9 Reasons Why Your Dog Growls When Petted

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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.

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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Danielle
In love with dogs, their behavior and psychology. I am writing on this blog since February 2019 to provide you with valuable information on everything dogs. When I am not working on my blog, I study research articles and enjoy the time with my beloved Rottweiler Amalia.

16 thoughts on “9 Reasons Why Your Dog Growls When Petted”

  1. Thanks for this information. My female 2 year old Rott is a growler.She growls with play and often why I “love on her.” She growls at my husband when she is resting and appears to not want to be bothered.She also growls at our older dog from time to time.She is never aggressive towards my husband or I but I often feel her place in home with the older male dog she is kind of I guess “pushing her weight around.” I am very close with both of my dogs and I have no fear of aggression from her. I have just never had a dog that growled as much as she does.

    Reply
    • Hi Bobbi,

      my female Rottie is also a growler, but only when playing with dogs/people (especially when she’s chasing) or getting annoyed by other dogs – never when humans annoy her, practically doesn’t matter what you do to her.

      Every dog is different though and other owners of wallflower dog breeds are sometimes quite shocked when all she does is play and having a great time. So that’s totally normal. In theory, growling when not liking to be approached occurs quite often too and I wouldn’t worry about it as long as it’s not to threaten or anything and only to communicate that she wants her space.

      I don’t know if that’s the issue but if she really only growls when your husband touches her, maybe working on their bond and communication could improve that? Hierarchy between dogs is often a thing but boundaries always need to be established so no dog gets bullied or anything. Have fun with your wonderful Rott! :).

      Reply
  2. Such a great read!

    Our 5 month old pup will often climb up for cuddles and then growl and sometimes snap at us, even though she has invaded our space – she has not bitten or aggressively come at us, so we’re a bit confused – would love to hear any thoughts!

    Reply
    • Hi Niamh, thanks for the kind words! It’s important to always note the exact body language your dog is displaying. Maybe she’s trying to initiate play. She’s a bit young to test her limits/claim the space as hers so I’d really lean towards the first option. However, it’s also important to note the exact growl. Is it a deep serious rumble or a little puppy growl?

      Wouldn’t worry too much about it unless you think it’s really serious. Don’t get up though and I wouldn’t encourage that behavior either (just like barking, they’ll do it more and more often if they get the craved attention).

      Cheers,
      Danielle

      Reply
  3. That you for a very informative article. I really needed to read it! I rescued an older Maltese mix 10 months ago. He is approximately 9 years old. From the start, he has shown resource guarding with his toys. However, in the last few months, he has gotten more aggressive with me – baring his teeth and snapping at me when I try to put on his lease or when I pet him on his back (as he’s lying by me without his toys while we’re on the couch). He is unpredictable. I have an appointment with his vet to see if he has any pain. However, I think it is a behavior problem. I am being patient and speak calmly to him, but when he suddenly snaps and bares his teeth at me, it is frightening. I think I just have to not touch him unless he comes to me. He was a stray before I rescued him.
    Any suggestions? Thank you.

    Reply
    • Hey Jessica,

      good idea to take him to the vet first to rule out any main. Keep in mind that using a muzzle for the vet visit might be worth a thought. Also, you can take him there and just desensitize him, meaning that he just visits without treatment (that includes being touched if he dislikes that). This way, you can prevent that vet visits will become a drag in the future.

      In regards to your problem: You’re right, rescues need time and space. The 3-3-3 rule states that they need roughly 3 days to arrive, 3 weeks to settle and up to 3 months to feel comfortable. Just a rule of thumb, of course. 10 months should be a good amount of time to get settled, some dogs still need longer though.

      However, when he’s doing that while you’re doing something necessary, it’s important not to back down or talk to him in a soothing voice. If you back down and speak softly, it may just reinforce the behavior you’re trying to avoid. If you’re cornering him, you should give him space, of course but you should be persistent and not jerk back or anything. After giving him space, you try again. No communication needed as your dog will know what you want from him. Make sure to read his body language to avoid uncomfortable situations before they occur.

      Also, the article on food aggression could really help you as there’s a step by step guide for resource guarding.

      Reply
  4. Hi, this was a really good read. We rescued a cocker spaniel nearly a year ago at 10 months old. My mum lives with us and recently our dog will start being stroked and then start growling at her for what seems like no reason? Other times he plays with her and goes for walks. He can be stubborn and got half way round a walk with my mum and then decided he wasn’t going to move. I’ve been working from home a lot due to Covid and wondering if he is trying to protect me? Thanks

    Reply
    • Hey Claire, if your dog is really only refusing to walk with her (check the linked article for more information on that – dozens of people in the comments have the same problem) and only growls at her, then there’s probably a reason.

      Who was the primary caretaker of your Cocker Spaniel? Was it her or did she just recently start walking/playing with him? Did anything happen during that time?

      If your dog is petted while you’re in the room, that’s most probably not due to protection (after all, he’s being touched, not you). That and the fact that he also seems to avoid walking with her when she’s alone.

      Of course, it could also be that your dog is just enjoying playtime with your mum (my Rottie growls a lot when playing but it’s completely clear that it’s pleasure) and he might be a little stubborn when walking because he learned that pattern since she’s accepting it.

      However, the reasons could also be more serious, depending on the exact growl and body language. I’d try to nail down exactly when it happens and what triggers it. I know it might seem like for no reason but when he’s only doing it with your mum, there’s surely a reason.

      Have a great day,
      Danielle

      Reply
  5. I have a 10 month old golden doodle who is the sweetest most adorable puppy ever. Sometimes he will just randomly growl at us though. I don’t know if he’s entitled, or just anxious but if he’s not in the mood he’ll growl and in some cases he’ll snap. I don’t understand because he is so sweet most of the time but if he’s sleepy or groggy, he will growl. Please help. 🙁

    Reply
    • Hey Italia, most of the time, there’s a pretty simple explanation why dogs are growling. If you don’t think it’s play-growling or some other similar type, then your dog might just be startled, especially when he’s sleepy or groggy.

      However, if he’s snapping apart from that then that’s a different story. Maybe you should have a look at my article on puppy biting and preventing unwanted behavior in general.

      He may have just learned that growling gets him what he wants – food, attention, toys, even non-attention and uses that. In general, growling is a warning mechanism and it’s good that it’s used before the bite but that’s not the case if he literally snaps right after that. Also, there should be a reason for that like feeling crowded or cornered but not just to get or achieve anything.

      I’d definitely suggest giving him space without really reinforcing that behavior. If he wants space, that’s okay. If he tries to achieve anything else, growling is not the way to get it.

      Reply
  6. I have a 55 lb mutt named Tucker. We rescued Tucker about 3 1/2 years ago and he’s about 4 1/2 years old. Tucker has always been excitable (barks and runs around like crazy when the lawn guys are here or when the doorbell rings) but has been a sweet dog otherwise. He loves hugs and snuggles so the kids and I have always loved on him quite a lot. Recently he’s started snapping, however. He used to lay on the couch a lot and probably considered it his bed. My 10-year-old went in to give him a kiss and he barked and bit him on the cheek. This was pretty shocking. He has kinda given Nick a growl here or there in the past to tell him to back off, but he’s never bitten anyone before. I decided to remove the couch as an option because I thought he was perhaps getting possessive over it, and now he’s snapped at both our other dog and my oldest son (16) when they’ve come close to him when he’s sleeping on his dog bed. Tucker seems completely fine otherwise. Happy and tail wagging when he’s up and about. He doesn’t seem to be in any pain whatsoever. So I guess my question is this, is it normal for a dog to develop this sort of possessive aggression spontaneously? And what do we do about it now?

    Reply
    • Hey Dawn, I’m sorry to hear that. Even though your dog might’ve perceived the couch as his bed, biting or even snapping is an absolute no-go. Some dogs are easier startled than others if you suddenly wake them but a dog that has properly learned bite inhibition would still refrain from doing so.

      That’s provided that the dog has overall structure, feels confident and knows what is demanded of him (i.e. a strong bond to the owner or all family members in general). If you ruled out pain with a vet, then this is definitely a behavioral issue. Although I’d love to help, there are minuscule tells in a canine’s body language besides the importance of how everybody interacts with the dog, if he’s exercised properly and also has a healthy diet.

      That’s why I’d suggest you consult a behaviorist. Not a glorified dog trainer teaching tricks but somebody who has a proven track record and is willing and patient enough to work on these kinds of issues. There are no quick fixes.

      The fact that he’s recently acting the same when he’s approached in his own dog bed would be in line with what you’ve mentioned about the couch. However, please be aware that revoking his couch privilege will generally confuse a dog, especially if he had that privilege for years. Fights for resources can start that way. Now he might protect the last “safe-haven” he has and doesn’t want to be disturbed in his bed (as long as this really only occurs when he’s in bed).

      If there’s a lot of stress (stress for a dog is not always what we humans perceive as stress) in the household, it might just be a sign that he wants to be left alone. After people ignore the warnings – growl, bark, body language, whatever – dogs take the next step.

      Easily excitable doesn’t mean your dog has to act out of control. He seemingly hasn’t yet learned to stay calm when he sees something outside and dogs have to learn to cope with the frustration. It’s harder for some dogs than it is for other but some level of obedience is necessary for every pooch.

      It’s important to take the circumstances into account and that includes all the things mentioned above.

      Reply
  7. We have a 6 months old golden doodle pup, who is so affectionate and loves to cuddle. However, whenever she is resting, she growls when you pet her. Doesn’t matter who it is. At first, I thought she was “protecting” me since usually she is cuddling with me. But she will do it to me now when she is resting and cuddling with the kids too. She sometimes snaps (only at the kids) but usually I can just show her that I am boss and tell her sternly to stop and then she is fine. The kids are the issue as they are timid and are intimidated when she growls and she looks at you with untrusting eyes. I know she is young, but I am concerned.

    Reply
    • Hey Heather, sorry that you’re struggling with this. Diagnosing anything from afar is always hard, but I’ll try to give you my opinion.

      Circumstances and exact body language are very important in these cases. If I understand correctly, the first part means that she growls at other people while resting if they touch her. But why did you think it was to protect you if you’re not with her in these situations? And now she growls at you when she’s with the kids, but does she growl at you when she’s just resting (just like when somebody else would touch her when she’s alone)? Is she growling at the kids when she’s alone and touched?

      It may just be that your dog is telling you that she doesn’t want to be touched in these situations. However, snapping is definitely not okay (as long as the kids didn’t do anything to provoke that reaction). Yes, on one hand your pup’s still young and in the learning process (especially when it comes to bite inhibition) but on the other it’s very concerning if this is already causing problems at such a young age.

      Telling her “no” might work for the time being but that doesn’t fix the issue. There’s obviously some communication issue because she does not know who’s the leader. If she did, she wouldn’t display behavior you don’t like. That doesn’t mean that punishment should be harder at all, it just means that you first need to establish a strong bond and that includes teaching the right behavior patterns, obedience, the whole nine yards. So many negative behaviors occur because there’s a miscommunication between dog and handler. You need to be clear and consistent. Puppy eyes should never look “untrusting”, they should learn to trust you in every situation because that way, no reactivity issues, etc. will ever surface because the dog knows you got her back and you’re in control. That’s just a nice byproduct of establishing the right relationship.

      Reply
  8. 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply

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