Growling, like snarling, is a seemingly aggressive behavior that means something different during play than it does in other contexts. We have often videotaped play between another female Shepherd, Zelda, and a male mixed-breed, Bentley. When watching these tapes, we noticed that, following brief pauses in play, Zelda often stared at Bentley and growled fiercely. Whenever she did this, Bentley leaped toward her and the chase was on. Bentley moved toward rather than away from Zelda because he knew her growl was not real.
This phenomenon was also noted by other researchers, who recorded growls from dogs in three different contexts, including play4. Play growls have different acoustical properties than growls given as threats, and when researchers played the growls back, dogs distinguished between play growls and growls given in agonistic (i.e., conflicting) contexts. If dogs can distinguish between types of growls in the absence of contextual cues (such as another playing dog), surely they know when a play partner’s growl is just pretend.
1 M . Bekoff. 1995. Play signals as punctuation: the structure of social play in canids. Behaviour 132(5–6):419–429.
2 E . B. Bauer. 2007. Cooperation and competition during dyadic play in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behaviour 73:489–499; C . Ward, E . B. Bauer, B. B. S muts. 2008. Partner preferences and asymmetries in social play among domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, littermates. Animal Behaviour 76:1187–1199.
3 V. Csányi. 2000. If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind. New York: North Point Press.
4 T . Faragó, P . Pongrácz, F. R ange, Z. Virányi, A. M iklósi. 2010. ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour 79:917–925