Decoding Dog Growls

Each kind contains specific information
By Karen B. London PhD, March 2010

Dogs growl in different contexts—when guarding something of value, when threatened by a stranger and during play. These growls can sound remarkably similar to the novice human ear, but a new study in the journal Animal Behavior suuggests that the meanings of these growls are very different to dogs.

 
Scientists in Hungary recorded growls by dogs in different situations and analyzed the structure of the calls. The growls recorded during play were very different than the other two calls in that they were shorter and higher in pitch.
 
In an experiment that was also a part of their study, they allowed a dog to approach a high quality food item (a cooked meaty bone) when alone in a room. Then, they piped in the recorded sound of either a growl made when a dog was threatened by a stranger or a growl made by a dog guarding a bone. They tested 41 dogs in this way and found that dogs were significantly more likely to back away from the bone when they heard the bone-guarding growl than when they heard the threatened-by-a-stranger growl.
 
Dogs have a huge range of vocalizations and yet much remains to be learned about the differences in meanings and structure of their acoustic communication. This study is one step towards a fuller understanding of the vocal repertoire of dogs.

 

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.