Why Does My Dog Growl When I Pet Them (& What to Do About It)

A dog growling at you for any reason is concerning, especially when you're offering friendly pets. Find out what this behavior can mean and how to handle it.

Published November 29, 2022
Mean little dog growling

Sometimes, dogs growl, and this signal can mean so many things. It might be that the dog is scared, uncomfortable, or maybe they're just playing. Still, it's important to take any warning signals seriously. You have to learn to read your dog (and other people's dogs, too). If your dog growls when you pet them or otherwise touch them, that might be a sign that they're not comfortable with your touch and could potentially bite. However, it could also mean your dog is essentially talking to you, and may not be dangerous at all. Learning the difference is essential to build the strongest bond possible with your dog.

Understanding the Context

The first thing to consider is the overall situation: when and where does your dog growl? Is it only when you pet them? Typically, if everything else about the setting is normal, this indicates your dog is signaling deep discomfort with touch. If they only growl when you're trying to brush their teeth or clip their nails, then that could just be a sign that they're not ready for these things yet.

Dogs typically growl either when they're being playful, or when they are uncomfortable and are issuing a "warning" to whatever or whoever is upsetting them. The first type of growl is a display to signal happiness, and the second type should make clear the dog is uncomfortable and under stress.

If they only growl when people come over, that could mean they're getting social anxiety around new people. If they only growl when you're trying to give them a bath or take them for a walk, it might mean they don't like being bathed or walked at all. Or it could mean something specifically is triggering them.

Look for those underlying triggers. Are you normally able to pet your dog, but when you're at the dog park, they suddenly give a low growl? Maybe this happens at the groomer's. Figure out what is causing your dog discomfort, and you can move forward with training to help alleviate the problem.

Watch Your Dog's Body Language

In addition to understanding the context of the situation that helped produce the growl, it is important to look at your dog's overall body posture and demeanor. If your dog otherwise seems calm, is bowing to initiate play, or looks like they are just trying to get you to engage with them for fun, you likely have nothing to worry about.

However, if your dog seems very tense, their ears are pinned back to their head, they're making other unusual sounds, or they're displaying signs of stress, be cautious. These signals may not always be obvious, so you need to be careful about assessing your dog's growling -- especially if you are petting them, and your hands are close to their muzzle.

Understanding Growling as a Display Happiness

Dogs can definitely growl to show happiness. But sometimes their happiness can get a little … aggressive. When your dog is growling and barking at you, don't worry, it may not mean that they're mad at you. They may just be displaying their happiness.

Dogs have a lot of different ways to show their happiness: some will bark or whine. Others will wag their tails or jump up and down excitedly, and some even lick your face. But a common ways for dogs to express their joy is by growling.

There are some general theories about why dogs make noise when they're happy and excited. One theory is that the sound comes from their throats as part of their process of panting, kind of like how we humans inhale when we're excited or out of breath. Another theory says dogs may be imitating their mothers' sounds when they were puppies. Yet another theory says the sound has a purpose similar to a smile, and is meant to show other dogs that they're not going to hurt each other.

How to Respond to a Stress-based Growl

If your dog's body language is telling you they are growling because they are stressed or fearful, it is important not to punish this behavior. After all, your dog is doing their best to warn you that something isn't right. Ultimately, you want this signal, so you know how to respond. If you punish your dog, they might not growl next time, and you won't know they are uncomfortable.

First, stop petting your dog, and figure out what is causing their discomfort. Your goal is to remove the cause of the discomfort. If they aren't OK with being touched, you need to back off and stop petting them for a bit. However, if something in their environment is eliciting the growl, take steps to remove that stimulus from your dog's space. If that means you need to limit their exposure to other dogs, that's where you have to start.

In the long run, you may need to address your dog's growling through a behavior modification program. This entails using desensitization techniques (exposing your dog to the stressful stimulus carefully, under controlled conditions,) counterconditioning (which involves using training to change your dog's response from anxiety to joy) and other methods to help your dog overcome their fear. This can be a very challenging undertaking, and you may need to consult with a professional canine behaviorist to work with you and your dog.

When You Should Be Concerned

It's important to understand when you should be concerned about your dog growling. This becomes essential if your dog is growling when you (or someone else) is petting them. There are several specific reasons or triggers petting might trigger a dog to growl.

Touching Certain Areas of the Body

Does your dog only growl when you touch specific spots on their body? This likely means your dog is sensitive to touch. Dogs can be uncomfortable with being pet on their head, ears, or tail. Dogs can be uncomfortable with being pet on the back, belly, or hindquarters. Dogs can be uncomfortable with being pet on their groin area.

Again, if you find that nothing else in their environment is likely causing them to growl fearfully, stop trying to touch the area that is bothering your dog. The most important thing is not to escalate your dog's discomfort, and figure out if something more is causing them to growl.

They Might be in Pain or Have a Medical Condition

The most likely reason your dog is growling at you when you pet them is that they are uncomfortable with the act of being touched. However, it's worth mentioning a few other potential medical causes of a dog's discomfort with being petted.

If your dog has been behaving strangely lately and won't stop growling every time someone approaches them, there may be an underlying medical condition causing this behavior. The best thing to do in this situation is to take your dog to the vet for an exam and checkup right away. The vet will be able to look into any health issues that might be affecting them (such as pain) or prescribe medication if necessary. Once they have ruled out any medical conditions, then they should be able to help you figure out why your furry friend has decided not to like being petted anymore.

Dog Growling When Petting Ends

When you're petting your dog, you might notice that they growl when the petting stops. This is a common behavior in most dogs that can be easily fixed with a little extra training.

Woman petting her dog on the terrace

The first thing to do is to make sure that you're giving your dog enough time to calm down after playtime or before bedtime. Dogs are smart and they know when it's time for bed or play and will act accordingly, so if you don't give them enough time to wind down, they may become anxious or frustrated.

Next, try not to pet the same spot over and over again without giving your dog a break. This can lead to your dog feeling like they're being smothered and cause them to growl when you stop petting them.

Finally, if none of these solutions work for you, try some alternative methods of getting your dog relaxed before bedtime or playtime, such as taking them for walks around the block or playing fetch with them in the backyard. This should help them burn off unspent energy, and get them ready to relax before bed.

Determine Why Your Dog Is Growling

These are just a few reasons why your dog may growl when you pet them. If your dog is growling at you, it's important to find out what's causing it and work with a professional to help you solve the problem. A dog who growls when being petted needs training so that they can get used to being touched in uncomfortable situations. With positive reinforcement and proper training, you can overcome this issue and help your dog feel at ease with petting.

Why Does My Dog Growl When I Pet Them (& What to Do About It)