For many, a growling golden retriever comes as a real surprise. They don’t expect that such a friendly and gentle dog could even make such aggressive noises, but that’s because they don’t really understand the differences between humans and dogs – we have different languages.
A growling golden retriever could mean aggression, but it could also mean many more things, and to understand how to handle the situation better, you need to understand what they actually mean by it.
So, why does my golden retriever growl at me? Your golden retriever could growl because they are possessive, aggressive, territorial, fearful, or they could be in pain, but goldens could also growl when they are very happy. To stop the growling, you have to understand the root cause first and resolve it and not try to suppress the growling.
This was the really short answer, but there is actually a lot more to it. To understand how to identify what is causing your dog to growl at you and how you can resolve these issues and train your dog to stop growling, keep reading.
Why Do Golden Retrievers Growl?
Let’s explore what makes dogs growl in a bit more detail; here are the reasons dogs growl and what their growls mean:
- Territorial Growls
- Because it works
Let’s discuss them in a bit more detail and see how you can recognize the cause of each growl:
A possessive growl is basically the way your dog says “This is mine, back off!”
Dogs tend to get possessive about their resources and they take guarding these possessions against other dogs and humans very seriously. These possessions can include their foods, favorite toys, or even a couch or chair that they think of as “theirs” in some way or another.
If your dog growls at you as you get close to them while they’re playing with their favorite toys, this is likely the reason. Dogs can also be stressed out by certain people that they consider a danger to their possessions. So while they may be fine with you handling and cleaning their toys, they may not be okay with someone else doing the same.
Signs of possessive growls: Possessive growls are low-level growls accompanied by lifting the upper lip. If you get too close the dog will start barking and may snap and lunge at you.
You can also check out my post on why dogs parade their toys to learn a bit more.
While goldens are not usually aggressive, they certainly can be in certain situations, and growling can be a warning sign that the dog is going to be aggressive.
You can learn how to deal with an aggressive golden retriever here in full detail, but what you need to do regarding growling is that goldens become aggressive only when under extreme stress. This stress can be caused by anything really, even staying alone for too long can cause them to get stressed and eventually aggressive.
Signs of Aggressive growls: Aggressive growls are deeper and more elongated and drawn out, and they get higher in pitch as you get closer to the dog.
Pain growls are the dog’s way of saying that they are hurt. Pain growls are easier to recognize because they are only triggered when the dog feels the pain; so for example if their paws were hurt while running, they may only growl when they step on the injured paws.
They may also growl only when certain parts of their body is touched. Your dog could also growl at you to let you know that they are hurting.
Signs of pain growls: Pain growls are often accompanied by other signs of injuries or illnesses such as a decline in appetite, recent weight loss, hair loss, biting or licking specific areas of their bodies, changes in mood or sleep schedules, or a sudden drop in activity levels.
If you notice any of these signs, you should take them to the vet quickly.
Your dog could be growling because they are afraid. They could be afraid of certain people, certain actions, certain places, or any other triggers of fear. Dogs commonly growl in situations that are strange, unfamiliar, or overwhelming to them such as during thunderstorms or fireworks.
If your dog is fear growling, the solution would be to use counter condition the dog to desensitize them on whatever they are afraid of. The dog could also be fearful of mundane things as it brings back bad memories – which is not uncommon with rescue dogs that suffered a life with an abuser before they were adopted.
Signs of fearful growls: Fearful growls are often accompanied by other signs of fear such as cowering, shaking, drooling, heavy panting, or barking. Beware that a fearful dog can be a dangerous dog and they could bite.
You can learn more about why and when golden retrievers bite here.
All dogs can be territorial to some extent, some more so than others. Territorial behavior is completely natural to dogs and has evolved in them as a survival mechanism, and it’s a very successful one.
Dogs will often growl at humans and animals that they shouldn’t be in this territory. This growling is the dog warning these intruders that they shouldn’t be here and they should leave.
It’s important to notice here that this applies to any territory. For example, your dog may have a spot inside the house that they consider is theirs and may not be okay with the other pets in this spot. You can learn more about how to help your dog get along with other pets in the house here.
The territory can also be simply the territory around their owners or families and they can be protective over the space you’re in wherever this may be.
Signs of Territorial Growls: Territorial growls are similar to aggressive growls in tone and pitch but they tend to be slightly lower pitched. It gets louder as the person gets deeper in the territory and may quickly turn into barking and aggression soon after.
Dogs can also growl when they’re frustrated but not necessarily angry. To understand what this means, here is an example; you are coming back home, and you’re parking the car outside. The dog can see you, they rush out of the house door but they can’t get to you because they can’t jump the fence.
You may notice your dog standing behind the fence and growling. They are not growling at you, they are very happy to see you again, but they are very frustrated that they can’t get to you.
This what frustrated growls mean. They can happen in different situations when they dog is feeling frustrated for an unnecessary reason.
Signs of Frustrated growls: Frustrated growls often have a lower-pitch to them and they sound a bit sadder to the human ear. They can turn into barking, whining, or howling depending on how the situation develops.
Dogs can also growl when they are very excited, and these happy growls are the most common when dogs are playing together a bit rougher than usual-such as in an intense game of tug war.
They can also growl when they’re playing by themselves, especially if they are really going at it with a chew toy or something that they get to pull at strongly – which can often end up in the destruction of the toy. This is not a destructive behavior, even though it may look like it, the dog is just too excited.
Signs of happy growls: Happy growls are short, quick, and repeated in a fast pace.
The easiest way to tell if the growling is because the dog is happy is to watch the dog’s body language. Happy growls are often accompanied by other signs of happiness or playfulness such as tail-wagging, displaying the play bow where they raise their put in the air and stretch their front legs, happy smiles, and other happy noises.
You can learn how to identify the types of golden retriever smiles here.
Because it works
Dogs repeat behaviors when they work. If they have growled once to get your attention and it worked, they will simply repeat it. If they growled to get you to spend time with them, they will repeat it. If they growled to tell you they’re hungry and you put more food to them, they will repeat it.
You could’ve unknowingly taught your dog that they could ask for what they want by growling which is why they are growling at you a lot.
Now, let’s talk about how to stop your golden retriever’s growls.
How to Stop Your Golden Retriever’s Growls? (with Examples)
The only way to really stop your golden retriever’s growling is to figure out why they are growling and solve the root cause of the issue.
You must first determine the cause for the growling. Your dog is growling because they’re trying to tell you something; it’s their way of communicating something to you.
Here are a few ideas on how to deal with the issues that are causing your dog to growl:
Possessiveness Growls: You can work on training your dog to not be possessive and even exchange their items. Here is a brief explanation how:
- When your dog growls to protect something – let’s say a bone, grab a very delicious treat
- Come close to them – but not so close, and throw the delicious treat away from them.
- Repeat this, but every time, come a bit closer to them.
- Eventually you can build up to asking your dog to exchange what they have for the delicious treat
- The key is to choose a treat that’s simply irresistible to your dog – for some dogs that’s beef, for others that’s chicken – find out what your dog likes the most and use that.
By the way, possession aggression is sometimes also referred to as “resource guarding”, but I think “possessiveness” describe it best.
You should work on desensitizing your dog towards what scares them. You can do that by exposing them to a tiny version of this element and then gradually increase the dose.
Let’s say they’re scared of fireworks. Here is how you can desensitize them in a simple way:
- You can start by playing fireworks on your phone on a lower volume and comfort your dog while they work.
- Once they’re comfortable, increase the volume and repeat. Reassure your dog that it’s nothing to worry about and praise them or give them treats when they stay calm during it.
- Keep increasing the volume until they’re sufficiently desensitized to loud fireworks noises. Keep reassuring them at every step and rewarding them for staying calm.
- This process may take days, weeks, or months. Go at it in the pace that’s comfortable for your dog.
If your dog seems to be afraid of everything, desensitization may not work best. You can learn why your golden retriever is afraid of everything here and learn what you should do.
I tried to break down the steps as simply as possible so that anyone can follow them on their own, but if you think you need professional help, please get it. Some behavioral problems are too deep to fix on your own and may need a dog trainer or a behaviorist to fix them.
As you can see, these examples focus on solving the root problem and not the growling itself. That’s because we don’t actually want to stop the growling. Let’s discuss why.
What not to do to stop your dog’s growls?
The most common mistake people do when trying to handle their dog’s growling is to try and suppress it.
Growls are warning signs. They are the only warning signs that the dog can give. By suppressing your dog’s growls, you are taking this away from them and from whoever is being threatened.
When dogs are taught to suppress their growls, their aggression may come as a surprise. This is why you sometimes hear about dogs that bite without giving any warning – because they were taught to not give warnings when their growling was suppressed.
The second mistake is confrontation. This may seem obvious to seasoned dog owners, but here we go anyway;
NEVER CONFRONT A GROWLING DOG – that’s how you get bit.
How well can you understand a dog’s growl?
The good news is that humans are pretty good in understanding the meaning behind dog’s growls. Dog owners are also much better in understanding dog growls than people who don’t spend much time around dogs.
In a study that surveyed 40 people and had them listen to various growl sound samples the results were not really surprising;
- People overall are 63% accurate in determining the cause of growls.
- People could recognize playful growls with 81% accuracy
- People could recognize possessiveness growls with 60% accuracy
- People could recognize fearful or aggressive growls with only 50% accuracy
For the reference, these numbers are all higher than expected. The chance level accuracy was only 33% since they tested people on three possible contexts of the growls; food guarding, threatening, and play.
The study also found that not only were dog owners much better at understanding dog’s growls than non-dog owners, but that women were much better at it than men as well!
The explanation for this last part is that women tend to be more empathetic and sensitive to the emotions of others than men, which is why women generally do better in emotion recognition studies.
Understanding Dog Growls Meaning in a Nutshell:
If you need the quick and dirty way of understanding the meaning of your dog’s growls, here it is:
- The longer, low-sounding, and louder the growl the more aggressive it is.
- Traces of a higher pitch in the growl is a sign of fear.
- Shorter growls that are in a sequence are non-threatening and playful.
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Is it normal for golden retriever puppies to growl?
Yes, it is normal for golden retriever puppies to growl when they are in pain, afraid, or trying to protect their food, favorite possessions, their humans, or their territory. You should not try to suppress the growls, especially at this young age, and instead try to solve the root cause of the growls.
Are Golden retrievers Stubborn?
No, Golden Retrievers are not stubborn, they are obedient dogs that love pleasing their owners, and a well-trained and well-socialized golden retriever is rarely stubborn. Golden Retrievers that are stubborn should take obedience training, and it’s okay if they take the classes more than once.
Faragó T, Takács N, Miklósi Á, Pongrácz P. Dog growls express various contextual and affective content for human listeners. R Soc Open Sci. 2017;4(5):170134. Published 2017 May 17. doi:10.1098/rsos.170134