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Growling as a Sign Post

Why to tell clients not to punish a dog for growling.

Wouldn’t we all love to get inside our dogs' minds? Sometimes they make things pretty clear, like when a dog tucks his tail underneath him, runs, and hides under the bed when he hears fireworks. But when I see a dog’s little feet twitching while he sleeps, I always wonder what is actually going on in his head. It fascinates me so much that I have made a career out of helping clients understand their pets better.

Dogs do communicate with us, whether we take notice or not. On the whole, most pet parents are not great at picking up on signs of fear in dogs. Several research studies support this conclusion.

One such study was performed by a team at Columbia University in 2012. The purpose of the study was to evaluate how the level of a person’s experience with dogs impacted their ability to correctly interpret canine body language. The survey responses were compared against the answers of experts in dog behavior.

Those with a low level of experience with dogs correctly interpreted signs of fear only about 30% of the time. The average dog owner did a little better, correctly identifying fear about 60% of the time. While that seems like a decent percentage, that still suggests a 1 in 3 chance that we are missing signs of fear in our own dogs.

Pick up any behavior textbook and you will see that there are many different types of aggression. Fear is a common underlying thread, whether it be fear of someone unfamiliar, fear of pain, or even fear of losing a valuable resource. Included in the British Small Animal Veterinary Association’s (BSAVA) Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine is a Ladder of Aggression. The ladder illustrates that certain body language signs will occur in step-wise fashion, like the rungs of a ladder, as a threat escalates.

BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine, 2nd Ed. ((c) 2009)
Source: BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine, 2nd Ed. ((c) 2009)

Many body language signs dogs show us are ones that we don’t notice until we start looking for them. Signs such as yawning, lip licking, turning the head away, or simply walking away are often overlooked. It is common for pet parents to tell me that as soon as they started looking for these signs, they notice them happening a lot! As a matter of fact, the infographic of the BSAVA Ladder of Aggression (below) includes 11 rungs, with the topmost rung indicating a bite that makes contact. Growling sits at rung 9. Rungs 1-8 are signs that may not be readily apparent to the average dog owner, making growling a crucial buffer between those more subtle signs and an actual bite.

It seems natural to shush or correct a dog that is growling, because we don’t want aggressive behavior to continue, right? And let’s be honest, it’s embarrassing! Dogs growl for a number of different reasons. Often we just want the behavior to stop, without acknowledging what those reasons could be. The first step in any behavior treatment plan is avoiding situations that cause fear, anxiety, and stress when possible. Avoidance decreases the chance of aggression, and gives dogs a vacation from the things that stress them out. Noticing the body language that means a dog is stressed is imperative to stopping interactions that could lead to aggression. Otherwise, the dog may continue to be exposed to situations that make him or her uncomfortable.

Remember, growling sits at rung 9 on the ladder, which only has 11 rungs in total. A growling dog is significantly stressed; continuing the interaction could result in a bite. It is true that after being corrected several times, a dog may stop growling in that particular situation. The underlying fear is still present, though, so he has to find another way to communicate his discomfort. That means taking a step up the ladder, which often results in snapping or biting. And when that dog bites, it will often be described as doing so without warning when in fact there were warnings all along. I prefer to see growling as a giant “stop sign” popping up and telling me to change what I am doing.

Does every dog growl before biting? Absolutely not, and not every behavior sign on the ladder will be displayed by every dog. The more signs a dog shows, however, the more chances we have to take notice and stop the interaction. That means a chance to prevent a bite!

The next time you hear a dog growl, stop and evaluate the situation. Maybe you should thank them for communicating with you! That dog is speaking loud and clear!

Krista Sirois, DVM
Source: Krista Sirois, DVM

- Krista Sirois, DVM

Florida Veterinary Behavior Service


Wan, M., Bolger, N., & Champagne, F. A. (2012). Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PLoS One, 7(12), e51775.

Shepherd, K. (2009). Ladder of aggression. BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine,, 13-16.

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