Why Does My Dog Growl When I Hug Him

Why Does My Dog Growl When I Hug Him?

Learn about canine body language and tips for respecting their space for a better bond.

Whilst for many people the image of a growling dog may be synonymous with the term “aggression”, growling is actually a fairly complex and completely natural means by which dogs communicate with each other and us. And it isn’t always a bad thing! 

Dogs communicate through vocalisations (barking, yelping, whining, howling and growling), as well as through body language, touch, and “olfaction”, which is a fancy way of saying they produce various body odours and sniffing these helps them learn about each other!

Whilst we may not be capable – or have any desire to – engage with our pets via scent, most of us will find ourselves at the receiving end of canine vocalisation at some point or another. So, it’s a good idea (whether you’re a dog owner or not) to acquire an understanding of what growling actually means. In this article, I’ll share my insights as a practising veterinarian, as well as a long-time dog owner, into the wonderful world of growling.

So, why does my dog growl when I hug him?

Understanding Dog Communication

Growling is Good – Canine Communication

Growling is a very natural form of communication for dogs, and unfriendly growling is probably the type that comes most quickly to mind for most of us. In fact, if I picked a random person off the street and asked them what it means if a dog is growling, I have no doubt that the response would be along the lines of: “growling means the dog is being aggressive”…And this would be true, but also not technically the correct answer!

The reality is that growling can mean lots of things. In the next section, we’ll take a  closer look at what it really means when your dog growls, and what mood or intent they may be trying to communicate.

But, before we move on, I want to make one very key point. If you take nothing else away from this article, remember the following: growling is great, and you should never punish your dog for growling! It’s your dog’s way of expressing their discomfort, annoyance, fear, anxiety or frustration with a particular situation, and it’s a truly vital warning sign that gives you – or your family member, or your vet – a chance to back off and avoid a bite.

If you punish your dog every time they growl, you’ll eventually inhibit their willingness to growl, meaning they now have a more limited repertoire of ways to communicate these negative emotional states. This means the next time your dog is feeling stressed, rather than growl they will be more likely to skip this helpful warning signal and go straight for a bite instead, seemingly without warning. I’ll say it one more time, for those at the back: growling is great!

Different Growls Mean Different Things

Dogs will growl to indicate negative states such as fear or frustration, as well as when they want to warn us that they are out of their comfort zone or being pushed close to breaking point…and that a bite may follow if they are not given the mental and physical space that they need to cool off!

Our four legged family members may also growl at us and each other when guarding resources such as food, toys, or even the lap of an owner. And obviously, dogs will growl at each other as a means of communicating “back off!”, and that they are prepared to fight if need be (although of course, most dogs would really rather not). 

However: our canine housemates don’t just growl when they’re experiencing fear or guarding a valued resource. Many dogs will also growl during pleasurable experiences! For example, you’ve probably noticed that your dog sometimes growls during play. Whether engaging in a tug-of-war with you, or roughhousing with a canine playmate, growls are commonplace during games.

The reason behind this is thought to be that “rough” play – which simulates actual fighting, just on a gentler scale and with the aim being that nobody gets hurt – helps prepare puppies for any potential real life standoffs as adults. On a similar note, warning growls (which are louder and more intense) are also fairly common during rough play, when somebody accidentally takes things a little too far! 

Some dogs will also growl in a manner reminiscent of a purring cat during pleasurable experiences (like belly rubs)! These “pleasure growls” are usually accompanied by half or fully closed eyes, a relaxed body and an expression of pure bliss!

Whilst it may not always be apparent to the human listener, these different growls are usually pretty easy for our dogs to interpret. Frequency, length of growl sequence and the interval between individual growls (as well as context, of course) are all thought to be important factors when it comes to deciphering the meaning of various growls.

Fun fact: dogs growl at a lower frequency during play, and research suggests that this lower frequency is used to mimic bigger dogs! So, during play, our pets exaggerate their body size with “big dog” growls, to enhance the drama of the playful interaction!    

Possible Reasons for Growling During Hugs

why is my dog growling

Lack of socialization

Insufficient socialization during the critical socialization period of puppyhood can result in an adult dog being very uncomfortable with certain types of handling, including hugs! This discomfort may persist throughout life, and can be difficult or even impossible to overcome.

Pain

If your dog is experiencing pain, for example due to spinal disease or arthritis, then they may communicate that a hug is painful (and therefore unwanted) by growling. Dogs may also growl to express fear or anxiety when they anticipate pain, even if they aren’t currently painful. For example, if a dog has a history of recurrent ear infections, and is used to experiencing ear pain when handled, they may growl during hugs due to anticipation of pain that may or may not be coming their way.

Communicating preferences

Some dogs simply don’t like to be hugged; it’s just their preference, and they may express this with a growl. It’s also worth mentioning that whilst many dogs will tolerate hugs from any human (since they’ve been well socialised), all but the most outgoing canines won’t appreciate being hugged by a total stranger.

Fear

This one is kind of tied in to lack of socialization, because lack of socialization (or else past negative experiences) is the probable source if a dog is experiencing fear or anxiety when being hugged. If your dog perceives this type of handling as potentially threatening, or isn’t used to being hugged and doesn’t realise that it’s harmless, then they may find the experience fear or anxiety inducing.

Territorial instincts

Some dogs may feel territorial regarding their personal space, and perceive hugs as a threat or an invasion. In this case, the growl is a warning to back off, and will likely be followed up with escalation of aggression if it isn’t heeded.

Pleasure

As we covered earlier, dogs will also sometimes growl during pleasurable experiences. If your dog is enjoying being hugged, growling will be accompanied by relaxed, happy body language. I recommend checking that your dog is pleasure growling by pausing for a moment and seeing if they invite you to carry on, for example, by headbutting you, grabbing you with a paw, or turning to give you a “why have you stopped?” stare!

What to Do If Your Dog Growls When Hugged?

dog snarling

If your dog growls when hugged, they are communicating that – for whatever reason – they are uncomfortable with this form of interaction and wish for it to stop. The only exception to this rule is when you are completely certain that your dog is pleasure growling.

So, the first thing you should do if your dog growls when hugged is to stop and give them some space. If your dog usually doesn’t mind being hugged, and the growl is a new reaction, then I recommend contacting your vet and making an appointment, because growling can be a sign of pain. Your vet can carry out a thorough physical examination checking for signs of pain that may otherwise be difficult to detect and localize.

If your dog always growls when hugged, then for starters my advice would be stop hugging them! Find other ways to show affection that your dog is more comfortable with, such as playing with toys, spending time together on walks or engaging in mentally stimulating activities such as obedience or agility training. Petting, massage (yes, you absolutely can massage your dog!) and (if acceptable to your pet) belly rubs, as well as feeding the occasional treat, can also be incorporated as bond-building activities!

Dogs that dislike hugs due to inadequate socialization during puppyhood or past negative experiences, or the sizeable number of dogs who simply have a preference to live a hug-free life, may never warm up to the idea of a hug. And this isn’t necessarily a problem. You and your pet can still enjoy a strong bond and great relationship without hugs. Dogs aren’t people, and they don’t have that innate desire to be held that many of us secretly, or openly, possess!

Story time, to provide an example: my grandmother was a dairy farmer in her younger years, and she makes no secret of the fact that she never once hugged her farm dogs. Yet, the bond they shared was nonetheless very deep and meaningful, as they would spend many hours each day working together. They always knew what each other were thinking, and I’ve no doubt that if her dogs could have talked, they’d be finishing each other’s sentences! And all without a single hug.

Of course, sometimes a dislike of hugs may be a sign of deeper, more complex behavioral and psychological issues. If you believe your dog dislikes hugs due to fear, or may be displaying territorial behavior, it’s a good idea to seek the advice of a CAAB accredited (USA) or APBC accredited (UK) pet behaviorist. They can help you identify the source of your dog’s issues, and work on correcting the behavior and alleviating any underlying fear, stress or frustration.

FAQ

Where dogs don’t like to be touched?

In my ample experience of poking and prodding at dogs (disclaimer: I’m a vet), I’ve mentally amassed a list of places where the vast majority of dogs will not appreciate being touched. Taboo locations for most dogs include: the paws; the ears (underneath the flappy part, in particular); the mouth (owners who have struggled with brushing their dog’s teeth will back me on this one); and around the rear end and private parts. 

Is it OK to always touch your dog?

Sometimes, it may be difficult to tell whether a dog is expressing pleasure or annoyance, for example when being petted, or having their belly rubbed. Pleasure growls can sound similar to agonistic growls, and both may be accompanied by baring of the teeth. If in doubt, you can always carry out a canine consent test: stop what you’re doing, and see if your dog asks you to start again by shoving their head into your hand, or perhaps grabbing you with a paw!

My dog only growls when I hug him from behind, why?

If your dog only growls when you hug him from behind, and does not growl when you hug him from other angles, it seems likely to me that the growl is a reflection of either alarm or pain. Perhaps you are taking your dog by surprise, since of course, he can’t see you approach if you’re coming up behind him. He also may not realise it’s you hugging him!
It could also be that your dog growls when you hug him from behind due to pain, perhaps affecting the spine or the hips. Lower back pain is really quite common in dogs, especially those who are middle aged and older.
Breeds such as French Bulldogs and Dachshunds (who are prone to intervertebral disc disease), German Shepherds, Golden and Labrador Retrievers (for whom cauda equina syndrome – a type of spinal arthritis – is fairly commonplace) are more likely to experience pain when hugged from behind. Hip dysplasia and arthritis is also common in Shepherds and Retrievers, which again could mean pain if hugged from behind. 

Conclusion

The need to understand and respond appropriately to growling is often overlooked, but is actually a really important skill for dog owners to learn. Since growling is a natural means for dogs to express emotional states, and to warn us if they are close to their tolerance limits, it should never be punished.

Just like us, our dogs have boundaries, and for many dogs this will mean that hugging is not appropriate. And that’s OK! Dogs are not small humans, after all, and we can’t expect them to enjoy all of the same things we do.

So, if your dog growls when hugged, respect their boundaries just as you would wish for yours to be respected. Ultimately, the depth of the bond between you and your pet does not rely on hugging, and for many individuals it can better be cultivated through frequent positive interactions, meaningful time spent together, and respect.

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