Today, I spent some time in my backyard with my dog Chocolate Chip and a Belgian Malamute who’s staying at my house to be trained as a personal protection dog. Needless to say, there was a lot of growling involved. So I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about growling and what it means.
To be honest, I don’t have all the answers. When I was a much younger trainer, I was under the impression that all growling was bad. It preceded a bite, or signaled dominance, or meant that the dog was grumpy. Growling could mean a lot of things, and none of them were good!
And then I got my old dog Rocco. As he was growing up, I came to see a different perspective. Rocco was a Rottweiler, and like most of his breed he was very growly. He used growling as a means of communication. Now I have Chocolate Chip, who growls a lot during rough play. Having Rocco and observing other dogs showed me that growling isn’t always a bad thing. It can be an inappropriate behavior —for instance, if you try to pet a dog but even in those cases it’s valuable because it can tell you that the dog doesn’t feel comfortable.
Not all growling is the same, and sometimes it’s just how dogs communicate. There’s a lot of growling during play, not all of which is necessarily a sign of dominance. It can be a precursor to aggression, in which case you want to get to the root of the problem so you can solve it rather than just correcting the growl. And then, of course, there are plenty of dog breeds (like Huskies and Malamutes) that naturally make goofy, growl-like sounds. A whole host of sounds might come out of a dog’s mouth, not all of which are inappropriate
If your dog growls, barks, or vocalizes toward you in another way, then get to know what it means! Watch videos and talk to professionals. A lot of people think that a dog that growls must be aggressive, but more than likely the growling might be a sign of play or fear. Until you understand what’s happening, there’s no way to know.
Don’t take a growl at face value! Understand it for what it is: communication, from your dog to you.