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My Dog Is Growling at Nothing

As dog owners, we learn to communicate more effectively with our pets over time. However, there are instances when our pet barks or growls, and we don’t know why. This can be unsettling and even annoying if you are convinced that your dog is barking at nothing.

If you think your dog is growling at nothing, don’t be so sure. There are several reasons why your protective pup might be growling at what appears to be nothing. Dogs have an advanced sense of smell and various other characteristics that make them excellent protectors. If your dog is growling, it may be because they’ve heard, seen, or smelt something that you haven’t.

Dogs growl for several reasons, so it’s important to recognize when that “nothing” might be something.

When Your Dog Is Actually Growling at Nothing 

Most often, your dog is growling at something you can’t hear, see, or smell. However, sometimes dogs can experience hallucinations, just like humans. These are caused by certain medical conditions, including epilepsy, liver damage, and poisoning.

The types of hallucinations your dog can experience are largely auditory and visual.

With auditory hallucinations, dogs will hear things that aren’t there and may growl or bark.

With visual hallucinations, dogs will see things that are there and may react by “flu biting” or “star gazing.” 

Hallucinations are notoriously hard to diagnose in dogs; however, if you do think your dog may be hallucinating, it’s essential that you take them to the vet.

Hallucinations will usually be accompanied by other unusual behaviors, such as dilated pupils, stalking, staring, putting their ears back, and twitching whiskers.

Reasons Dogs Growl

There are various occasions where your dog may growl. These include pleasure growling, frustrated growling, aggressive growling, and play growling. Context is essential when understanding the different growls.

Pleasure Growling

Like cat purrs, some dogs like to growl when they are happy and are looking for attention. Pleasure growling is ordinarily low and sounds more like talking. 

Play Growling 

Play growling is how your dog tells you they are having fun, especially if they have a toy between their teeth or if they are having a tug of war over their blanket.

Some pet parents may worry their dog is getting too overexcited, and it is leading to aggression, but this is rarely the case. Dogs growl to say they are having a good time.

Frustrated Growling 

Frustrated growling also usually occurs when the dog wants attention or sees something of interest, such as the neighbor’s cat in the garden.

Aggressive Growling 

Aggressive growling is the most serious of all your dogs’ communicative skills. If your dog is growling aggressively, it means that they are ready to attack. 

Aggressive growling is often loud and low. It can be combined with showing teeth, snarling, and snapping (source).

Pain Growling

One factor to consider, particularly if your dog doesn’t usually growl, is that they may be ill or injured. 

While growling isn’t the most obvious sign of discomfort, it is one of the subtler signs. It may be accompanied by limping, licking a particular spot, or yelping when touched (source).

If your dog is a growler and you want to understand more, you can check out this article: “Why Does My Dog Growl When I Pet Him?

The Somethings You May Not Detect

While it may not look or sound like anything to you, your dog may very well have a good reason for growling. These reasons include seeing something, hearing something, or smelling something.

Your Dog Sees Something 

Dogs typically have 20/75 vision. This means that they can only see something at 20 feet away, which a person would be able to see at 75 feet away (source). However, some breeds such as labradors have keen eyesight. Their vision is 20/20, which makes them perfect as seeing-eye dogs.

While most dogs may not see as far as humans can, their sense of sight is advantageous in other ways. 

Firstly, dogs’ eyes are not set straight, as is the case with human eyes. Instead, they are set at an angle of 20 degrees. While it does depend on the breed of dog, what this feature means is that dogs have a larger peripheral vision than humans. 

As a rule, dog breeds have a field vision of 250 degrees. In comparison, humans have a field of vision around 190 degrees.

Secondly, dogs’ eyes are much more motion-sensitive than humans. Their natural instinct as hunters means that dogs need a higher motion sensitivity. Depending on the breed, estimates are that dogs’ eyes are 10 to 20 times more sensitive.

Thirdly, because dogs have more rods in their eyes than humans do, they are much better at seeing in the dark. Dogs’ eyes have a tapetum lucidum, which is an extra layer of eye tissue, giving them better night vision than humans. 

Our dogs’ sense of sight means that they can see something that we don’t, especially if that something is fast or dark. Maybe a bat was flying past the window or a mouse running across the floor. Either of these examples could cause your dog to growl, and you may be none the wiser.

Your Dog Hears Something

Your dog’s hearing is another reason they may be growling. This is because dogs can hear sounds that are much further away. Dogs hear sounds that are four times further away than humans can, and they can also recognize the difference in sounds and figure out the precise location of any given sound.

Research shows that dogs can hear extremely high frequencies of up to 50,000 vibrations every second. Humans can only hear 20,000 vibrations every second (source). This means that your dog may be hearing myriad things that you aren’t and are responding to the sound by growling.

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Image by Brett Jordan via Unsplash

Your Dog Smells Something 

Out of our dogs’ five senses, their sense of smell is by far the most impressive. According to James Walker, the former director of the Sensory Research Institute in Florida, a dog’s sense of smell is anywhere between 10,000 to 100,000 times better than humans’ (source).

Dogs possess a better sense of smell because, unlike our 6 million olfactory receptors, a dog has around 300 million. They also have a particular part of their brain that is used only to determine smells.

Furthermore, unlike humans, dogs can separate the breathing and smelling function of their noses. They have a path for respiration and a separate one for smelling.

Your Dog Is Trying to Tell You Something 

A dog’s senses are essential to understanding why they may be growling. A dog may be seeing, hearing, or smelling something or someone that you aren’t aware of. This means that your dog is trying to communicate with you.

If you hear your dog growling, don’t ignore it and label it as “nothing.” After all, it may very well be something.

Final Thoughts

Growling is one of the ways in which dogs communicate with humans. As such, it is important not to dismiss it as nothing. 

If a dog can see, hear, or smell something you can’t, they may be trying to warn you or give you a heads up. Be sure to listen to them. They are man’s best friend for a good reason.


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