Does your dog growl at strangers? Maybe they let out a grumble when your new neighbor approaches to say hello. Or maybe they growl as your friend gets up from the dining table to use the bathroom. You might feel afraid or frustrated when your dog growls at someone, but this article can help you understand the reason behind your dog’s growl.
If you’d like to solve your dog’s growling at strangers, check out this article. This article is just about why your dog growls.
Why Do Dogs Growl?
Let’s start by looking at growling from a bigger picture of dog behavior. Dogs use a variety of body language signs and noises to communicate with other dogs and other animals, including humans.
Because dogs can’t use words to tell you how they’re feeling, it’s helpful to understand what their body language and noises mean.
A growl is a way for a dog to express that they are uncomfortable with something in their environment. It could be another dog, or a statue, or a sound. In this case, they are uncomfortable with the presence or action of a stranger.
It’s their way of telling the person to please stay back. Growling helps keep dogs safe from real or perceived threats. It’s a response to fear.
Growling is Canine Communication
While it may be alarming or frustrating when your dog growls, it’s actually a good thing. Why is that?
Because your dog is giving a warning, instead of immediately escalating to a bite.
A growl is an attempt to avoid potentially dangerous aggressive behavior. I’m not saying growling is desirable dog behavior, but a growl is much more preferable to a bite.
When your dog growls, they’re trying to get whatever is making them uncomfortable to simply go away, rather than choosing a fight.
You can think of a growl like a horn on a car. I’d much rather honk my horn at another driver, so they can put on their breaks and avoid a collision, than for them to crash their car into mine.
A honk does no harm. Neither does a growl.
How to Respond When Your Dog Growls at a Stranger
If your dog growls, do not to punish them for communicating their feelings. Punishing your dog for growling can leave your dog without any tools to notify you when he’s uncomfortable or upset. This can rapidly create a dangerous situation because your dog’s fear isn’t gone – just the warning.
Thank your dog for communicating their discomfort by adjusting the environment to help them feel safe. Usually, that means moving the dog away from the person or asking the person to give your dog some space.
Why is My Dog Uncomfortable with Strangers?
So now that you know a growl communicates discomfort, let’s explore some reasons why your dog may be feeling unsure or afraid of other people.
Lack of Socialization
Socialization is a process of exposing your dog to the world in a way that makes them feel safe and confident about all the things they may encounter in their life. The best time to socialize a dog is between three to sixteen weeks old because their brains are primed for learning about what’s scary and what’s not.
If your puppy wasn’t exposed to strangers in positive ways during that time in their life, or if they had a negative experience with a stranger, that may contribute to their wariness of people.
Perhaps you adopted your dog when they were an adolescent or adult. If so, you may not know what kind of experiences they had with strangers when they were a puppy, if they had any at all. Sometimes people assume a dog was abused if they growl at people or show fear, but often it’s due to lack of exposure to people when they were a puppy.
A lack of socialization or positive experiences may contribute to your dog’s discomfort around strangers. And those feelings may result in your dog growling at people.
If your dog is growling at strangers, simple exposure won’t do the trick to resolve the problem.While socialization can prevent this problem, it won’t cure it!
Even with ideal socialization to strangers, some puppies or adult dogs may still growl at strangers because of their genetics. Historically, dogs were bred to serve different functions to make the lives of humans easier or better.
One of those functions was to growl and bark at unfamiliar people. People bred dogs to pay attention to their environments and react to threats, including strangers. This kept their owners and property safe.
In our modern world, people generally want dogs to be nice toward other people. Maybe you appreciate that they bark when people come to the door, especially when you are home alone.
But generally, you do not want your pet dog to scare or hurt other people. For some dog breeds, those genetic predispositions are still there and they tell the dog to be cautious. To growl. To bark. To lunge. Whether you want them to or not. Breeds created for protection, like Shepherds, Akitas, livestock guardian breeds, Cane Corsos, and many mastiffs fall into this category.
Other breeds are more environmentally sensitive. They may be more sensitive to things like a person wearing a large coat or a person walking with a limp. To the dog, that silhouette or pattern of movement just isn’t right. It’s even a little bit scary. And so they may growl at a strange person for that reason. Border collies are the poster child for this group, but you may also see these tendencies in most other herding breeds (including the shepherds mentioned above).
Small dog breeds may growl at people as a way to keep themselves safe. Their small size makes them vulnerable in ways that larger dogs don’t have to deal with. Growling is their way of protecting themselves from the dangers of being a small dog in a human world. Almost all toy breeds are potentially in this group!
Perhaps your dog is a breed or mix that was not bred to be suspicious of strangers, but you find that your dog still growls at people. Even within very social breeds, certain individuals can carry genes that make a dog fearful of people. Maybe your dog’s grandparent was uneasy around unfamiliar people and that gene got passed down to your dog. Genetics is complicated!
But genes influence your dog’s personality. And it could be that your dog just doesn’t have a social personality and they don’t enjoy being touched by strangers. Your dog may be using the growl to tell people they prefer to be left alone.
Researching your dog’s breed and the history behind its creation may give you insight into why your dog growls at other people.
A Bad Experience
Sometimes a dog can have one bad experience with a stranger, and then that fear is generalized to all people, or a whole category of people (like men or children). Perhaps a well-meaning tall man cornered your dog in the pet store to say hi and your dog was very intimidated by that encounter. Or some energetic kids surrounded your cute puppy while you walked by the park and your pup was totally freaked.
Unfortunately, those kinds of experiences can sometimes result in a dog who then growls at people to prevent that scary thing from happening again. The growl is their way to tell the person that they’d like their space.
Dogs will often protect what is valuable to them. It is common for dogs to resource guard things like food, toys, and their owners from other dogs and people. While this is a natural canine behavior, it can become dangerous if not handled properly.
Your dog may growl if they feel a stranger is threatening their possession of something they desire. Even if the person is not planning on taking away their food or toy, or they have intentions of stealing you away from your dog, your dog may perceive it that way. The growl is their way of communicating that they would like the person to stay away.
Pain or Illness
If your dog is in pain, they may growl at strangers to keep them from approaching or touching them. If your dog is normally friendly toward strangers, but you notice they suddenly growl at you or other people, talk to your veterinarian.
You may also notice that the dog growls when someone attempts to pet or touch them in a specific area; this is another red flag for veterinary attention!
Behavior changes like this are often due to pain or illness and your dog should be evaluated by a vet to find the cause. The growl is to avoid being touched or handled, which may make their pain worse.
The world is unpredictable. Sometimes people come around corners or seemingly appear out of nowhere. This sudden environmental change might startle your dog. And they may growl at the person, to indicate their discomfort and keep themselves safe.
Some dogs have extremely heightened startle responses – these dogs may benefit from medication as part of their training plans. Other dogs may just growl very occasionally after being spooked. That’s usually not a cause for alarm! It’s normal.
What Exactly Triggers a Growl?
We’ve established some of the big reasons why your dog may be growling at strangers. Now let’s identify some of the specific common things that people do which may trigger your dog to growl.
- Getting too close to the dog for their comfort
- Approaching the dog head on
- Reaching out to touch your dog or making physical contact
- Staring at your dog
- Changing positions suddenly, such as standing up from sitting on a bench
- Acting abnormally in the dog’s opinion (yelling, crying, crawling, etc.)
- Getting too close to a valued resource (food, toy, couch, owner, etc.)
- Approaching the house or yard
- Entering the home
- Coming into view suddenly
- Having an abnormal silhouette, such as wearing a large hat or carrying an umbrella
Helping Your Dog Feel Safe
If you can predict what it is about strangers that makes your dog uncomfortable, you can help them navigate the human world in a way that helps them feel safer. Perhaps you put your dog in another room with a delicious stuffed kong toy instead of letting them growl at your guests.
Or maybe you tell admiring passersby that they can’t pet your dog, instead of putting your dog in a scary position when they reach out to pet his head. Maybe you cross to the other side of the street to avoid that runner who is coming straight at you on your walk.
Training can also change our dog’s feelings about strangers in their home or out in the world. If you’d like to address your dog’s growling through training, click here to talk with one of our behavior consultants.
Alisa lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and two dogs, Ruby and Lazlo. She loves exploring local nature preserves, creating new vegetarian dishes, and reading a good novel. Alisa is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, and has a wide range of training experience from shelters, to youth programs to dog sports. She’s very passionate about agility, and uses her blog, The Kindred Canine, as an outlet for this obsession.