The sound of a canine growl (even in puppies!) can appear aggressive, especially if you're on the receiving end of it. However, the vocalization doesn't necessarily mean that a dog is feeling angry, defensive or scared. In fact, growling in dogs is sometimes done all in good fun.
If your doggy appears to be in a playful and spirited mood, whether he's enjoying a session of tug-of-war or "surprise" pouncing on you, don't be too surprised if you hear growling sounds. "Mock growling" is indeed a possibility in the canine play world. If you need hints regarding your dog's actual mood, look at his facial expression. If his mouth isn't closed, it may indicate that he's happy and enjoying himself—and certainly not growling out of belligerence or displeasure. In these instances, play growling is certainly OK.
When a dog play growls, his intention may be to simulate "toughness." Dogs often can be quite clever and humorous creatures! Apart from just hearing growling, you may observe that your pet's teeth are especially prominent. Again, his mouth probably won't be closed if he actually is just playing around. The display of sharp chompers is often an attempt to playfully and cheekily suggest fierceness.
Growling as a Response
If you're playing around with your dog and notice that he's mock growling at you, you can even join in the fun and give him a growl yourself, notes the ASPCA. However, if you have any reason at all to suspect that your dog's mood is no longer quite so playful or jovial, immediately cease playing and step away from your pet. Allow him some time to cool off and calm down.
Signs of Real Aggression
Some knowledge of "aggressive" canine body language may be useful in determining whether or not a dog is play growling. Be attentive to clues that your dog isn't feeling too amiable at the moment, including a rigid, elevated tail, forward ears, tense posture, low-pitched barking, snarling, bristling and intense staring. Always stay away from any dog who exhibits this type of body language—no exceptions.
German Shepherds and Play Growling
Play growling may be especially prevalent in certain dog breeds. According to the Marin County Humane Society, German shepherds are particularly big on mock growling. If you are the proud owner of a German shepherd, take note of that.
By Naomi Millburn
About the Author
Naomi Millburn has been a freelance writer since 2011. Her areas of writing expertise include arts and crafts, literature, linguistics, traveling, fashion and European and East Asian cultures. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in American literature from Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.