The Difference Between a Play Growl & Serious Growl

Puppies growl at each other during play as they learn important canine social behaviors.
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Growling is not necessarily always a fearful or aggressive behavior in dogs. Growling is a part of your dog's vocabulary and is sometimes used in play situations with fellow canines and with trusted owners in fun time. To determine whether your pup is growling because he's upset or he's just fooling around, observe his behavior and the context of the situation.

Play Growling

If you are playing a game like tug-of-war with your pup or he's wrestling with another dog while exhibiting friendly body language and growling, some growling is likely not serious, even if it grows in volume as the tussle escalates. Play growling is a normal behavior; such growls are typically short and high-pitched in tone, according to a 2010 study published in "Animal Behavior," as reported by Discovery News. Another study, performed in 2013 at the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, showed that play growls may even make a dog sound "bigger" than he is, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports. This is a way that dogs "joke" with each other during play, exaggerating their natural behavior with other dogs, who apparently understand the context.

Serious Growling

Like play growling, serious growling is recognized in the context of your dog's body language and situation. If Fido's posture becomes stiff or he appears to be guarding something, like a toy or food, a growl is likely a warning to back off, according to the pamphlet "Growling" produced by the Dog Talk Training and Wellness Sanctuary and posted on its website. If he and another dog are in a stand-off and he is displaying aggressive body language, this is also a serious growl. The best way to deal with such a situation is to either calmly walk your dog away from whoever he's growling at or to leave him alone if he's growling at you. Avoid yelling at him, which may escalate the behavior into a full-blown attack.

Dealing With Growling

Don't encourage your dog's growling by continuing to play with him -- and don't scold him, either. Punishing your pup for growling by reprimanding him may stop him from ever growling altogether, which can be dangerous because dogs use growling as a type of early warning system prior to an attack. This can make your pup unpredictable and prone to attacking a person or another dog without any warning being given, advises the Whole Dog Journal website. Instead, simply redirect your pooch to another behavior, such as a sit command, or ignore him for a few minutes before re-engaging him in a fun game.

Growling Triggers

Determine what triggers your pooch's growls, whether serious or playful. If something is bothering your dog, you want to avoid it so he doesn't become upset -- or you can counter-condition and desensitize him to it. For instance, if grooming your pup or running the vacuum cleaner elicits a growl from Fido, accompany the activity with some delicious treats or toys to make him associate it with a reward rather than with fear. If a certain person seems to make your pup growl, either stay away from her if she exhibits abusive or fear-inducing behaviors. If she doesn't, though, have her feed treats to your pup so the dog will associate the person with positives.