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 when petted range from affectionate pleasure growling, to warnings around sensitive or painful spots, all the way to growling as last resort 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 who has learned that growling is wrong or didn’t have the chance to learn about canine communication in the socialization 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 petted.
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 comes from pain or severe discomfort.
Especially when you are touching an inflamed ear or an injured paw.
There are 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 you and your dog 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 desensitizing your dog to like being touched in those specific places.
Veterinarians routinely need to check the mouth and ears and groomers (or you) 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 around 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.
This often happens with seemingly confident and majestic dog breeds like the Cane Corso.
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 who 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.
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, who 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 for some dogs.
That’s not true with my Rottweiler. Try to scratch her chin and your hand will be seized with licks (that’s the best of problems to have though).
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 (and its flawed theory) problem further down below which will give you an idea of 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’s 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 treated like fur babies.
I know that every owner wants the best for their dog and wants them to be happy but sometimes these actions have unintended side effects.
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 should be 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 built on trust and respect. Mutual respect and understanding are 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 for 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 toward 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 its 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 creating 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.
Why Does My Dog Growl When I Hug Him?
Some dogs growl when you hug them because they simply don’t like being restrained, especially if they’re not used to you, appreciate personal space, or are very independent dog breeds.
With some dogs, it’s just a matter of getting them to be comfortable around you (think new rescue dogs) but with others, being hugged will never fully click with them.
Dogs who haven’t been used to much physical contact such as hugging or are known to be independent dog breeds simply don’t want you to hug them and that’s just fine.
Make sure to give your dog time and space and don’t force a hug as this would only create unnecessary tension, especially if the dog is already growling to back out of the hug.
I know, we wanna show our furry friends we love them, but there are dozens of other ways to do that and who knows, maybe your dog will soon seek out hugs or at least more physical contact.
Monday 9th of January 2023
I have a 2.5 yr old pandemic Frenchie. (meaning his was not socialized young when he should have due to lock down) 3 vets have said he is the most physically healthy Frenchie they have ever seen. So he has no pain going on in their opinion. The last few months he has been snapping. (growl with a quick head turn into us, what one might do before a bite) He snaps at the oddest times. When he goes on his back for a belly rub, after about 3 seconds he'll snap. He use to lay there forever wanting his belly rubbed...or if you pet him on his lower back. We can pet him on his head, neck and upper back area no problem. We can pick him up and put him on our lap and he is fine unless we pet him, then he snaps. He has been a stubborn dog and we've tried so many trainers. This last time we sent him to board and train and we are sure this is why he is acting out. Is there hope to fix it? My nerves are shot worrying everyday if I am going to get bit. His snapping sounds pretty scary. I am scared to try another trainer because I think this last one caused the problem. One vet will give him chinese herbs called Liver Happy and another suggested maybe Prosac. Any help would be beyond appreciated!
Monday 9th of January 2023
Hi Gus, first off: You can - perhaps even need to - make up for the missed socialization window. Lockdown just means your pup wasn't able to interact with people/dogs but you can still expose them to these as well as noises, etc. at some point. Socialization does NOT equal interaction, it's just one part of it.
Your dog's growling/snapping may be a training mistake but it can also be misinterpreted communication or, alternatively, puppy biting. Eliminating a lack of bite inhibition is the easiest to start with. Did the issue start after you started working with a trainer or board and train? Or was the issue the reason you approached a trainer?
Either way, it's probably best to seek out another trainer, or rather a specialized behaviorist. To avoid contacting a bad apple (and there are plenty of these in dog training), make sure they're certified and specialize in these kinds of issues. Let them explain to you what they will do and why. Research for yourself to check if that training style is backed by science and if it matches with the consensus of modern dog training. Finding a good trainer is hard but will ultimately be worth it. It's best to stick to one person who you've carefully selected.
Thursday 17th of November 2022
My dog is 8 and I rescued her when she was around 2. She gives short growls that sound like a person would if they were irritated. She is jumpy. Sometimes she asks for pets them jumps away like you did something to her. When she is set off, she doesn't go through steps, she just goes straight to showing teeth with gums exposed. :( I'm positive she was abused before I got her :( It's hard for me to punish her. Today I blocked her from getting on the couch because she got serious with me. :( Any help here???
Saturday 19th of November 2022
Hi Marjorie, it's possible for rescues to display this behavior but usually, it gets better over time as a bond is established. Punishment should never be used, you may use a reasonable correction but that includes letting your dog know what you want instead. Provide alternatives to the current behavior and reward. But of course, it depends on the circumstances.
If you're unsure and there are issues with fundamental things such as getting on the couch after all these years, I'd definitely consider consulting a behaviorist. What kind of training your dog needs depends heavily on the issues you experience.
Monday 31st of October 2022
My dog is a chihuahua/terrier mix. I picked her up at about 6 months old. I believe she was abused. She does like young children or men, or anyone new coming to the house. She just about tears through the window when she sees the UPS truck. I have had her for two years, she follows me every where and doesn’t like me out of her sight. Yet, when I’m sitting on the couch watching TV, and I try to pet her, she growls, tenses up, and lifts her lip. She has been sleeping with me the past year, but if I get up out of bed and disturb her for any reason she growls really menacingly and with a high pitch. I feel like this might be dominate behavior, but I don’t know. I picked up another chihuahua/terrier mix who is an absolute sweetheart about a year ago. She does pretty good with him most of the time, but still acts fairly jealous like a little kid at times when I’m giving him attention. What would be the best way to handle her bipolar behaviors?
Monday 31st of October 2022
Hi Tracy, if there are signs that your pup was abused, it can certainly contribute to these behaviors. It's hard to give advice without knowing more about your daily routine, exercise, training, and so on.
You could consult a professional behaviorist to get to the bottom of this. It could border on separation anxiety, resource issues, etc. and while growling is just a communication tool, it shouldn't happen just because you move and a professional could really help with that in person. On the other side, some dogs are just very easily startled when sleeping, especially if they experienced trauma.
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.
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.
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!
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