Dogs growl to communicate all sorts of emotions, and owners often misread any growl noise as anger. It's common for dogs to growl during one of their happiest times -- playtime -- and when socializing with other pups in the dog park.
Dogs exhibit happy play growl behavior when playing with other dogs, with their owners and even when playing alone with toys. You may misread these growls as aggressive or destruction behavior, especially if Rover is gleefully eating the stuffing from a decapitated stuffed toy while growling. But these are really happy growls. Dogs can also make a snarling "submissive grin" face that's often misread as aggressive, when the dog is simply showing submission.
Sounds of Happy vs. Aggressive Growls
While you cannot tell the difference between a mean bark and a happy bark, other dogs can. Play growls tend to be higher pitched than mean growls, and are predominantly shorter in length. Aggressive growls take a lower register and last longer, in comparison.
Is He Happy?
Visual cues can help you learn when your pup's growl is gleeful. If your dog is wagging his tail or takes the "downward dog" yoga position, where his rump is in the air and his front legs touch the ground, he's just having fun. If he rolls over to exposes his tummy, or races around the house leaping and jumping, he's telling you this is happy time. A little bit of chewing on toys or even on you is still considered playful behavior.
Signs of Aggression
If your dog turns down the volume on his growl, giving you a low register, and eyeballs you, he's not in the mood to play. A stiff tail also indicates aggression. Dogs giving these cues may bite if you get too close, and may guard food, toys or other possessions. Give your pooch plenty of space if he's exhibiting these behaviors to avoid doggie bites.
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