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9 Reasons Why Your Dog Growls When Petted

It happens all the time. When guests come over, in public, or just while relaxing on the couch, your dog is being petted. Most dogs enjoy those gentle massages and scratches and your dog is probably no exception.

But suddenly he starts growling when you pet him, maybe in an excited or anxious manner and wants to be left alone. The next moment he is demanding love again and you ask yourself if your dog is a schizophrenic canine.

Whether this unpredictable behavior has just developed or only occurs from time to time, you will want to differentiate aggressive behavior from simple communication to find the best training method or management approach.

So why do dogs growl when petted?

Reasons for your dog growling at you range from affectionate pleasure growling, over to sensitive areas or painful spots, all the way to warning signals due to fear-aggression or anxiety.

Why Does My Dog Growl at Me When I Pet Him?

Growling is commonly misconceived as plain aggressive vocalization. A growling dog is portrayed as a snarling erratic and potentially very dangerous animal.

But primarily, growling is just a form of vocal communication between species. The low guttural, rumbling sound may sound terrifying but it’s just their way of telling you “I feel uncomfortable or threatened in this situation”.

It’s actually a good thing that your dog is growling because he is communicating to you that he is not okay with whatever you are doing. A dog that has learned that growling is wrong or didn’t have the chance to learn about canine communication in his sensible phase, is far more dangerous because he won’t warn you before he snaps.

But besides this, there are other possible causes for growling that you probably haven’t thought about. Your dog growling at you when petted doesn’t necessarily mean that he is uncomfortable, it may even signal the opposite.

1. Pleasure Growling

Golden Retriever getting pet by four people.
Photo by Kenan Kitchen

As I said, growling is merely a way of communicating one’s needs, either positive or negative. Pleasure growling is characterized by a low, affectionate growl that may be paired with a moan and can continue on for a longer period of time.

Important notice: There is something I want to show you that will change the way you interact with your dog. Check it out here.

You can compare it to a cat’s purr, meaning that your dog is emitting pure pleasure and happiness. It is easy to tell from his body language that he is feeling comfortable. Lowered tail, loose stance, and relaxed mouth are all signs of a dog that is enjoying being pet.

When you stop, he may start whining to demand even more scratches. My Rottweiler really loves expressing herself and she growls a lot while playing tug of war or even with other dogs.

But just because your dog is vocalizing out of arousal doesn’t mean that he would never growl out of fear or anger. Growling is still primarily a warning signal and every dog is different when it comes to the amount of play or pleasure vocalization.

2. Medical Reasons

A sudden change in behavior often times comes from pain or severe discomfort. Especially when you are touching an inflamed ear or an injured paw.

There also several conditions that have aggression as a symptom like hypothyroidism. Getting your dog thoroughly checked by the vet can rule out any underlying diseases and will keep your training safe.

3. Sensitive Areas

All dogs prefer to be scratched on their favorite area, whether that’s the belly, back, or chest. But many dogs actually dislike being pet on the head or around the muzzle, ears, and paws especially if it wasn’t a part of their socialization training.

You can try desensitising your dog to like being touched in those specific places. Veterinarians routinely need to check the mouth and ears and groomers must be able to hold your dog’s paw while trimming nails.

How to fix it: If you want to work on the paws, simply teach your dog the trick “shake” which automatically involves his paws being touched without him really noticing it.

You can use plenty of treats when working on desensitization but be careful not to encourage undesired behavior which means removing the treat when your dog starts growling.

Getting your dog more accustomed to pats also involves you learning how to actually stroke your dog the right way. Below is an awesome video with every dog’s favorite spots:

4. Dislike of Certain People/ Strangers

When it comes to preferences, dogs are not so different from us. Suddenly being hugged by a stranger or getting a butt slap would throw anyone off. While some dogs are very aloof of strangers in general, others just dislike certain types of people or apparel.

If your dog wasn’t properly exposed to tall men with black coats in his early developmental stages, he might react particularly fearful towards them. If this stranger then decides to approach, alarm bells go off.

Every attempt at physical contact will be rejected with a low, growly and clear “no”. Some dogs just don’t like their personal space invaded especially human oriented breeds that closely bond with their owners but aren’t so sure about strangers.

That being said, a well-tempered and socialized dog shouldn’t perceive anyone as a threat when you, as the leader, introduce the person as a friend. But many people simply don’t know how to behave.

Most strangers don’t even ask if they could pet your dog, they simply bend over with their whole body and press their sweaty palms onto your dog’s head. This bending over paired with immediate physical contact can be perceived as a threat by nervous or fearful dogs.

How to fix it: Your dog doesn’t need to be cuddling with the world but changing his perception just a little bit will do wonders. Expose him to areas with small groups of people and slowly build your way up to busier streets.

Follow these socialization steps and create a positive experience around people by using treats or toys. You can also ask strangers if they would be willing to throw a treat in front of your dog when passing by.

Inform people, that request to pet your dog, how to properly approach him. They shouldn’t bend over the dog and rather come from the side taking away that threatening body language. A scratch under the chin is much better than a pat on the head.

If your dog is still unsure about people approaching him then ask them to kneel down with a treat in their hand so your dog will be able to make contact on his own terms.

5. Warning Signal

Growling can seemingly come out of nowhere. But there are probably several body signals that your dog has displayed prior to this. Depending on the situation, your dog might try to tell you “that’s enough” or “leave me alone”.

While growling in itself is not a bad thing, finding out the reason will help you prevent or manage the situation better in the future. When you pet your dog for a few seconds and he suddenly gives you a mad growl, this is probably him saying that he has had enough.

He definitely has the right to tell you that but, if occurring repeatedly, it could mean that he believes to be in control of the situation and you are doing something he disapproves of.

In a nutshell, he is the one giving you commands on how you should act. I will discuss the pack leader problem further down below which will give you an idea where your dog is coming from.

How to fix it: Growling as a warning signal doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be fixed. As I said, revoking your dog of the ability to warn will lead to a much more unpredictable dog.

Understand what your dog is uncomfortable with in this situation. Did you squeeze him too hard or is he just not in the mood and you are forcing yourself onto him?

Give him a bit of space and let him approach you rather than vice versa. You can dangle a toy or a treat and get in some one-on-one bonding session.

6. You Are Not the Pack Leader

If this is the case, your dog must have issues in more places than just the petting. He essentially thinks that he is the boss and running the household. We get that it sounds funny, but it’s not.

And it’s not the big dominant dogs that commonly rule your life, it’s the small ones that are babied. I know that every owner wants the best for their dog and wants them to be happy but sometimes you are unwillingly creating a problem.

But why is that a problem? Canines are pack animals and a pack without a leader is confused, anxious and unstable. If your dog thinks of you as a bad leader, he will try it himself.

Now the debate about whether or not a pack hierarchy exists is ancient and I won’t go into any details. Dogs are not like wolves and domestication has greatly changed them. I don’t recommend using any alpha training which, sadly, got closely affiliated with the word “pack leader”.

Dog feels pleasure while being petted
Photo by Adam Griffith

The leader (at least in my case) is a gentle, kind, and respected part of the family. Associating leadership with dominance couldn’t be more wrong. Every species needs guidance whether that’s coming from a parent or s boss.

If your dog thinks that you are not worthy of this title, he will try claiming ownership of resources or the couch. He won’t need to obey commands anymore and might become snappy when corrected.

It’s essentially about the idea that you need to be in control of your dog. At the end of the day they are animals and our society can’t work with wild behavior. That’s why we have domesticated wolves in the first place, to fit them into our lives.

How to fix it: Leadership should be build on trust and respect. Mutual respect and understanding is the best foundation for any relationship. You will need to have the clearest communication and the best bond possible.

If you believe that your bond could be improved then don’t read any further and fix your relationship first with my comprehensive bonding guide. This will boost your and your dog’s confidence which will help you in the next steps.

  1. Allude confidence. Be calm and kind when talking to your dog and do it with respect. If you don’t offer a supporting and loving attitude then you can’t expect it in return.
  2. Show your dog that you are serious when giving him a command. Don’t just walk away when he didn’t sit this time thinking that it will work in the future. A command always needs to be executed correctly when you ask for it.
  3. Regular and consistent obedience training will help your position a lot. Make it fun and enjoyable for your dog to work with you. A dog that is looking forward to a training session will have a much bigger success rate.
  4. Be in charge of your dog’s daily walks which start at the door. Don’t let him storm out into the open space and rather show him that he needs to respect your space and wait for your release command before going out.
  5. This also applies to off-leash fun. Never let your dog off-leash before he hasn’t sat, looked at you, and was released. The release command is incredibly powerful and gives you security and control over the duration and consistency of any command.
  6. Also, take control of his resources especially when he is guarding them. That means no free feeding and no stolen steaks from the table (which isn’t great anyway). Meal times are a perfect training opportunity to show your dog that you have full control over his food while giving him the confidence that he doesn’t have to protect it.

Recommended Reading: How to Stop Food Aggression

7. Anxiety

Dogs can suffer from severe anxiety just like we do. Separation anxiety, for example, is a condition in which a dog exhibits signs of extreme distress when being left alone.

Anxiety symptoms can include shivering, pacing, panting, destructive behavior, urination, drooling, excessive licking, etc. There are three different reasons of fear responses to abnormal stress: fear, phobia and anxiety.

Fear is an instinctual behavior that everyone has experienced in his life several times. It triggers our fight or flight response in the presence of a threat. Your dog could have growled during a pet session because he heard a loud noise from outside the door.

Now when fear becomes persistent, it’s called a phobia. Your dog could develop a phobia from past trauma with humans or from a lack of socialization. Especially tall men wearing certain clothes appear intimidating to dogs.

Every time your dog is exposed to that trigger, he will react with a fear response that could include barking, growling, snapping or lunging. Growling is almost always self rewarding because it achieves the desired outcome of a person walking away.

Dogs can also develop a general anxiety disorder in which a dog is always on edge and anticipates a threat behind every corner. Petting him during fearful phases can actually “hurt” him.

A dog that is always fearful has very tense muscles with lots of knots causing them to become sore. While your intention might be to help him, you could actually make him feel more uncomfortable and therefore will receive a growl.

If your dog is going through a sensitive phase like the second fear period (between 6-14 months old), it’s important to continuously desensitize him to his triggers.

How to fix it: Socialization never stops and while you might have missed the critical stages, it’s still not too late. Create a positive association with your dog’s trigger repeatedly by using treats or toys.

Control your dog’s environment and keep as much distance as possible at first. You can slowly build up the exposure in baby steps to set your dog up for success. Remember to not pet your dog when he is displaying an anxiety response because this will actually reinforce the behavior.

8. Unstable Behavior

A dog that is confident, predictable, and stable is the opposite of dangerous whereas unbalanced dogs can experience a lot of anxiety and uncertainty leading to behaviors like extreme submission or dominance and switching between them.

He can react very nervous towards new stimuli and your touch could elevate his level of anxiety. It could also be the case that your dog has learned to keep people away from him by growling at them (conflict aggression).

This would also include situations when being petted. Hassling a dog that is unsure of himself could trigger an aggressive response. Unstable behavior oftentimes has an underlying medical issue so it would be best to talk to your vet.

Unbalanced temperament, on the other hand, is inherent and something you need to look out for when choosing a reputable breeder. There are various temperament tests that you can perform on a potential puppy to determine it’s stability.

Recommended Reading: Do Genetics Determine My Puppy’s Temperament?

9. Aggression

Aggression (not medically induced) isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes time to get from a friendly dog to a potentially dangerous one. There were probably a lot of early clues that you could have picked up on and that could indicate a negative change.

Regular growling, snapping, and lunging at you or other people is a serious behavior problem.

Take notes under which circumstances this behavior occurs and what potentially caused it. Finding the reason behind the aggression is necessary to create a plan.

Serious aggression or reactivity towards strangers is an issue and should definitely be looked into. There are many aggression resources on the internet and you can always reach out to a certified dog behaviorist.

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About Danielle
I am the founder of PawLeaks where I share weekly tips on dog training and behavior. Sharing a passion for dogs and helping owners to solve problems through understanding canine behavior and modification is my number one goal.

Leslie E Bassett

Sunday 10th of October 2021

My pitbull is almost 3 and about 6 months ago started to growl every once in awhile. Just a low growl and not very long. Had him since he was 6 weeks old. Very confusing because he is our baby and always treated like a king. Am I doing something wrong? He is very healthy and happy. Confused.

Danielle

Sunday 10th of October 2021

Hi Leslie, has anything changed in his environment or routine? Treating your dog like a king is a good thing in theory but maybe it's taken too far in the sense that he's used to getting what he wants and doesn't anymore? Low growls often happen due to frustration but you'd have to connect that behavior to something he wants at that moment.

That being said, it's always hard to evaluate from afar. If you want to be absolutely sure and rule out behavioral issues, I'd suggest a consult with a trainer who should be able to spot the issue pretty quickly.

Tiffany Crass

Monday 2nd of August 2021

I have a almost two-year-old mixed breed I'm thinking he is maybe some sort of Shepherd or possibly even Pitt mix. He started sneaking up and biting people when they would come to the house. Both men and women. He was never really aggressive about it and usually never broke the skin. But that had me worried so I didn't get to really socialize him like needed which probably made things even worse in the long run. He has never attempted to growl or bite me but I am literally the only one that he's been around that he hasn't tried to bite. He will not let anybody pet him or even get close enough to try to pet him except for me and my boyfriend but he has even growled and bit at him a few times. Like I said he is about to be turning three and he has started growling at me, the first time I accidentally shut either his tail or his paw in the car door and when I tried to love on him to see if he was okay he growled and that told me to leave him alone so I did. Obviously from reading your article I've learned that when I left him alone that reinforced the growling because now just about anytime that I do anything he doesn't like he growles at me. I've had a couple people tell me that he will eventually turn on me and I'm worried that that is starting to happen. I've also heard a lot of stories of people having to put their beloved pets down because of situations like that, and I'm just really worried and don't want it to come to that with my baby. I've had him since he was born and it would seriously break my heart. Also I have another dog that is about 6 months younger than him and they used to be really close and would play well together and love each other, until recently about 6 months ago King, my biter, started growling and attacking Blu, my other dog. I'm not sure why but now he bullies him whenever I'm not around because Blu is so scared of him. I'm not sure what to do I don't want to lose either one of my dogs. Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thank you so very much!

Danielle

Monday 2nd of August 2021

Hi Tiffany, first of all: Don't let anybody tell you what to do or that your dog "will turn on you". People who are not in this situation always recommend the easy way out and don't even know the damage they can do with uneducated guesses.

Growling isn't a bad thing and sometimes, a dog's growl is warranted - it's one of their main communication tools after all. If you accidentally hurt him, leaving him alone doesn't necessarily reinforce that behavior since it was real pain and he's telling you to back down (especially if he had negative experiences in a previous home and doesn't know your intention). That he now does it every time you do something he plainly dislikes, that's another thing.

The fact that he doesn't like people approaching the house is not unusual. Some dogs are very territorial, especially if not being used to strangers stepping inside the house but of course, a bite should always be avoided.

Since he's also attacking your other dog recently, I'd definitely take a trip to your vet (probably muzzled) for a thorough check-up. Pain or other diseases can often cause drastic behavioral changes.

Apart from that, it sounds like it'd be best to consult a behaviorist. Your dog definitely need to be put down, in reality very very few aggression cases are unfixable. Try everything you can and don't shy away from professional help!

Also, socialization is key and should never be skipped. A lack of desensitization can always cause aggression or other issues.

Hope it'll get better soon, Danielle

Elizabeth

Tuesday 6th of April 2021

My 6 month old pup loves playing with my 13 year old son but he started to growl at him when he tried to pet him while he slept. We then had my son stop touching him when he was sleeping. Now they will be playing and having fun and out of no where he stops and growls but no in a fun way. Then if my son tries to leave he follows him and sits on him and doesn’t want him to leave but doesn’t want to play or have him pet him.

Danielle

Friday 9th of April 2021

Hi Elizabeth, in these situations it's so hard to pin-point any specifc cause. Have you ruled out pain/inuuries as the cause? Especially when it happens due to touch or while playing. A growl can just be a communicative tool and some dogs use it more often than other dogs but the not letting go part definitely is worth looking into.

It's important to note how exactly your son tries to evade the situation and the dog's body language. Sometimes it's best to consult a third party like a dog behaviorist to find out what's behind this, especially since it can turn serious if any warning signs are ignored. He's a puppy too so that's important to consider.

Danielle

Kaitlyn

Tuesday 23rd of February 2021

I have a 10 month old German Shepherd who is not fixed yet... we have been having issues with food agression and growling when being petted. When growling his ears are back and his body is stiff. It doesn’t matter where he is petted or who pets him he will growl. Wondering what I can do to get him to stop growling and enjoy being petted?

Danielle

Thursday 25th of February 2021

Hey Kaitlyn,

you can check out my article on food aggression. Generally, taking baby steps while counter-conditioning your dog will ensure that he accepts people around him in the long-term.

However, not all dogs love to be petted and not all love having people around when eating so it might just take a little bit longer and the end result won't be the cuddliest dog on the world, but at the very least he'll learn to enjoy being petted and learn to accept people around his food.

Also, because you said he's not "fixed yet" - neutering/spaying nearly never solves these kinds of problems and early neutering can even lead to serious health issues. Check this article that is backed up by scientific studies.

If you didn't get him as a puppy, it might just be that he's still settling inside his new home. Of course, that only applies if he's recently rescued :).

Cheers, Danielle

Martha

Wednesday 6th of January 2021

Hi, I found this site very useful. I adopted a staffordshire bull terrier when she was 1 year old from a dog shelter. She is now 5 years old. She was very submissive but very fearful and scared. She would be afraid most of the time and pee when scared. With time, she stopped peeing, but now she growls when she is scared. She can be scared from one moment to another. I do not know what triggers her. I used to pet her when she was on her bed, but then she growls at me and walks away. Another example, she sits outside my son's room (when he has his door closed), and if I walk by her, sometime she gets scared and paces away. Some times I pet her, and she seems fine, but if she gets scare, then she growls and walks away. Not sure how to deal with his fearfulness, so we can trust each other better. I get scared when she growls and I think she does not mean it, reason why she immediately walks away. Any advise?

Danielle

Tuesday 12th of January 2021

Hi Martha, do you have some information from the shelter regarding your dog's past? It's always easier to understand behavior if you know what the dog has lived through. With such a fearful pup I would recommend a lot of bonding and confidence building.

Try to stay as calm and content as possible when she growls at you. Dogs are incredibly susceptible to emotions and can easily pick up on your nervousness which can worsen their anxiety.

When your dog is scared do not pet or talk to her. It is very human to comfort someone but it actually makes it worse in dogs. If you do not react to her anxiety, she will grasp that everything is fine and nothing is happening to her.

To build up her confidence, focus on obedience training, play, and making positive memories together. Maybe it would also be a good idea to take her to the vet in case her growling stems from pain or an underlying illness.