The growling debate

Dalcash Dvinsky
The Bunny Years
Published in
7 min readJul 2, 2023

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One of the frustrating parts of living with a dog is that so many basic aspects in the life of dogs are so poorly understood. Take for example growling. Is growling good or bad? It seems growling is such an important part of the dog’s vocabulary, we should know how to handle it and how to interpret it. I’m very interested in understanding growling because my dog growls at me, a lot, basically every day, for one reason or another. But ask dog experts and you will get very contradictory answers. Here are the two most common and most extreme ones I encountered, loosely paraphrased:

Growling is bad because it is a first sign of aggression. It can be a result of disrespect or of a broken relationship. If a dog growls at you, something is seriously wrong. We need to stop the dog from growling, to establish respect, and to stop escalation to actually bad things.

Growling is good because it’s information, it’s a warning that something is wrong. It’s the dog telling us that she is uncomfortable or upset or in pain. We should never stop the dog from growling because if we do that, the dog might start doing actually bad things without warning.

It seems that these two takes cannot simultaneously be true, and it is confusing that self-proclaimed dog experts aren’t able to settle this dispute. Is there a Great Unifying Theory of Dog Growling? What is it? How can dog owners deal with the confusion and contradiction? And more importantly, what is really going on with the dog when she is growling? My only insights here are coming from my extensive interaction with my dog, but at least I’m not claiming that I’m an expert.

Growling (guarding animal parts)

Let’s assume the first take is right. Then growling is already aggressive behaviour, and if I stop that, the escalation towards biting or lunging won’t happen. This would mean that the growling is not just a verbalisation, it is in fact the aggression. If I stop the dog from making that noise, the growl, I also stop the dog from being aggressive, from feeling like he has to defend himself or he has to guard something or he is uncomfortable. That sounds ridiculous, when you start writing it down like that.

So let’s assume the second take is right. Then the dog is simply telling us that she is feeling scared or insecure or obnoxious or overly excited. This would mean that the noise the dog makes is harmless, it’s just a verbalisation of underlying feelings. It’s not a sign of disrespect, it’s just passing on information. Stopping the growl doesn’t change anything about these feelings, the dog just keeps his mouth shut. That also sounds ridiculous.

Speaking for myself, when I get into such an emotional uproar that I start yelling or grumbling or muttering, this vocalisation is not identical to my feelings. But it’s also not independent of my feelings. It’s part of it. Sometimes it is good to figure out a way to stop making noises, sometimes it is good to just scream or mutter for a while. It really depends. And I strongly suspect the same is true for dogs.

To be clear, malamutes growl a lot more than most other dogs, because they vocalise a lot more than other dogs. They talk, in many forms, and growling is just part of that. It is not easy to define where growling begins and where grunting and grumbling or purring ends. If you don’t know malamutes, you might think they growl all day. You can’t really suppress all that because it’s part of who they are. For example, my dog is making short grunts as an expression of delight. His purring is an expression of mixed feelings. He is often complaining without growling, he just mumbles and squeaks and yelps. He just talks a lot. So, as a malamute owner, I’m sort of biased towards allowing the communication, just because suppressing simply doesn’t work. I also like talking dogs, of course.

Growling (unhappy, generally)

So how do I deal with the many shades of growling my dog throws at me? It really depends. It depends on what is actually going on and what kind of growl it is. There are situations where I don’t tolerate growling. The moment he growls at other dogs, he will get interrupted in some form. Mostly for safety, but also because I don’t know how the other dog is going to react. When my dog is growling, it is typically already too late, the goal is to steer the interaction towards a place where growling doesn’t happen. (In general, I can pretty safely predict when he is going to growl.) If he growls at humans we don’t know, that interaction is over. Maybe you could interpret this as a punishment for the growling, but it’s mostly a recognition that this interaction isn’t going well.

I also don’t tolerate growling when I need to touch him in a very harmless way, for example, to remove a tick or to dry him off. For a while he growled at me whenever a towel came out, and I can’t have that. A bit of grumbling is fine, but when it gets too loud or when he starts staring at me with twitching cheeks, we will have a brief serious conversation. Because if I let this go all the time, it will escalate. Sometimes I ignore it entirely. The dog is growling, and I just keep doing whatever I’m doing with him. Nothing happens. Nothing! It’s an empty threat and we both know it.

It is different when I have to do things that we haven’t done a million times before, or things that are really uncomfortable, like, working through matted hair or repairing nails. Things that we need to rehearse. When I work on his feet, specifically, I tolerate the growling, until it gets too loud, and then we wait for a moment. Have a treat. Have nice thoughts. Then we try again. It’s just standard desensitization. Sometimes I postpone to the next day. I still insist that we are going to fix the nail, eventually, but I’m okay with doing it slow and cooperatively. I go back and forth between ‘suppressing’ and ‘tolerating’ , if you want to call it that, between take 1 and take 2. I want him to tell me how he is feeling, and I listen to it, but we still are going to do this, one way or the other. He needs to learn how to cope, eventually.

And finally there are situations where I just accept that he is growling and move away. The most obvious example is when he is in a corner and wants to be left in peace. That’s fine! But it depends of course where the corner is. When he is obsessively guarding something, it is often easiest to leave him alone for a while, and come back when the situation is easier. The obsession usually wears off after a moment. But again it depends.

Not all guarding situations are the same. Sometimes he starts guarding something as part of a game, and the growl is playful. (All dogs play-growl, but that can also escalate and get out of hand— play is not entirely detached from the rest of the emotional life. Should we suppress the play-growl as well, just to be sure? Or should be just keep away? Both options sound ridiculous.) Sometimes he seems to be perfectly okay with me sitting with him while he is guarding something. Or maybe he even likes that. Or he is not so sure about it.

Growling (let me be in peace)

Mixed signals are totally a thing in dogs, or at least in malamutes. Bunny is sometimes subtly growling when I’m petting him, but when I stop he clearly communicates that he wants me to continue. This can go on for a while. Sometimes he is not against the petting, he just doesn’t want me to come too close. Wash me, but don’t make me wet. He likes the affection, but also feels slightly insecure about it, for one reason or another. I mean, that’s not even so difficult to imagine.

Ultimately, the idea that there is only one strategy to deal with growling, either suppressing or tolerating, either banning or backing off, and nothing in between, is a grave insult to the dogs. They are not that simple. They are not just a bit of machinery that either works this way or another way, but without any nuances or shades or complexity. They are complicated creatures, like humans, with a complicated language, and our interactions with them should reflect that.

Respect the growl, listen to it carefully, try to find out what it means. Don’t demonize it, but also don’t glorify it. Take it as an information, yes, but also as a possible threat, a step towards serious aggression. And then talk to the dog. Not like a human, just with words, but with the vocabulary that you have built up with your dog. Signals, tones, cues, postures, positions. The very personal, individualised dog-human language that nobody else can really understand. Growling (on the dog’s side) is very much part of that. I don’t want to lose that.

Obviously all this only works for your dog, or a dog you know really well. If you don’t really know the dog, the advice is much simpler: If the dog growls, step off.

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