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Why Dogs Growl at Seemingly Nothing: Expert Explains - PawSafe

Why Dogs Growl at Seemingly Nothing: Expert Explains

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

why dogs growl at seemingly nothing

When your dog suddenly starts growling at seemingly nothing, it can be both puzzling and concerning. As a seasoned dog behaviorist and trainer, I’ve encountered various scenarios where dogs exhibit this behavior. And, in my experience, there are many things that can cause your dog to growl at nothing.

From my senior Bull Terrier, Amy, who began growling at night during her cognitive decline, to my vigilant Bullmastiff, Jack, who often alerts me to sounds I can’t perceive, growling can have many meanings. Living in a rural area with heightened security concerns, I’ve learned to interpret these growls as more than just random noises. 

In this article, we’ll delve into the various reasons why dogs might growl at ‘nothing’, drawing on insights from Dr. Bonnie Beaver, DVM, and my experiences. We’ll explore different contexts like growling at night, specific breed behaviors, and what these growls might mean, whether it’s an old dog like a Chihuahua growling, resource guarding, or even a ‘mean’ dog expressing themselves. Understanding these growls is key to better comprehending our canine companions and ensuring their well-being.

Here various Reasons Behind the Growls:

1. Health-Related Issues

Whenever our dogs are behaving strangely, we always need to first rule out health problems. According to Dr. Tomàs Camps Morey, there are all kinds of medical issues that cause aggressive behaviors in dogs.

Senior or older dogs, like my Bull Terrier Amy, might experience cognitive decline, leading to disorientation, aggression, and fear of household objects, often expressed through growling. In more severe cases, neurological problems like seizures, brain tumors, or dementia can manifest as growling at unseen threats.

Even underlying medical issues like hypothyroidism have been proven to cause sudden aggression. Some breeds, such as black Cocker Spaniels are also prone to a genetic disorder called sudden rage syndrome.

Another possibility is that dogs can hallucinate. This is most likely to happen if they accidentally swallow something toxic or some kind of medication. Of course, one of the most severe reasons for dogs snarling at nothing is rabies, which is why it is vital that dogs have their rabies vaccinations.

2. Acute Hearing Sensitivity

Dogs like my Bullmastiff Jack have incredibly sensitive hearing. Growling at night may be their response to sounds outside our human hearing range. In rural or high-crime areas, this behavior can serve as an early warning system for intruders, but it could also mean there are visiting critters outside. 

This could include raccoons, feral cats, or any other visitors you may not be aware of.

3. Breed-Specific Traits

Some breeds, such as Rottweilers, might growl when they are happy or playing. It’s crucial to understand the nuances of breed behavior to correctly interpret these sounds. However, be careful with the famous “Rottie Rumble or Purr.” 

There is a lot of misinformation online about what a Rottweiler rumbling from pleasure really looks like and it can lead some people to ignore a serious warning snarl. A true Rottie rumble has the dog looking relaxed, not showing teeth, and not having their ears pinned back. See the video below to know the difference.

Explained in 2 Minutes – The Rottie Rumble

4. Resource Guarding

Dogs often growl to protect their possessions, be it food, toys, or even their human family members. This form of growling is a clear message to back off from what they value. This can look like a dog snarling at nothing in particular, but it could be that you or someone else have simply come too close to something they value and are anxious about losing.

5. Communication and Social Interaction (including playing)

Dr. Beaver points out that growling isn’t always about aggression. Sometimes, it’s a form of communication during play or a way to establish social dynamics. Puppies often growl as a way to invite you or another dog to play with them. 

Interestingly, Dr. Beaver says that growling behavior begins as early as 24 days old in puppies during play fights. This early development suggests that growling is an integral part of canine communication and socialization.

Because growling is a natural form of communication it’s vital we never punish a dog for growling.

6. Dreams and REM Sleep Disorders

Just like humans, dogs dream and can growl or snarl in their sleep. A dog snarling (a more intense display with bared teeth) versus growling can sometimes be observed during vivid dreams or sleep disturbances.

7. Distance-Creating Behavior

Most growling is often a distance-creating behavior. Dogs use it to signal that they want space from whatever is causing them discomfort or fear. So if a dog is grumbling about something and you don’t know what it is, it is important to try to find out before their behavior escalates from growling to lunging or biting.

8. Fear and Anxiety

Sometimes, fear or anxiety can trigger growling. A fearful dog might growl to defend itself when it feels cornered or threatened, even if the threat isn’t visible to us. Dr. Beaver notes that a dog might growl under the bed out of fear if they feel cornered. In this case, the growl serves as a warning and a request for space and if you reach under the bed to get them out, you could be nipped.

This behavior can be triggered by various factors, including loud noises, unfamiliar people or animals, or changes in their environment. It is essential to identify the cause of your dog’s anxiety or fear and work on desensitizing them to the trigger to reduce their growling behavior.

Understanding the Context

Recognizing the context and patterns of your dog’s growling is vital. An old dog growling at night could be due to age-related issues, while a Chihuahua growling might be fear-based or due to their size. In each case, the growl serves a purpose and is rarely without reason. Understanding these nuances can help us better care for our pups and respond to their needs effectively.

The pattern and sound of growling can vary based on the situation. Spectrograms of growls show similar patterns regardless of the initiating factors, indicating that growling serves as a universal tool for dogs to express many different needs and feelings.

Not all growls are created equal. In fact, there are different types of growls that dogs use to communicate different things. Here are a few examples:

  • Play growls: These growls are usually high-pitched and accompanied by a wagging tail. They’re a way for dogs to invite play and interaction with other dogs or humans.
  • Warning growls: These growls are deep and low-pitched, and often accompanied by a stiff posture and raised hackles. They’re a way for dogs to communicate that they’re feeling threatened or uncomfortable and should not be approached.
  • Pain growls: These growls are usually sudden and sharp, and may be accompanied by other signs of pain such as limping or whining. They’re a way for dogs to communicate that they’re in pain and need help.

Here are a few things to consider when a dog is growling

  • Body language: Dogs use their entire bodies to communicate, not just their voices. Pay attention to your dog’s posture, tail position, and facial expressions to get a better understanding of what they’re trying to communicate.
  • Environmental factors: Is your dog growling at a particular location or object? It’s possible that there’s something in the environment that’s making them uncomfortable or scared.
  • Previous experiences: Has your dog had a negative experience with a particular person, object, or situation in the past? If so, they may be more likely to growl in similar situations in the future.

By paying attention to these contextual clues and understanding the different types of growls, we can better interpret our dogs’ behavior and provide them with the support and care they need.

Do Dogs Sense the Supernatural When They Growl At Something We Can’t see?

A common question arises when dogs growl at seemingly nothing: are they detecting something supernatural? While it’s a fascinating thought, there’s no scientific evidence to support this idea. Dogs have incredibly acute senses, especially their hearing and smell, which often allows them to detect stimuli that we can’t perceive. 

This heightened awareness can make it seem like they’re responding to something beyond our understanding. Instead of jumping to supernatural conclusions, it’s more likely they are reacting to subtle environmental cues, such as distant sounds or scents, that escape our human senses. So, while it’s fun to imagine our canines as ghost detectors, their growling is usually grounded in the natural world and their exceptional sensory abilities.

What to Do If Your Dog Is Growling at ‘Nothing’

When your dog starts growling at what seems like nothing, it’s crucial to approach the situation with care and understanding. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to handle this behavior, focusing on health, environment, diet, and mental well-being.

1. Health Check-Up

First and foremost, rule out any health-related causes. Dogs might growl due to unseen pain or discomfort stemming from neurological or hormonal disorders. A comprehensive veterinary check-up can help determine if there are any underlying medical issues that need to be addressed.

2. Identifying the Cause

Sometimes, the growling might be triggered by sounds or disturbances that you can’t detect but your dog can. This could be something outside, like wildlife, or even subtle noises like mice in the walls. Spend time observing your dog to understand what might be triggering the behavior.

3. Managing External Noises

If external sounds are the cause, consider using music or white noise machines to mask these disturbances. This can help your dog relax and not react to every little sound.

4. Creating a Comfortable Environment

A calming environment can significantly impact your dog’s well-being. Keeping lights dim at night might help your dog sleep more soundly, reducing the chances of nighttime growling.

5. Dietary Considerations

A good diet plays a vital role in managing anxiety and stress and even aggression in dogs. Foods high in tryptophan, such as turkey, chicken, fish, and eggs, can promote a calming effect. Casein, a protein found in dairy products, has been shown to have soothing properties. One study successfully treated an aggressive dog by feeding a hydrolyzed gluten-free diet.

Omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in trout, salmon, and green-lipped mussel extract can also be very helpful for anxious, stressed, and aggressive dogs.

However, remember to tailor your dog’s diet to their specific needs, especially if they have conditions like hypothyroidism. 

For dogs with cognitive issues, refer to specialized diets like those discussed in the article on diets for dogs with dementia.

6. Exercise and Mental Stimulation

Regular exercise and mental stimulation are crucial for your dog’s overall health and can reduce stress-related behaviors. Activities like walking, playing fetch, or puzzle toys keep their mind and body engaged, reducing the likelihood of anxious behaviors.

7. Reducing Anxiety and Stress

If your dog is prone to anxiety, consider strategies to help them relax. This can include training, behavior modification techniques, or even consulting with a dog behaviorist for more specialized help.

8. Creating a Safe Space

Every dog needs a safe, comfortable space where they can retreat and feel secure. This could be a cozy bed in a quiet corner, a crate where they can have some alone time, or a favorite spot in your home.

By taking these steps, you can help address and reduce the instances of your dog growling at nothing, ensuring their comfort and well-being. Remember, patience and understanding are key in helping your pup feel secure and loved.

9. Positive Reinforcement Training

Use positive reinforcement training to modify your dog’s reaction to whatever is triggering their growling. Whenever they remain calm in a situation where they would typically growl, reward them with treats or praise. This method helps them associate a calm demeanor with positive outcomes.

10. Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Desensitization involves gradually exposing your dog to the stimulus that causes growling, starting at a low level and slowly increasing the intensity. Counterconditioning changes your dog’s emotional response to the stimulus, usually by associating it with something positive like treats or play.

11. Consistent Routine

Dogs thrive on routine and predictability. Maintaining a consistent daily schedule for feeding, walks, playtime, and rest can help reduce anxiety and the likelihood of growling at unknown stimuli.

12. Professional Help from a Dog Behaviorist

If growling persists or worsens, seeking help from a professional dog behaviorist can be invaluable. They can assess the situation, identify the cause of the growling, and develop a tailored plan to address the behavior.

13. Anxiety-Reducing Products

Consider using products designed to reduce anxiety in dogs, such as calming collars, anxiety wraps, or pheromone diffusers. These can help create a more relaxing environment for your dog.

14. Avoid Punishment

It’s important to avoid punishing your dog for growling, as this can increase their stress and potentially make the problem worse. Instead, focus on understanding and addressing the underlying cause of the growling.

15. Socialization

If your dog is not well-socialized, they may growl out of fear or uncertainty. Gradually introducing them to new people, animals, and environments in a controlled and positive way can help them become more comfortable and less likely to growl.

16. Medical Therapy

In cases where growling is related to a medical condition, like cognitive dysfunction or a neurological issue, consult with your veterinarian about potential medical therapies or medications that might help.

17. Creating Distractions

Sometimes, simply distracting your dog with a favorite toy or a new activity can redirect their focus away from whatever is causing them to growl.

By combining these strategies, you can effectively address and reduce your dog’s tendency to growl at nothing, improving their quality of life and your peace of mind. Remember, each dog is unique, so what works for one might not work for another. Patience and persistence are key.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why does my dog stare and growl at nothing?

Dogs have a keen sense of hearing and smell, and they may detect things that we cannot see or hear. Your dog may be growling at a sound or scent that is imperceptible to you. It could also be a behavior related to anxiety or stress. If you are concerned about your dog’s behavior, it is best to consult with a veterinarian or a professional dog trainer.

Why is my dog growling and barking at nothing?

Growling and barking are natural behaviors for dogs, and they may do so for a variety of reasons. Your dog may be growling and barking at nothing if they are feeling territorial, fearful, or anxious. It could also be a sign of a medical condition, such as hearing loss or cognitive dysfunction. If your dog’s behavior is concerning, it is best to consult with a veterinarian or a professional dog trainer.

Why is My dog growling at the wall?

Your dog may be growling at the wall if they are hearing or smelling something on the other side. It could also be a sign of a medical condition, such as a neurological disorder or cognitive dysfunction. If your dog’s behavior is concerning, it is best to consult with a veterinarian or a professional dog trainer.

Why is my dog growling at the door?

Your dog may be growling at the door if they are feeling territorial or protective of their home. It could also be a sign of anxiety or fear, especially if your dog is not used to visitors or unfamiliar noises. If your dog’s behavior is concerning, it is best to consult with a veterinarian or a professional dog trainer.

Why is my dog suddenly growling at nothing?

Sudden changes in behavior can be a sign of a medical condition or an underlying issue. Your dog may be suddenly growling at nothing due to pain, anxiety, or fear. It is best to consult with a veterinarian or a professional dog trainer to determine the cause and address the behavior.

Can a dog growl and not be mad?

Yes, dogs can growl for a variety of reasons that are not related to aggression or anger. They may growl to communicate, express anxiety or fear, or as a warning to others. It is important to observe your dog’s body language and behavior to understand the context of their growling. If you are concerned about your dog’s behavior, it is best to consult with a veterinarian or a professional dog trainer.

Final Thoughts

After researching and discussing the topic of dogs growling at nothing, we have come to a few conclusions. First and foremost, it’s important to rule out any medical issues that could be causing the behavior. Consulting with a veterinarian is always a good idea.

Assuming there are no underlying medical issues, it’s possible that the dog is experiencing anxiety or stress. Providing a comfortable and safe environment for the dog can help alleviate these feelings. This can include providing a cozy bed, toys for mental stimulation, and a consistent routine.

References

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Tamsin De La Harpe

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Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.