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Decoding Your Dog’s Growls

When your dog growls, they’re expressing their emotions. A study found that you’ll likely be able to understand what they’re feeling.

by Karen B. London, PhD
Updated July 8, 2022
Mixed dog laying on the floor int he sun with an unsure look on her face
Cécile Fourcade / Stocksy

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Your dog gets an earful about your day, especially when there are no humans around to hear your list of daily grievances (and they are long!). But have you ever listened to your dog — like, really listened to them when they grumble or growl? Did you swear you could understand their deepest emotions and desires? It turns out, when your dog is growling, they are expressing their emotions — and most likely, you’ll be able to understand what they’re feeling.

A study published in Royal Society Open Science found that humans were able to identify dogs’ growls within the context of the setting. When given the options of three social situations (guarding food from another dog, playing tug with a person, and being approached by a stranger), people were able to differentiate what emotion the growling dog was experiencing in that moment.

People were asked to rate each growl on a sliding scale for each of the following emotions: fear, aggression, despair, happiness and playfulness. Overall, people correctly identified the context of 63 percent of the growls, which is significantly better than the 33 percent rate that chance predicts. The play growls were most readily identified, with 81 percent of them being correctly chosen. The food guarding growls were correctly identified 60 percent of the time, compared with 50 percent of the growls directed at strangers. Most of the errors in identifying these two (potentially aggressive) contexts involved confusion between the two of them, rather than with the playful context.

The researchers’ takeaway from the study was that people can distinguish different types of dog growls, including being able to tell apart growls that are both in potentially aggressive contexts. Previous studies have found that people’s ability to understand canine growls is influenced by the time between growls and the duration of the growls — longer gaps between growls is associated with higher aggression scores. Shorter growls are generally perceived as more positive on emotional scales. In growls recorded in the context of a stranger approaching, the higher the pitch of the growl, the higher the fearfulness score.

Individual people varied in their ability to identify the context of the growls, too. Overall, women were better at it then men. Pet parents also outperformed people who do not have dogs. Whether or not a person had ever been bitten by a dog had no effect. This study shows that although people in general can interpret the emotion in canine growls, experience plays a role in how well they are able to do so.

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karen london

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.