I'm guessing that's a tricky question to answer, so I'm going to provide lots of details. Thanks for your patience!

tl/dr: I was out for a walk with all of my kids. My dog does well with kids (small children in large numbers visit us frequently) but less well with grown men. While walking by a yard full of kids, a 2 year old came up quickly and gave him a friendly scratch on the neck. My dog didn't seem to mind (or at least didn't react strongly). The child's father came up a moment later and picked up the child. A few moments later my dog gave out two short and low "howls" (I'm not sure exactly what sound he was making). I didn't notice anything off in his body language during the encounter. Any guesses what he might have been communicating?

My dog and people

My dog is effectively my first dog, so I'm not a dog whisperer by any means, and I'm trying to understand him here. He's an elderly (~10 years old) rescue, weighs about 75 pounds, he seems to mainly be American Bulldog, he's been with us for not quite a year, and he seems to have otherwise spent his whole life chained up in someone's back yard.

Despite that last fact, he is actually fairly well adjusted to people and does very well with small children. The "incident" in question happened on a walk, but he mainly meets new people while at home (he definitely has a "guard dog" aspect to his personality) so I figured I'd explain how that usually goes.

We're a larger family (5 kids, aged 0-11) and especially with the recent birth of our youngest, have had lots of people over in recent months, including many families that also have 4 or 5 young children. He does great with our kids, and has never shown any hints of aggression towards them, even when they accidentally hurt him (which doesn't happen much). He's always been very friendly with women and children visiting our house, although in the early days he would sometimes let out a low growl when first meeting new people in our home (typically while wagging his tail, sniffing them, and otherwise displaying a curious/excited body language). I would scold him for the growling, he would stop (or I would put him up if he didn't), and (in my non-expert opinion) he was never considering hurting everyone. Even during visits which started with a growl, he would be perfectly fine after a few minutes and would play with everyone - happily accepting pets and scratches from the new people just like our kids.

Over the past few months especially we have had even more people over (mainly because of people coming over to help with the baby), and during this time he's stopped growling at new people all together. The only time we have problems is with guys, which doesn't happen very often. I had someone come over to do some work on the house and the guy's son came in first (he was probably 18-20). For a minute our dog was fine like always, but suddenly started barking at him (I think the worker walked by one of our kids and might have made the dog uncomfortable). I put the dog up until everyone was done so that the workers didn't have to worry.

Out for a walk

The other day all the kids, the dog, and I were out for a walk and passed a family playing in their yard. This happens often in our neighborhood. Sometimes I cross the street in case I think our dog might make someone nervous (since he's on the larger side), but we're typically ignored by whoever is outside, and our dog is usually more interested in sniffing the grass, so I don't always.

This time there were about 4 kids, mainly playing on the sidewalk. They went back into their yard as we slowly came up, and I didn't think to cross the street (my kids had run a bit ahead, so mainly I was just following them) These new kids were in the grass just to the right of the sidewalk, and my dog was on the left side sniffing as he went along. There was a very young kid (maybe not even quite 2 years old) that I didn't notice, and he "broke away" from his family and toddled up to my dog quite quickly. The father was standing near by and told his son to stop, but of course he kept walking.

Little ones can be surprisingly quick, and a moment later he walked right up to my dog, reached up, and scratched him on the neck. The father came up a moment later and swooped up his son. I don't think I would have had time to do anything if I had thought to, although I wouldn't have been worried even if I had time to think about it. My dog just stood there calmly while the boy scratched him. The encounter was very quick, but I didn't notice any change in my dog's body language to suggest he was upset.

The father looked mildly panicked so I stopped for a moment to let him know that our dog is very used to little children, and that his youngest son was never in any danger. While I was talking my dog let out a low "howl" sound. I'm not actually sure how to describe it. It definitely wasn't a bark or a growl. He did it twice. Sort of a deep "how how" sound while tilting his head up a bit. A moment later we continued our walk.

I have never heard him do this before, so I'm not sure what he was trying to say. I'm guessing it was an expression of mild dislike about something in the encounter, whether it was the crowd of kids, being scratched without warning, or the father coming near him suddenly. I figure it's hard to say for sure, but I'd like to have a good guess so I know how to act in such situations in the future (aka just cross the street and avoid them). Any thoughts as to what my dog might have been saying?

1 Answer 1


As so often, it's impossible to guess what you dog was actually thinking from your description alone. Dogs - like humans - communicate only in part verbally and in (a much bigger) part via body language.

The first signs of aggression are exclusively nonverbal. If a dog growls at you, you've already crossed a line and ignored several warning signs. Some dogs that were badly socialized or made some really bad experiences may skip some nonverbal clues and need to be watched more closely.

Signs of aggression in dogs (roughly ordered by severity) include:

  • Avoidance (looking away, walking away, hiding)
  • Lifting the tail up above shoulder height (some breeds and dominant dogs have a high tail all the time)
  • Wagging the tail (yes, this can be a sign of excitement (positive) and nervousness (negative) as well)
  • Lifting one front paw, usually on the side where the irritation is located (this sign can have different meanings)
  • Putting the tail between their legs (A sure sign of fear. Fearful dogs often become aggressive if they don't know how to cope with a situation.)
  • Fixating the irritant with their gaze, staring
  • Stiff body posture, in dominant dogs accompanied by "puffing up"
  • Laying the ears back against the skull
  • Erecting the hairs on the neck
  • Rapidly licking the very front of their muzzle
  • Wrinkling the skin on their nose (this is one step short of snarling)
  • Physically jumping at the irritant (dog or human), preferably on top of it
  • Snarling
  • Growling
  • Snap without biting
  • Barking with a gurgling sound
  • Biting

The verbal clues you described could have been a bark or maybe a low whine. Just like with nonverbal clues, barks can mean different things. For example:

  • Dogs that are overjoyed to see someone or play with someone often bark in a high pitch
  • If a dog isn't sure that they actually heard a "threat" (like the postman), they might make a very short "Woff" sound
  • If a dog encounters something / someone they are insecure about (I don't know you or whether you're dangerous, but I bark at you to tell you that I'm guarding this garden here) it sounds more like "Wouw wouw"

In the situation you described, there are several possibilities of what your dog could have thought...

  • He could have wanted to interact with the child more
  • He could have wanted you to continue your walk
  • He could have been surprised by the sudden presence of the man, not having noticed him sooner
  • He could have been insecure whether the man poses a threat or not
  • Thanks for the detailed answer, it's very helpful! Some of those are new to me. For instance, when he is barking at people outside his tail is always straight up (which is about the only time he does that). I had never noticed the connection before. He definitely didn't display any of these most obvious signs of aggression, although it has been long enough (and the encounter short enough) that I don't remember in detail. Mainly, I didn't notice any changes in his posture/body language immediately before or during the encounter, which is why I'm presume he wasn't overly upset either way.
    – conman
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 12:30
  • The sound he made was weird and I didn't describe it well. I don't think he was actually howling, and your last suggestion ("wouw wouw") is closest to what he was doing. That something made him uncertain/insecure seems quite possible. The only thing I can rule out for sure is that he wasn't asking to continue walking - I know how he communicates that and he wasn't. Other than that though, you're right - it's a guessing game. Based on this, I'm guessing that the overall encounter was probably a bit much for him, which is helpful to know.
    – conman
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 12:37
  • I'll try finding a good summary of dog body language later. In short: the tail is like a gauge for the mood of a dog. Lying straight on the bag = attack mode, ready to kill. Standing straight up = very dominant, ready to fight. In line with the back = energetic, playfull. Hanging down = relaxed, tired. Pulled between the legs / beneath the body = frightened.
    – Elmy
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 13:19
  • I normally pay a lot of attention to his tail when we're on walks, mainly because I'm still trying to get better at understanding his body language. I've definitely gotten better at understanding him, but like I said I'm fairly new to dogs. I was actually just pondering the difference between "in line with back" and "hanging down" the other day. It's almost exclusively one of those modes during walks unless a dog walks by (50/50 chance he responds aggressively) or it suddenly starts thundering (we can get thunder with little warning, and it terrifies him). Again, thanks!
    – conman
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 13:26

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