German Shepherds are known for being intelligent, loyal, and protective dogs. Their popularity as working dogs and family companions means you’ve likely encountered one before. It’s also likely you’ve heard the distinctive growl of a German Shepherd.
Growling is a form of canine communication, and for the German Shepherd breed, it can mean a few different things. Understanding the context around your German Shepherd’s growl can help you respond appropriately.
Growling as Communication
Growling serves an important communicative purpose for dogs. In the wild, wolves and other wild canines growl to convey a range of messages to other members of their pack. For domesticated dogs, growling still serves as a way to communicate important information. Growling can signal:
- Warning. Growling often serves to establish boundaries and communicate discomfort or uneasiness about a situation. It signals “back off” to other dogs or people.
- Alarm. Some dogs will growl to alert their owner to something amiss, like an intruder on the property.
- Play. During play, dogs sometimes growl as part of their play-fighting. It’s not an aggressive growl.
- Anxiety. Growling can indicate fear, anxiety, or insecurity in some situations. This is often low-pitched growling.
- Excitement. Some dogs growl happily when excited, like when their owner comes home.
Growling is very context-dependent, so it’s important to analyze the full situation when your German Shepherd growls. Their body language, ears, and tail can help indicate if it’s playful, anxious, or aggressive. The stimulus that triggered the growling gives insight too.
Why German Shepherds Growl
German Shepherds are a breed known for their guarding instincts. They were originally bred to herd sheep and protect them from predators. That protective nature remains strong today, which is part of what makes them excellent working dogs for police and military roles. Their guarding heritage also means growling is part of their natural behavioral repertoire.
Here are some of the most common reasons a German Shepherd may growl:
Warning Other Dogs
German Shepherds have a take-charge type of personality. They like having a job to do. When around other dogs, some German Shepherds will assert their dominance by growling. It’s a way to establish boundaries and claim their space. This behavior is especially common with same-sex dogs. Neutering or spaying can help curb growling motivated by dominance.
Protecting Their Territory
German Shepherds make excellent watchdogs precisely because barking or growling at intruders comes naturally to them. If your German Shepherd growls when someone approaches your home, car, or yard, they’re just doing their job of alerting you and warning the intruder. This territorial behavior is linked to their guarding heritage.
Responding to a Threat
German Shepherds growl at perceived threats to themselves or their family. Threats may include unfamiliar people approaching suddenly, a strange dog lunging, or even a low-flying aircraft. Growling communicates “back off” and prepares them to defend if needed. Muzzle punching or biting is likely to follow if the threat doesn’t retreat.
Many dogs growl while playing. German Shepherd puppies especially use play growling when rough-housing with littermates or owners. They’re mimicking adult behaviors before they know how to control their bite strength. Gentle growling mixed with a play bow is usually a sign of playfulness.
Some German Shepherds use growling to protect their resources from humans and other pets. Food bowls, toys, beds, or attention from their owner are examples of resources they may guard. This stems from anxiety that these valued items will be taken away. Consistent training is needed to teach them to accept handling of resources calmly.
Fear or Anxiety
German Shepherds experiencing fear may growl as a warning. New places, strangers, loud noises, or fast movements can trigger fearful growling. It’s a signal for others to stay back. Ongoing socialization and positive reinforcement are important to build confidence and change this behavior over time.
Pain or Sickness
When in pain or feeling unwell, the growl of a German Shepherd may communicate “leave me alone.” Growling when being petted or handled could indicate injury or illness. Senior dogs with arthritis may growl if movements cause pain. It’s best to back away and then assess your dog’s health for any issues.
Is Growling Bad?
Growling has long carried a negative association thanks to myths that it’s an indicator of aggression or that dogs growl to be spiteful or dominant. But researchers affirm that growling serves a benign purpose in most cases. It communicates important information, prevents escalation to bites, and provides a warning before action is taken. Suppressing growling through punishment can actually be dangerous, because it takes away a dog’s ability to provide warnings.
That said, repeated or excessive growling does indicate issues that need addressing, especially growling directed at family members. Consulting an accredited dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist can help identify the triggers and develop a customized modification plan. Effective approaches focus on reducing anxiety, building confidence, and changing emotional responses to triggers.
Managing a Growling German Shepherd
If your German Shepherd seems to be growling excessively or at inappropriate times, here are some tips:
- Check for pain or illness: Schedule a veterinary exam to rule out any medical issues causing the behavior.
- Identify triggers: Note the specific situations that precede growling. What exactly seems to prompt the response?
- Interrupt and redirect: When they start to growl, interrupt the behavior with a brief distraction like a toy or command to do another behavior. Praise and reward them for redirecting onto something positive.
- Countercondition the trigger: Use reward-based training to change their emotional response to triggers by associating them with something pleasant. For example, if they growl at children, have them sit to earn treats as children pass at a distance. Slowly decrease distance.
- Use management strategies: Limit access to triggers using baby gates, leashes, etc. Don’t punish or restrain your dog during growling, as this can increase anxiety.
- Consult professionals: Get support from qualified veterinary behaviorists or credentialed trainers who use proven methods grounded in canine science. Avoid advice based on punishment, dominance, or flooding.
With time and consistency, you can curb excessive growling and help your German Shepherd gain confidence. But remember, completely eliminating growling takes away their ability to provide warnings. The goal should be to reduce inappropriate growling while preserving appropriate growling for communicating essential information. With work and patience, you’ll better understand your dog’s growls in no time.
Breed History and Growling
To better understand why German Shepherds are prone to growling, it helps to look at the history of the breed. German Shepherds trace their origins to Germany in the late 1800s. A German cavalry officer named Captain Max von Stephanitz was focused on developing the ideal herding dog. He was impressed with a dog named Hektor who showed intelligence, loyalty, and herding instincts. Von Stephanitz acquired Hektor and used him as the foundation sire of the German Shepherd breed.
From the beginning, von Stephanitz emphasized that German Shepherds should be versatile, obedient working dogs. Breed standards focused on traits like intelligence, athleticism, and sound temperament that would allow them to serve well as herding dogs, guard dogs, and search and rescue dogs. Their natural protective instincts emerged from selective breeding for roles protecting livestock from predators.
Today’s German Shepherd breed standards still emphasize this versatility, courage, and ability to complete police, military, and service roles. So growling remains an intact part of their genetic makeup and serves a purpose for working dogs. With good socialization and training, most family pets can learn when growling is appropriate and when alternative behaviors are preferred.
While all dog growls serve the same communicative purpose, each individual German Shepherd can have their own unique growl. Subtle differences in tone, pitch, loudness, and duration can reflect different emotions. Learning the nuances of your own dog’s growl language takes time and careful observation.
Some distinctive types of German Shepherd growls include:
- Long, low rumbles – usually a warning growl signaling another dog or person is too close to their territory or resources.
- Short, repetitive growls – often related to fear and uncertainty about a perceived threat.
- Play growls mixed with play bows and relaxed body language. Higher pitch and intermittent.
- Low grumbles or groans – may indicate pain, illness, or discomfort with being handled.
- Short, loud barks mixed with growls – very aggressive, signaling an imminent attack.
- Soft rumbling growl – often shows contentment when resting close to a loved one. Not a warning growl.
Understanding the context around the growl gives clues, but your individual dog may have a distinctive growling style. For example, one German Shepherd may have a deeper growl, while another has a growl that’s higher pitched. Becoming fluent in your own dog’s growl language takes time but improves your ability to respond appropriately.
Other Communication Cues
While growling provides important information about your German Shepherd’s mental state, it’s important to look at the full context around the growl. Body language, facial expressions, ear position, tail position, and situation all give additional cues about whether your dog is fearful, aggressive, playful, or communicating something else when they growl.
Fearful body language includes tense muscles, lowered head and tail, avoidance of eye contact, and trembling. Play bows, relaxed muscles, and playfulness signal a play growl. Raised hackles, tense stare, and dominant posture indicate an aggressive warning.
Learning to “speak dog” fluently takes time, but understanding their non-verbal communication helps you build an even stronger bond with your German Shepherd. Always consider the whole picture rather than just responding to the growl alone.
With a breed as expressive and communicative as the German Shepherd, a growl is just part of their rich dog language. While it may be alarming at first, learning when growling is appropriate for your dog versus when to redirect to another behavior promotes peace in your multi-species home. With time and understanding, you’ll come to appreciate the growl as meaningful canine communication.