Differentiating Growls: A Guide to the 8 Types of Dog Growls

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 8 min read

Differentiating Growls: A Guide to the 8 Types of Dog Growls

When you or I want to communicate with each other, it's pretty easy to do. We have a common language, we can point and gesture and make noises and even write if it comes down to it. Our fur babies, though, don't have all of those luxuries. They're limited to their vocalizations – barks, whines, and others – and to body language.

Among the many different kinds of vocalizations a dog can make is the growl. Growls aren't necessarily all bad, but they can be off-putting and, for many people, enough to warn them away. A growling dog could be a dangerous dog, and for anyone who doesn't know how to listen to their language, there's no real difference between growls. And, for that matter, sometimes the difference is in the body language that accompanies the growl.

If you have an unruly or poorly socialized puppy, or you're trying to help reign in a lost or stray dog, or you're just concerned about a neighbor's pooch that doesn't seem to like anyone, knowing what those growls mean can be very important. There are eight main kinds of growls a dog can make, so let's go through them.

The "I'm Scared" Growl

First up is one of the more common growls, particularly if you're dealing with a stray dog or a dog that has been abused or neglected. These growls are long, low, rumbling growls made with a closed mouth. The pooch in question won't be having a good time, that's for sure. When a dog is scared, most of the time, their first instinct is to run and hide. But, when you're trying to contain a dog that keeps escaping or has been lost for who knows how long, you're going to try to corner it, and that's when this kind of growl shows up.

Dogs with fearful growls are warning you that they're uncomfortable and scared and hoping that the growl will warn you off and keep you away. They may escalate to other, more aggressive kinds of growls if you approach them. This can include snapping, barking, and more angry growls, depending on the dog.

The I'm Scared Growl Image by Toe Beans

Body language is important here as well. A dog making this kind of growl is probably also cowering, presenting their side, hunched over, and maybe even shaking. They'll keep their mouth closed and might be afraid to make eye contact as well. They're trying to keep the situation from escalating, but as a cornered animal, they don't have many options, so they're avoiding the things dogs use as threat displays, like bared teeth and staring.

Sometimes, your doggo might make these kinds of growls when they're leashed up, and you're bringing them into a new situation. Dogs with anxiety and self-confidence issues tend to feel cornered when they're on a leash and are confronted with whatever is scaring them, be it a vet, a stranger, another dog, or something else.

The "I'm Angry" Growl

Angry growls are the most terrifying growls a dog can make. They're not just a noise; they're a threat.Anything that persists in approaching them or their territory is liable to be in for a world of hurt. These kinds of growls trigger something primal, even in us, and they hearken back to the primordial period when the only thing standing between that angry, hungry wolf and your tender flesh might be a campfire.

Angry growls are also fairly familiar to all of us because they're the growls you hear dubbed over wolves and angry, mean dogs in all kinds of movies and TV shows. They're a sign of an aggressive animal ready to lunge and attack.

The I'm Angry Growl Image by Toe Beans

In a way, anger growls are similar to scared growls. They're long and low and rumbly. The difference is that a dog making these noises is not cowering, hiding, or trying to run. A dog making these growls is standing its ground, preparing to lunge, or straining against a leash. The growls may be interspersed with sharp barks. In terms of body language, the dog is tense, aimed at you, and baring their teeth in a clear threat display.

No matter how much you love animals, and no matter how much you're used to animals loving you, a dog making these kinds of noises is a threat. Keep yourself safe, don't approach, and if necessary, put a barrier between you and the dog, and call a professional to handle the situation if it's the kind of situation that needs handling.

The Anxious and Defensive Growl

This growl is best summed up with a demonstration, helpfully provided by NatGeo here. This growl is a combination of two things: anxiety and defensiveness. In the case of the example above, the dog is not anxious and defensive itself. Rather, as a faithful companion of his parent, he's feeling hernervousness and reacting to anything nearby in a defensive manner. He's anxious, yes, for her, not for himself.

You can see it in the way the barks and growls aren't really aggressive or angry, like an anger growl, but the dog himself isn't cowering and trying to hide the way he might be if he was truly scared. It's all based on the energy of his pet parent, and that's why even a brief demonstration in a two-minute video shows how a change in demeanor can change the attitude.

The Anxious and Defensive Growl Image by Toe Beans

Of course, not all dogs with anxiety growls are going to be so easily placated. Many times, an anxious dog is anxious about a lot of different things. They might be anxious because you moved the space their crate was in. They might be anxious because your hours have changed or you got hurt. They might be anxious because they're in a strange location when you travel, or because you changed their food, or because a neighbor moved in and they have a new dog, and while the two have never met, they can smell each other.

Anxious growls are usually short, and while they're low-pitched, they're more like growly barks than longer growls. It's kind of a cross between growling and barking and is often accompanied by bodily flailing; your pooch isn't really sure what is making them uncomfortable, just that something is, and the growl-barks make it feel a little better, if only for a moment.

The Frustration Growl

If an anxiety growl is a growl at the world for the injustices it heaps upon us, a frustration growl is the same thing, directed at the source of that injustice.

Frustration growls are one of the most common kinds of growls and vocalizations a dog will make. You probably hear them all the time, and they're always directed at something. Maybe you gave them a puzzle feeder, and they can't get the last few kibbles out, so they're growling at it. Maybe they're trying to make themselves comfortable, but the corner of the pillow keeps popping back up, so they growl at it. Maybe you've been playing fetch for an hour, and you're getting tired and stopping tossing the ball, so they growl at it and you because obviously they can't throw it themselves.

Frustration growling is almost in the same vein as an anger growl, but even your dog knows how unreasonable it would be to get angry and growl at an inanimate object. It'd be ridiculous! Frustration growls are two things: an expression of emotion that makes them feel a little better and an indication that they have a problem they can't solve themselves.

The Frustration Growl Image by Toe Beans

Unfortunately, frustration growls are often rewarded; when your pooch is growling in frustration at some problem, there's a decent chance you'll notice and solve the problem. In their fuzzy little minds, they'll associate problem-solving with growling.

Unfortunately, this kind of growling can be a problem; if your pooch growls like this in public, other people or other dogs might misunderstand whythey're growling. This can set off a chain reaction of, well, reactions and can even lead to conflicts, though often those conflicts don't last too long.

Play Growling

While frustration growling is very common, the actualmost common growl you're likely to hear out of an otherwise well-behaved pup is play growling. Play growling comes up between dogs playing with one another and dogs playing with you. If you've ever grabbed one end of a knotted rope and played a rousing game of tug-of-war with your pooch, you've almost definitely heard play growling.

Play growling is definitely playing, and it's hard to misconstrue it. It caninclude bared teeth, posturing, and almost aggressive-seeming displays, but it's also accompanied by happy body language and posture, perky ears, a wagging tail, and none of the signs of real aggression.

These growls are also more like grunts and, sometimes, even just like ragged breathing. Different dogs have different kinds of play growls, too. It's usually higher pitched and can stray almost into whines or barks and chuffs, and it's breathy as well.

Play Growling Image by Toe Beans

Growls of this kind are messages as well. If you're playing with your pooch and they bow down, front low and rear high, making a brief growl while they look up at you, they're asking for a chase, a mock attack, some kind of play.

In rare instances, play can go too far, and playful growls turn into more defensive or aggressive growls. This can happen particularly between dogs playing with one another when they otherwise don't know each other. Different dogs have different kinds of socialization, and if they aren't trained to recognize the same signs in the same way, they can misinterpret the noises they're making. Fortunately, this rarely leads to significant scuffles; our puppers are smart, and they figure things out.

Pained Growling

Growling can also be an expression of pain. If a dog hurts itself or is trapped in some way, they'll make one heck of a ruckus, barking and growling and snarling and generally lashing out. Sometimes, if they're being attacked by another dog or a predator, that can drive them away. Other times, it calls in a nearby human for aid. And sometimes, if it's a pain they can't handle, like a broken leg trapped under a heavy object or caught in a hole, the growling is more of a visceral reaction.

Pained Growling Image by Toe Beans

The most obvious sign of this kind of growling is everything else. An injured dog, a dog in pain, is going to be yelping and barking and growling, and it ends up pretty obvious.

In less obvious cases, or in cases where the pain is milder but triggered by touch, the dog might only growl when the affected area is touched. For example, a dog with an injured leg might be fine if you scratch their ears, but if you pet too close to the leg, they'll growl at you for it.

The "That's Mine" Growl

Territorial and possessive growling is growling used as a kind of defensiveness behavior. You've probably seen those funny videos of a dog sitting with a paw on a bone or with a treat in front of them, where they growl if you reach for it. Sometimes it's more playful, sometimes it's more threatening, but either way, it's all because of the same instinct to defend.

The That's Mine Growl Image by Toe Beans

This is actually somewhat similar to the anxiety and defensiveness growls mentioned above but tends to apply to specific areas, rooms, people, or objects the dog loves the most.

The Happy Growl

Also known as the purr, this kind of growl is a noise a dog makes when they're happy and experiencing pleasure. If you've ever managed to scratch that itch just right and your pooch is in absolute doggy bliss, the noise they make might sound a little like a cross between a growl and a cat's purr, and that's what this is. It's about as far away from any sort of aggressiveness as you can imagine, and if you hear it, you know you're doing something right.

The Happy Growl Image by Toe Beans

So, that's it! The eight different kinds of dog growls, all here in one place. So tell me, what growls does your fur baby make? Do you have any fun or funny stories? Or others, the stories of an irate stray you properly read and were able to wrangle? Whatever the case, let me know! I love to hear your stories.

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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