If your dog growls when they’re tired, the most likely explanation is “guarding behavior”. They don’t want the cozy spot they’ve picked out to move or change, so they guard that spot by growling when they think you’re about to move them.
No one enjoys being growled at by their dog; it can be a frustrating or even scary experience for everyone involved.
Often, dogs growl when they are disturbed from sleep or asked to wake up and move. A sleeping or tired dog is quite vulnerable and driven by instinct, so handling them requires care and respect.
Training your dog while he is awake can lay the foundation for positive interactions while he is sleeping.
What You'll Learn
First – Growling is Important!
Humans have largely associated growling with aggressive behavior such as biting. If your dog growls, you might feel alarmed and wish to make them stop as quickly as possible. It is important, however, to understand why dog’s growl.
When communicating with one another, dogs have a large vocabulary of body language to express discomfort, with biting as one of the last resorts.
For example, you may have noticed when playing with your dog that if he is paying attention, he can switch between biting his toy violently and biting your hand very gently.
This is known as “bite inhibition”, and dogs teach it to their young. A dog might growl and bristle, then gently bite another dog if he wants to warn them to stop messing with him.
If a dog is psychologically healthy, with no history of abuse, he usually has a long list of lesser “warning” behaviors he can demonstrate to humans or other dogs before he bites aggressively.
One of these lower-level warning behaviors is growling. When your dog growls at you, he is almost always saying, “Hey, this is making me uncomfortable, but I don’t want to bite you. Please stop.”
You might notice that growling is starting to sound like a positive behavior. While it is best to avoid situations where your dog is forced to growl, it is important never to punish or yell at a dog for growling.
If you teach your dog not to growl, it is similar to removing a horn from a car, making it no longer able to communicate in emergencies.
Dogs who are trained not to express themselves through growling are more likely to go directly to biting in a stressful situation.
Rather than punishing your dog for growling, step back from the situation and figure out how to work with your dog to change the patterns and behaviors that led to the conflict in the first place.
This way, you can have more positive interactions with your dog while preserving and respecting his defense language.
But Why Do Some Dogs Growl When They Are Tired?
Dogs who growl when they are sleepy often engage in guarding behavior; they don’t want the cozy spot they’ve picked out to move or change.
This is where crate training can be a great help. If you select a roomy, comfortable crate and fill it with soft bedding and a few toys, you can create a wonderful “bedroom” for your dog.
Introduce your dog to the crate slowly, with lots of positive treats and praise. Don’t shut the door on him until he is completely comfortable and goes to the crate on his own free will.
Routine and comfort are important to dogs, so you will probably notice your dog getting attached to one sleep spot in particular.
If this sleep spot happens to be the crate you picked out, your dog is now sleeping in a protected area where you won’t need to bother him or move him out of the way.
Having a dog who loves his crate and doesn’t mind being closed in can also be useful in emergencies, at bedtime, or when you leave the house.
Consider teaching your dog the command “settle” once he is used to his crate. Having a verbal command that guides him to his spot can help if you want to move him or if he is over-excited by guests.
Giving your dog a clear command he can understand is a much more positive experience than physical wrestling or giving confusing mixed signals.
What To Do if Your Dog Growls at You
Being growled at can be a surprising and stressful experience. You might feel trapped, wondering what to do next to safely regain control of the situation without it escalating.
Keeping a physical distance from your dog, being gentle but firm, and turning the situation positive can all help.
What if Your Dog Growls When Sharing The Bed?
About 50% of dog owners share a bed with their dogs at night. This special bonding experience can lead to hurt feelings if you wake up in the night to hear your dog growling.
Many dogs, especially those who are overly attached to the bed, can become frustrated or stressed about humans jostling them in their sleep.
Dogs who have anointed themselves the boss of the bed may need to take a break. If your dog growls at you in the night, calmly get up and use a high-value treat to lure them off the bed.
Avoid panicking and grabbing, throwing, or shoving them off the bed. This is where it is extremely helpful for your dog to have a crate or at least a pet bed where they are trained to “settle” and “stay”.
This training should take place during the day when everyone is awake, then applied at night. You can even shut your dog in the crate if he refuses to stay off the bed. If you avoid scolding or yelling at your dog, you can diffuse the situation while allowing him to maintain his defensive vocabulary.
If this situation occurs frequently, it is likely that your dog now feels ownership of the bed and is trying to warn you away.
Dealing with this will require some desensitization training where you reward him for sharing the bed and allowing you to move around. This should also include only letting him get on the bed when you invite him and not allowing him to sleep on the bed alone.
Some dogs may continue to resource guard the bed and even other items. This can particularly occur in shelter dogs with difficult backgrounds.
Some abused dogs have already lost their ability to give healthy warning signs like growling and may develop a dangerous bite history when put under stress.
While it is possible to work with such dogs over time, it might be less stressful and confusing for them to sleep in their crate and avoid sharing the bed altogether.
This provides a clear structure and keeps both the dogs and humans as safe as possible.
Moving a Sleeping Dog
Everyone has heard the adage, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
Sleeping dogs can easily be confused and alarmed, especially those with difficult or abusive backgrounds.
Barking, growling, snapping, or even biting can ensue if you aren’t respectful of your sleeping dog.
Dogs can and should be expected to listen to their owners, even if they were napping. There are plenty of ways to wake up and move your sleeping dog while staying safe.
Avoid grabbing or nudging your dog if he is asleep; instead, speak to him until you see him wake up. You can also use treats, or the smell of treats, to coax him awake and lure him from his nap spot.
If your dog doesn’t want to move, avoid using physical force, which can escalate the situation. Consider getting more valuable, smelly treats or using a trick command your dog already knows. Make note to practice the “come” command with your dog later, when he is awake.
A dog might become very attached to a nice sleeping location and might become increasingly aggressive when asked to move.
If this happens, it means that your dog is resource guarding that location. Once the immediate situation is diffused, work with your dog to desensitize him to sharing that area. You can also work on crate training and teaching him to sleep in different locations.
Kids and Other Pets
If you have children in your household, it can be hard for them to understand your dog’s body language and the possibility of biting.
Remember that kids can be extremely stressful to dogs, especially when the dog is asleep. Giving your kids a few tools to interact with the dog can set both kids and dogs up for success and a long, loving friendship.
Make sure your kids know never to physically disturb a sleeping dog. If they want to pet the dog while asleep, ask them to speak gently to the dog first until it stirs or acknowledges them. Remind them never to grab, drag, hit, or shove a dog, whether sleeping or awake.
Rather than teaching kids that growling is scary, talk to them about what the dog is trying to say when it growls.
Try to relate the dog’s growl to something the child might say when being annoyed by someone else. Encourage them to back off if the dog growls, rather than yelling, punishing, or ignoring. If they tell you that the dog growled at them in a specific situation, this would be an excellent opportunity to include them in the dog’s ownership and show them how to use desensitization training.
Frustration and lashing out can also occur between pets if you have more than one. If one dog becomes exceptionally possessive of a location or item, this can even lead to a fight.
Make sure that each of your pets has their own crate or “spot”. Buy enough bowls, toys, and beds for all pets to have some. If you see your dogs sharing a toy or bed, praise them and offer rewards, encouraging peaceful coexistence.
Growling When Tired is Typical Dog Behavior
Growling while tired or sleeping is typical behavior in dogs. In some ways, it positively reflects on the dog’s restraint, as he is trying to communicate his feelings to you. Take time when the dog is awake to set the training foundation for a positive interaction while he is sleeping. You can enlist the entire family to help work on this issue.
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