Understanding Big Dog Barking and Growling

Dog Barking

My mixed pack of dogs can turn into quite the choir when we receive visitors or if they miss my family or me. Dogs bark, growl, sigh, grunt, whine, and more.

Understanding why you have a growling dog or one whose barking is loud and anxious can help you train your dog for success and develop a better bond with your canine partner.


Dog Barking


What Is the Meaning of Different Dog Barks?

Dogs don’t just woof. They have a range of sounds or vocalizations that carry a spectrum of meanings. A dog can produce a bark that is a grunt, a cough, a whine, or a yip. The meaning of these can range from trying to tell you something has changed in their environment to a sound of surprise.

Knowing the meaning of your dog’s sounds helps you determine if they are upset, aggressive, angry, or playful. To help you distinguish between different barks (and their barks can sound very similar), it’s helpful to look at your dog’s body language and assess the situation for cues.

Keep in mind you will be held liable if your dog escalates to biting, so it’s best to know what a bark means before your dog steps up to biting.


Types and Meanings of Dog Barks

So, what do different dog sounds mean? If a dog is barking, does it simply mean the dog is saying “danger, danger?” Nope, each dog’s sound is filled with meaning.

Here are the meaning baseline sounds for dogs:

1. Howls

Dogs howl when they announce something or cry out to you as you get home from work. It’s a dog’s way to express joy and signal excitement. Not all dog breeds howl, and some smaller breeds rely on yapping barks to substitute the howl sounds.

Breeds that howl regularly are husky, and some German shepherds will also howl. Howling can also indicate the dog is feeling abandoned and lonely, and if your neighbor’s dog howls all night long, chances are they feel alone and suffer separation anxiety.

2. Whines

Whining indicates a dog is unhappy. If your dog whines when you come home, it’s not to welcome you but rather to show their displeasure that you left them alone for so long. Whining usually means your dog is trying to communicate their urgent need to go urinate, be fed, or show you they are in pain.

If your dog whines frequently, it’s a serious sign that should be weighed up with the other environmental conditions.

3. Sighs

Ever had your dog sink down at the end of a day and give a big sigh? You probably do the same when you come home and sink into the sofa with a “cold one.”

Sighing as a form of communication signals that the dog is feeling tired, frustrated, or content. Knowing whether your dog is frustrated or content will require a closer look at their body language, but more on that a little later.

4. Grunts

When your dog grunts, it could be a slightly different version of the sigh, but it can also be a sign that they are upset with other dogs or with you.

My dogs often grunt when they lie down, expressing their contentment with their position. They may also grunt to warn off another dog that’s coming too close.

5. Yips

Younger dogs or puppies moan and yip. This high-pitched bark or yipping sound may be produced when another dog pesters your dog. In terms of human sounds, a yip or moan sound is the dog equivalent of sighing and rolling your eyes.

6. Growls

When a dog starts growling at you, your first instinct is to think the dog is about to attack. However, dogs can growl for other reasons too. A soft growl or play growling can signal the dog is ready to play and they are teasing a friend for a game of tag.

A dog with its weight rocked forward while barking or growling is a dog that’s ready to charge you and attack. Dogs that growl while rocking their weight back onto their haunches when growling indicate they are uncertain and can’t decide whether to attack or run.


3 Main Factors for Understanding the Dog Bark

There are a few reasons why the dog bark needs to be understood. Understanding why and how a dog barks helps you determine whether a situation is dangerous or if the dog experiences anxiety.

These three factors will help you decipher dog-speak:

1. Pitch

Low sounds, such as a low-toned bark, indicate the dog is warning and serious about what they are saying. When the bark is made with a high pitch, they are saying they are nervous and excited.

2. Duration

I’ve noticed that when a dog gives a long stretched-out howl, it usually means they are trying to get your attention. The longer they howl, the greater their concern. Dogs may bark at longer intervals when they hear a sound they can’t identify or if there is something they are afraid of.

3. Frequency

A dog that barks rapidly is excited or agitated, and they may also be anxious. Checking the rest of the dog’s body language may reveal a dog that’s tipped forward to charge or backward to bolt away.


Why Do Dogs Growl and How Can These Be Handled?

Growling isn’t necessarily a sign of aggression. My dogs often growl to show their playful intent, and a good example of dogs at play may involve yapping short and high-pitched barks interspersed with short growls that are higher in tone.

If your dog growls, it’s up to you to decide whether they are being friendly or aggressive. Growling with aggression can quickly escalate to biting behavior.

Handle a dog that growls with the utmost care. Read their body language, checking whether their ears are flattened or pinned back and whether they are raising their hackles.

Possible Reasons for Growling


1. Fear

Your dog may growl because they are afraid. Other physical signs of fear will help you decide why they are growling.

Body language may show a dog growling with fear if their ears are pinned flat or turned toward the thing that’s worrying them. Look for a hunched posture, with the dog keeping low to the ground.

2. Possession Aggression

My one dog growls when he has something he doesn’t want to share. This kind of growling dog looks very different from a playfully growling dog. A growling dog that’s bent over their food will most definitely follow their growling with a bite or snarling.

3. Guarding Their Territory

Dogs are predators, and they are highly territorial, so your dog will growl at a stranger entering your home. A good example of this is when the mailman drops off a package, and your dog growls at him. A growling dog with their hackles raised isn’t a good dog to pet or cuddle.

Using an appropriate fence system, such as the Spoton virtual smart fence, is a good way to keep a territorial dog contained.

4. Pain

When a dog has been injured or is in pain, they may growl as a warning to you to keep away, and this aggression is aimed at protecting themselves. Never touch a growling and injured dog without the right equipment, as they are sure to bite.


Types of Growling

There are three main types of growling that most dogs make:

1. Play Growls

These growls are light in tone and shorter in duration. Usually, these growls also have yapping accompanying them, and the dog’s facial expression is also more relaxed. They may roll out their tongue in between growls, showing they are relaxed.

2. Stress Growls

Dogs that have their hackles up and an arched back are not friendly when they growl. These are stress growls used to alert you to their mental state. Stressed and anxious dogs growl, and a bite is the next step.

3. Warning Growls

A dog that’s feeling threatened will use a growl, usually a low and stretched-out sound, to warn you to leave them alone. This kind of growl will remind you of a typical wild predator growl when you hear it.

If your dog is prone to growling in warning at people and other animals, it is best to keep them on a leash when out in public or when you have visitors.


Difference Between Warning and Play Growls

People often ask me what’s the difference between warning and play growling. Body language is one of the first things that will help you distinguish between the two.

Raised hackles, snarling, and hard stares are a few signs to tell you the dog is growling in aggression. If they snarl or push forward with their bodies, it’s a sign that they are about to lunge or attack.

Adding in a short high-pitched barking can indicate the dog is playful and wants to socialize. However, what’s normal for one dog may be the opposite based on the different types of dogs.

Certain breeds are more aggressive than others, and their growling is almost always a warning that they are upset and not an invite to a play session.


Never Punish Your Dog for Growling

Punishing a dog for what comes normal to them is a bad idea. If you punish your dog for growling, you could risk:

  • Escalating the situation by making them lunge
  • Not seeing other body language signs

Appropriate Way to Manage the Growling

When dogs growl, use distraction to diffuse growling. Use sound or other stimuli to distract the dog, so they stop growling. Positive reinforcement can help your dog refrain from growling.


Interpret Your Dog’s Bark by Body Language


1. Position of Tail

A raised tail that’s stiff indicates the dog is upset and ready to become defensive or aggressive.

2. Ear Posture

A dog with their ears stiffened is anxious, while a dog with floppy ears may be more interested in play.

3. Panting, Mouth Licking, Yawning

A dog that pants without being exhausted is over-excited and may be unpredictable. Licking their lips can indicate nervousness and submissive behavior. Yawning can be a sign of anxiety or of fatigue.

4. Bowing

If a dog drops down on their front legs or bows, it indicates they are not thinking of attacking and may invite play when growling or yapping.

5. Eye Movement

If a dog stares intently, it usually means their predatory instinct is activated, and they may bite or snap. Pulling large eyes can indicate the dog is playful, but narrowed eyes can be a sign of aggression.



You are responsible for your safety and that of others around your dog. If your dog is barking or growling, it’s important to pay attention and take the appropriate action to ensure your dog doesn’t become aggressive.

The sounds your dog makes will guide you to their feelings, but when you compare human sounds to dog barking, we always need to be mindful of the dog’s body language.


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