist. They will help you to learn how to help your dog. This could involve exercises like desensitization and counterconditioning.

#3 It may just be Peanut's way of playing

If your dog is growling, but it's also looking happy, it may just be part of being playful. This could turn into aggression, especially if other dogs are involved, so keep a close watch on the situation! 

If the dog growling is playful, you'll notice the following signals:

  • Playful bowing.
  • Moving in a bouncy or jumpy way.
  • Looking or turning away.
  • Laying down.
  • Tail wagging.

By observing how your dog behaves during play, you'll notice what the signals mean. It will soon become apparent which ones mean to play and which ones mean Odie feels uncomfortable or hostile.

#4 Fluffy could feel frustrated

Frustration may also contribute to your dog's growling. For example, walking your dog on a leash may make the dog bark at people and other dogs. It feels frustrated by being confined by the leash (or leash reactivity), which is quite common.

Also, it may be that your dog cannot jump on the bed and wants you to lift it up, in this case a dog ramp for bed would cut a lot of noise in your home!

Growling from frustration will often be exhibited by these postures and behaviors:

  • A lunge
  • A bark or whimper
  • Pulling on their leash
  • Acting hyper (hyperactivity)

#5 Your dog is in pain

Is your dog snarling and showing teeth? He may be in pain! Dogs are stoic, so they may not always indicate they're in pain. However, sudden growling or snarling may show that the dog is in pain or discomfort. 

A dog in pain may only growl when you want to touch them or come near the affected area. Look for other signs of this, for example:

  • Sudden behavioral changes.
  • The dog growls or snaps at a nearby movement.
  • The dog growls or snaps at any touch to its body.

#6 Get off of my lawn!

Dogs instinctively defend their territory (i.e., YOUR house!) This could be from intruders or other animals. 

The following body language could indicate territorial growling:

  • Barking at territorial markers such as windows or fences.
  • Lunging, barking, or growling at people as they enter the house.
  • Aggression towards animals or people as they come close to their designated territory.

#7 Daisy is guarding their/your resources

If you have ever tried to take away a toy or item that belongs to your pup, you may have seen some lip-curling and snarling happening. A dog can become possessive over things like toys, bones, food, their bed, and in some cases, even people.

This possessive behavior is natural, but sometimes it can get out of hand and become problematic. Pablo may be so protective of his belongings that he lashes out and bites another dog or human.

The following gestures often accompany growls that come from possessive behavior or resource guarding:

  • As you approach them, they will freeze in position.
  • As you approach their possession, they will growl or snap.
  • Stand at guard over their possessions and bare their teeth or snarl.

How to remedy my growling dog?

Your dog may be growling at other people, things or animals, or even at you. What can you do as the dog owner to remedy the situation and gain control over a potentially aggressive situation?

  1. Should my dog be punished for growling? Punishment is never the answer. Your dog may show aggression the next time and decide to bite instead of warning with a growl first. Instead of punishing it, learn to communicate. Dogs are sensitive to tone.
  1. Is neutering or spaying an effective way to lessen the growling? There is little research that suggests that a dog that is spayed or neutered will growl less. However, it's your responsibility to neuter or spay your pets anyway.
  1. Is my growling dog attempting to dominate me? Probably not, unless you are doing something it's not happy with. Mostly, the growl is just a reflex towards a specific trigger. It is about how they feel, rather than trying to be an alpha animal.
  1. Is a growl different from a snarl? The difference is whether the teeth are bared or not. When you look at a snarling dog, you'll notice it is baring its teeth with its lips curled. This is a warning and can seem more menacing than a dog growling. 
  2. Should I worry about my dogs playing together and growling? Growling during their playtime is perfectly normal and doesn't mean your dog is aggressive. Just keep a close eye on the dogs for signs of aggression.

Conclusion

Pay attention to your dog, notice how it growls or snarls, and be proactive with how to remedy it. It may pay to bring the dog to a behavioral specialist for dog training to calm any aggression that could arise. 

You don't need a degree in dog psychology to figure it out. Since a growl is a communication, once you learn more about how to communicate with your furry friend, you will have a better idea if the growl is harmless or if it could lead to aggressive behavior.

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