You might raise your voice when having a good time at a party or sporting event. It’s different from a raised voice because of anger. Dogs are the same way. They have a growl that means business as a prelude to a fight, but they also have a play growl.
Types of Growls
A growl used as a warning for other dogs or people to back off and a growl used in play might sound similar to human ears, but dogs can tell the difference. The warning growl is meant for a nearby threat to leave or face possible dire consequences. The play growl occurs when dogs are enjoying themselves during tug-of-war, wrestling matches and rousing games of chase. Dog playmates don’t interpret growls during a play session as a reason to back off; they understand their playmates are just sounding enthusiastic, much as you might when your team just scored.
Play Growls Sound Different
Play growls sound different to dogs than warning growls. A 2010 study published in the journal “Animal Behavior” and reported by Discovery News confirmed it. After researchers recorded and electronically analyzed three growl sounds dogs make -- growls aimed at threatening strangers, growls aimed at protecting a bone and play growls -- they determined that play growls are higher pitched and shorter than warning growls. Dogs can even determine when a growl is directed at another dog, such as, “Get away from my bone,” or when it’s directed at a threatening stranger. When dogs in the study group were presented with a big, juicy bone, they jumped only when the “Get away from my bone” growl was played for them. Researchers theorize that the three growls might indicate three different emotional states: fear as displayed by the threatening stranger growl, aggressiveness as displayed by the protecting bone growl and happiness as displayed by the play growl.
Play Growling is OK
When dogs play with other dogs, they often growl. The same goes for playtime with you. Prince might not growl while playing fetch, but he might when you start chasing him around the yard. When Prince is excited and having fun, he might express his pleasure by play growling, according to Dog Talk, a training and wellness sanctuary for dogs. You don’t need to be concerned when dogs growl while they are playing with you and are having fun. If Prince’s tail is up or wagging and his ears are pricked up, his growl is not meant to threaten you.
Play Growling Can Escalate
When you engage in roughhouse play with your dog, such as playing tug-of-war, chase or wrestling, you need to monitor the situation so the play doesn’t escalate into aggression. Dog Talk recommends that you periodically ground your dog by taking a short break from the roughhousing by having him sit or lie down. This helps keep aggressive play under control. If you play aggressively without grounding your dog, your dog might become nervous or fearful after awhile. His play growl might then turn to a fear-based growl, which means he wants you to back off. You might not be able to tell the difference by the sound, but you can by the body language. A growl that has escalated from a play growl to a warning growl is accompanied by body language such as a tucked tail, averted eyes, yawning and lip licking.
Laura Agadoni has been writing professionally since 1983. Her feature stories on area businesses, human interest and health and fitness appear in her local newspaper. She has also written and edited for a grassroots outreach effort and has been published in "Clean Eating" magazine and in "Dimensions" magazine, a CUNA Mutual publication. Agadoni has a Bachelor of Arts in communications from California State University-Fullerton.