Your dog communicates with you using a variety of vocalizations: yelps, barks, whines, whimpers, howls and, yes, growls. Just check out this video of a Rottweiler "growl talking" to his owner!
Author and dog behaviorist Deb Duncan says a dog's "growly noise" is the most misunderstood form of dog communication, as it can be both negative and positive. Owners of talkative pets are used to a variety of growls, but someone unfamiliar with non-aggressive growling might not be comfortable around it. Rest assured, growl-talking is a form of communication. Your dog may be trying to express any of several things.
While dogs appear to communicate well with one another on an unspoken level, they struggle to verbally communicate with humans. Gary Lucas, who conducts psychological research on behavior at Indiana University, explains that dogs can't use their tongue and lips to form sound the way we do, and they are totally unable to pronounce consonants. Because of this limitation, dogs have a restricted range of vocalization and thus a limited means of communication.
Learned Communication Behavior
Newborn puppies utter sounds that let their mother know if they're distressed or otherwise. The first warning growls will occur around 24 days after birth, when squabbles begin among puppies. Pups learn to change the tone of their vocalization to express different emotions as they grow. They also become more in tune to the subtle changes in tone of others. This sensitivity allows dogs to detect differences in human intonation, too, and enables them to imitate some of our tonal patterns while growling. Author and University of British Columbia professor of psychology Stanley Coren explains that dogs learn to mimic human speech by happenstance: Your dog just happens to make a noise while growling that sounds like he's talking. You repeat the noise your dog made. Because you are excited and attentive, your dog is happy to growl-talk back to you again. Rewarded with a treat or affection, or both, he'll quickly learn a doggie-modified version of talking. It can happen so fast that you won't realize you've trained him.
Invitation to Play
If you look at your dog's body language when he growls at you in a talking way, you will most likely see that his front legs are stretched out in front of him and his back end is in the air with his tail wagging, and the "come play with me" expression is beaming all over his face. His growl will be higher-pitched in comparison to a warning growl. This growl-talk is an open invitation to play. It's nonaggressive, even though it might sound that way from a different room. He is raring to fetch a ball or play chase, and is expressing his enthusiasm.
Your dog may not limit his attempts to express his emotions by growling in a talkative way. Whining or whine-talking is higher-pitched than playful growling growling; it comes from the nose with the mouth closed. It expresses frustration and elevated stress because a want or a need isn't being met. Whimpering is softer and less intense than whining; it indicates excitement. Your dog is happy that you're home after a long day of working. If he's really glad you're home, he may skip the whimpering and go straight for the blissful grunt. Grunting is a sound some dogs make when they're particularly happy. It might be accompanied by talking.
By Sandy Vigil
The Dog Speaks: Growls – Understanding Growl Sounds and Other Communications
Scientific American: Fact or Fiction: Dogs Can Talk
Dog Remedies: How Dogs Communicate
Whole Dog Journal: Understanding Your Dog's Vocal Communications
About the Author
Based in Las Vegas, Sandy Vigil has been a writer and educator since 1980. She taught high school and middle school English and drama for 11 years. Vigil holds a Master of Science in teaching from Nova Southeastern University and a Bachelor of Arts in secondary English education from the University of Central Oklahoma.