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
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.
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”.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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?
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.