It’s a common mistake to associate all growls with aggressive behavior. Dogs growl before and during play, too, because it’s a very important part of their vocabulary. Play growls are an important part of a dog’s social development, so it’s important not to discourage it.
Observe your dog over a period of weeks and make notes of any trigger that causes fear. This may include the vacuum cleaner, the doorbell or the presence of another dog.
Split your list into two categories: environmental and personal. Categorize each trigger you noted down as either environmental, such as fireworks or doorbell, and personal, such as a dog getting too close. This way, you’ll have a rich understanding of what is likely to cause a defensive growl, helping you quickly distinguish between play and non-play growls.
Play with your dog and try to get him to play growl. Some dogs growl when attempting to instigate play, others can’t help growling if the play is super stimulating. A friendly game of tug o’ war is often a great way to get your dog’s vocal chords rumbling, as it’s a highly stimulating exercise that requires his mouth to remain partially opened. Once you hear him growl, note the circumstances and write a brief description of how the growl sounded. For example, “in kitchen during play session, growl was high-pitched and brief.”
Monitor your dog’s play and interactions with other dogs. Now that you know how a play growl sounds compared to a fear growl, you are part of the way toward being able to make accurate distinctions. All that’s left to do is establish a quick mental checklist that you run through each time you hear your dog growl. The checklist will enable you to make good decisions about when and when not to correct your dog’s growling.
Consider context. If the dog is in a playful state, it is safe to assume that the growl is playful. You can confirm this at the next stage of the checklist, but do not characterize the growl until you are sure.
Look at body language. If the dog is wagging his tail, “bowing” with his rump in the air and head near the ground, it is most likely that he is play growling. However, if he is flashing his teeth, pacing nervously or gazing at or “staring down” the object of his attention, then these gestures may signify that his mood no longer playful. Body language is typically the key distinguishing factor when you attempt to understand the meaning of a growl.
Listen to the tone and duration of the bark. Short, high-pitched growls are most likely play growls, while low, drawn-out growls are more likely to be aggressive.
Combine everything on your mental checklist to make a solid distinction between play and aggression growling.
- Record your dog's play growls on your cell phone and play them back to yourself. This way, you'll always have a reference.
Simon Foden has been a freelance writer and editor since 1999. He began his writing career after graduating with a Bachelors of Arts degree in music from Salford University. He has contributed to and written for various magazines including "K9 Magazine" and "Pet Friendly Magazine." He has also written for Dogmagazine.net.