Why Does Your Dog Growl At Nothing?

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There are lots of stories out there about how dogs can hear and sense things that people cannot. When a dog is behaving in a strange way, like growling at seemingly nothing, it is easy to explain the strange behavior away as just another weird dog oddity.

However, it is important to know that your dog is never just growling at nothing. There’s always something lurking there that is setting them off, and it is up to you to figure out what that is. 

Why does your dog growl at nothing?

Your dog is rarely growling at nothing. They are growling at something you are unable to perceive, either internal, like pain or fear, or external, like an animal outside. In rare cases, they may have made a mistake about what they see or hear but it’s still important to try and identify the cause. 

Dogs have many highly acute senses that human beings have not developed as much. Their ability to smell and hear, their night vision, and their sensitivity to pressure changes in their environment are just a few of the many of their senses that are are more finely tuned than humans’.

When your dog is growling at a seemingly blank wall or off distantly into the night at what you perceive to be nothing is probably actually your dog reacting to something that is actually there that you cannot see.

The fact that you, your dog’s person, who is normally so on top of things, do not perceive this sound, smell, intruder, or whatever it is, probably makes your dog worried. That worry causes a reaction, which is making them growl at what they are perceiving.

To help you identify why your dog is growling at nothing, I have put together the below article that should help you to come to a better understanding of this strange behavior and help your dog to stop growling at nothing.

To make things easier, you can use this table of contents to find what you’re looking for:

Your Dog’s Powerful Senses

Dogs and humans have a long, long history of co-existing together in the same environment, and that environment has not always been suburban homes and bungalow apartments.  We needed each other’s extremely different skills in order to survive in prehistoric times.

It has been argued by many authors, such as Gena K. Gorrell in her book Working Like A Dog: The Story of Working Dogs Through History that, over the thousands of years of coexistence together, dogs and humans evolved their different skills in opposition to one another in order to complement one another.

Dogs have a better sense of smell and hearing as well as better night vision and a greater sensitivity to changes in pressure than humans do. These improved senses have made them invaluable companions to humans,  alerting us to intruders and possible threats earlier than we ever could alone. 

People even still rely on dogs to guard their homes and protect their livestock. You have probably noticed your dog perk up at the faintest sound of a car pulling up to the house or a slight, triggering bump in the other room.

What you may perceive to be something small or quiet, seemingly innocuous, your dog is experiencing much more significantly.

This is an important concept to understand when you are looking at your dog who is barking at “nothing.”  For them, their experience with the world is very different than ours.  Your dog may not be able to see what is over the fence like you can, but that does not mean that they do not know what is over there.

Why Your Dog Appears To Be Growing At Nothing

With the background information out of the way, let’s get into the individual reasons why it can appear like dogs are growling at nothing along with a deeper look at your canine companion’s powerful senses.

Reason 1: Your Dog Smells Something You Can’t

Your dog’s sense of smell, frankly, puts ours to absolute shame. Dogs, above almost everything else, have evolved to smell.

Let’s start with their nose. Human beings have about 6 million olfactory receptors in their noses. When you say it, it sounds like a lot, and it is among most animals. Humans are not bad at smelling, but dogs are way better.

They have about 300 million olfactory receptors, allowing them to have a greater sensitivity to the odors in their environment. 

They also have the ability to wiggle their nostrils independently, a skill that most people do not have. Couple that with the positioning of their nose on their face, and they have an acute ability to determine which side of their nose a smell is coming from.

Their noses were built to savor smells. When people breathe in through their noses, we also inhale our breath into our lungs. There is nothing to stop us from breathing into our nose, and all of what we smelled immediately going into our lungs.

Dogs have a physical flap that folds over and prevents what they breathe in their nose from immediately going into their respiratory system. This allows them to hold the smell in their nose,  wafting it around like a fancy person savoring a glass of wine.

Finally, once all of those smells have been perceived, all of the sensors go to their unique brain, which allocates about 40 times more brainpower to smell than a human’s brain does.

All of this combined means that the world of smells you live in is a bland, black and white, “Kansas” version of the vibrant, colorful, “Munchkinland” of smells that your dog lives in.

It’s been suggested that a dog could sense the smell of a single drop of liquid dropped in water the size of 20 swimming pools!

If your dog seems to be growling at nothing, you should consider the fact that they have a much more powerful sense of smell than we do, and look around and check to see if they are reacting to the smell of some external factor that you don’t know is there.

It of course depends a lot on where you are, but your dog may be growling because they smell one of the following:

  • An animal (or their droppings) in the walls, ceiling, or under the house
    • Even the cleanest houses and apartments can have unwanted visitors. You may not be able to smell them, but if they are around or have been recently, your dog definitely can smell them.
  • A smell on a new object you brought into the house
    • Bring home a thrift-shop lamp or couch? Or get a new carpet that has that fresh-out-of the package smell? 
    • Anything you bring into your house will smell like whoever handled it and wherever it came from to your dog
  • A visitor left their smell in your house
    • Did you have a sweaty handyman come in to install your new dishwasher and now your dog is barking at the spot they were? 
    • Or maybe a friend of yours that your dog didn’t get to meet came over and sat on your couch. And does that friend have a dog, cat, or another pet or unfamiliar smell?
  • Toxic gases
    • More houses and apartments than you realize have at least one pilot light burning at a given time.
    • This is a smell that is perceptible to humans at high volumes, but your dog will absolutely pick up on it earlier than you will. 
  • Your neighbor is grilling or has another fire going
    • They may be growling out their frustration at the smell of charged hamburgers next door.
    • Or if there’s been a recent cold snap, your dog may be surprised by the smell of fires coming from nearby chimneys. 
    • Or there may be a legitimate house fire nearby!
  • Chemicals like fertilizer or pest control
    • Fertilizers, especially organic ones, often contain extremely odorific and attractive substances for dogs. If you or your neighbors have recently spruced up your flower bed, they could be smelling the fertilizer.
    • Conversely, if you or a neighbor has recently treated your yard or tented their house for bugs, your dog could probably pick up on the harsh poisonous chemical smells from even several blocks away.

Reason 2: Your Dog Hears Something You Don’t

Just like a dog’s nose, their ears and overall sense of hearing are outstanding among all animals. 

Just looking at a dog’s ears is probably enough for you to know that they can hear better than us. The large shape, especially in dogs that have pricked up my ears, allows them to take in more sound than a person’s ears, which are comparably extremely small.

These ears have strong muscles that give them a much wider variety of controls over their ears than people do. They can raise them upright or they can lay them flat against their head. Not only that, but they can move them independently, allowing them to pinpoint exactly where a particular sound is coming from, similar to us pointing a satellite.

So, once more we see that they are better at absorbing the noises around them, just like smells. And, just like her sense of smell, once they have absorbed the influences from the environment, their unique brains interpret the input differently than people’s brains do.

Specifically, dogs are able to hear higher frequencies than people can. People cannot hear sounds that vibrate at a speed greater than 20 vibrations per second (20,000Hz). This would be an extremely high pitch sound to us if we could hear it, like a scream that could break glass.

Dogs, on the other hand, can sense sounds of up to 50,000 vibrations per second (50,000Hz),  meaning that they can hear a wider variety of sounds than we can. This physical difference between us is what makes dog whistles work; imperceptible to us, loud and clear to them.

These higher frequency sounds are also sounds that can travel farther distances. This is why piercing screams can be heard from farther distances than low hollers and bass noises.

Because of this, dogs are able to hear sounds that are farther away than people can.

So, if your dog is barking at “nothing,” keep in mind that it’s possible that they can hear something as plain as day that you and I could not hear at all. 

Common things around the house your dog may hear and growl at that may seem like nothing to you are:

  • Construction
    • That “beep, beep” every time a truck backs up could easily set your dog off. The irregularity of loud noises, especially if they cannot see it, could be overwhelming to your dog
  • A dog barking
    • You may not hear it, but your dog can.
    • While much of a dog’s communication is geared towards people, communicating with other dogs is also paramount. Your dog could be growling at a barking do that you cannot hear.
  • Pedestrians talking or kids playing outside
    • Screams and shouts from neighbor kids could make your dog think that something is wrong or there is danger around
  • Someone approaching the house
    • This may be a good thing if you are not expecting guests but could be a real turn-off for your welcome visitors
  • An animal in the walls, ceiling, or under the house
    • See comments in the smell section
  • Electrical buzzing
  • Water dripping from a pipe
    • Or any other sound inside the wall that starts. A slight dripping from a leaking or burst pipe would make a noise that your dog could sense well before the pet parent would ever notice there was a problem
  • Any old unfamiliar noise!
    • Dogs can be jumpy and, considering they can hear so much going on around them at a given time, it’s almost surprising they ever find a moment’s peace.

Reason 3: Your Dog Sees Something You Can’t 

Dog vision is extremely different than the vision of human beings. The science about this gets complicated very quickly.

In short, human beings can technically see “better” than dogs during the daytime under the right circumstances. We have a higher concentration of cones in our eyes that allow us to see in color, whereas dogs cannot. And, in practice, our height typically gives us an advantage when trying to spot something outside. However, dogs have better motion visibility than humans do,  allowing them to track predators and prey that are fast-moving better than humans can.

However, once the lights turn off the odds quickly turn in the favor of the dogs. Dogs, like cats and many other predators, have much larger pupils than humans do.

This allows them to absorb more light than humans do when little light is available, like in the dark.

One additional unique edge that they have is their tapetum lucidum. It is a fancy word but you have surely encountered this unique anatomical structure found in dogs and cats before.

This anatomical feature acts as a mirror within the dog’s eye, reflecting light back out of the eye, against the pupil, giving the pupil a second chance to take a look at the scene.

 This is why dogs’ and cats’ eyes will glow at night when a light is shined on them. The tapetum lucidum is reflecting light back out of their eyes, like a flashlight.

So if your dog is growling at nothing, especially at night, there’s a good chance that they just can see something that you can’t see, such as:

  • Animals
    • Not just when you’re outside, but inside too. Inside, you may be surprised that your dog is growling at a mouse, lizard, or another small critter that has scampered under the couch, making it look like your dog is barking at nothing.
    • If you’re outside at night, this becomes especially true if you encounter a swift, nocturnal animal that you cannot see, like an owl, bobcat, snake, or even a coyote, that your dog may see and respond with an aggressive or fearful growl
  • Bugs
    • In the dim light of nighttime, your dog will easily be able to spot a fly, cockroach, or beetle buzzing around the room that you may not see.
    •  Many bugs emit a small amount of light or have shiny, light-reflective exoskeletons that will reflect a small amount of light, small enough that you won’t see it, but your dog may be able to.
  • People or intruders
    • People do still get dogs to alert them when someone is approaching the house, and their night vision plays a crucial part in this if they are going to be a guard dog.
    • Whether it is a welcome nighttime guest or an unwanted intruder, your dog may see someone approaching in the night and be growling at their unwanted or unexpected presence. 
  • Something confusing
    • It is true that dogs can see better at night than people, but they do not have 100% pure night vision. They will still struggle to discern people, animals, and objects in certain situations.
    • This can lead to confusing situations, ones that you, their owner, who they love and are in tune with, will not understand and will not be a part of. A dog who is confused may easily become fearful or aggressive and growl out their confusion. 

Reason 4: Your Dog Feels Something That We Can’t

I’m going to use the word pressure to speak generally about two senses of the word “pressure.”

First, pressure, as it refers to the barometric pressure changes and changes and the static electromagnetic fields that precede storms.

Scientists are not actually completely sure what, specifically, makes dogs be able to predict when storms are coming. We know that changes to the atmospheric pressure before storms cause changes in wind patterns, which, in turn, send different smells to your dog.

Your dog is then able to smell those changes and therefore predict that, if nothing else, something is changing in their environment.

However, dogs also have shown an incredible sensitivity to changes in magnetic fields that also often accompany thunderstorms. 

This is why many dogs will go hide in the bathroom when there is an electrical storm. While we are not certain, it is suggested that the metal pipes going into the ground act as grounding devices, defusing the electricity in that area of your house. Porcelain, which will also often be found in your bathroom, also diffuses electricity.

Again, all of these things can be sensed by your dog without you even having a clue that something has changed. 

Second, your dog may be experiencing pressure in the sense of social pressure inside of the house.

Dogs are extremely in tune with their family’s emotional state, picking up on their moves and reacting to them constantly, even if you are not aware of it.

They may pick up on your subtle cues or, even if you are not actively putting something out, may just know that you are stressed, anxious, or otherwise in a bad mood, and be responding by growling. 

Broadly speaking using the word pressure, here are some situations that your dog may be responding to with a growl:

  • Incoming or outgoing storms
    • This is one of the more classic causes of odd behavior in the house for dogs. If a storm is coming, even if it doesn’t rain or the weather still looks nice to you, the pressure is changing and the electrical field they are in is too.
    • The most dramatic changes in barometric pressure and static electrical fields are when the storm is rolling in and when the storm is rolling out.
    • This can easily be confused with a dangerous situation for your dog, who may respond with growling
  • Heatwaves or cold fronts
    •  While these extreme weather patterns are not often accompanied by electricity, they cause extreme changes in the atmospheric pressure when the weather rolls in that your dog is sensing that you are not.
  • Extreme changes in the moon
    • This one was surprising to me, but on the occasions where there are supermoons, when the moon is far away or close enough to Earth to cause minor fluctuations in our gravitational field, dogs are sensitive enough to pick up on this too. 
    • This is a difficult position to prove scientifically. But we do know that dogs are sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field, and we know that the Earth and the Moon have strong magnetic effects on one another, so it is not too much of a leap to believe all of the anecdotal evidence that suggests the Moon does in fact affect your dog’s behavior.
  • Stress or negativity
    • Dog’s have deep emotional intelligence and can respond to your moods and emotions, regardless of how well you think you’re hiding your feelings.
    • It’s not uncommon for a dog to growl when their owner is stressed out or if there has been a fight in the house. 
    • Not wanting to growl at one of their family members, but still wanting to participate in the mood of the pack, they may growl at seemingly nothing in order to fit in
  • New situations where they don’t know how to respond
    • New baby in the house? Overnight guests? Need to lock the dog up while you have a dinner party? Leaving the dog unexpectedly? Change their feeding habits? 
    • Basically, are you putting your dog in a situation where they have to figure out how to respond by themselves?
    • This can be stressful for your dog and cause them to growl at seemingly nothing.

Reason 5: Your Dog Could Be In Pain

If your dog is not growling in response to some external factor, then your dog is likely growling in response to some internal factor. That means they could be in pain or uncomfortable and you may want to consider a visit to your veterinarian. It’s unlikely your will growl for no reason at all.

Growling related to pain will be different than the growling you would see if your dog were growling at a smell, sound, or something that they saw.

Your dog will probably be either completely unfocused and staring blankly ahead or holding its head still and moving its eyes are around, trying to catch your eye.

The growling will probably be very low and sustained and may be accompanied by some other signs, such as the following:

  • Unusual aggressive behavior
  • Other vocalizations like yelping or snarling
  • Lots of licking, either their paws or just in the air
  • Stiffness and lethargy
  • Changes in eating and drinking habits
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Fever
  • Dry or wet nose and eyes

My dog slipped a disc one time and stood completely still, holding her head straight and moving her eyes around but not her head, making a low, painful, moaning sound that sounded a lot like a growl. It wasn’t, but your dog may be growling in response to a similar type of internal injury.

The number of things that could be going wrong with your dog is impossible to list in a few words. That is, after all, why veterinarians go through so much schooling.

If your dog is growling and showing any of the other above signs, or growl inconsistently and for a long time, it is very important to reach out for veterinary care immediately.

Your vet is the only person who will be able to properly diagnose what is causing your dog pain or whatever else is going on inside your poor pup that is causing them to growl.

It is important to recognize this growling without a discernible source as a sign that something might be physically wrong with your dog and not just a weird or funny behavior.

Again, your dog will not growl at absolutely nothing. Even if they are not showing signs of pain when they are growling at “nothing,” it may be that your dog has another psychological or neurological issue that you need to have checked out by your veterinarian. It’s not just nothing. 

Reason 6: Your Dog May Be Protecting Their Turf

Dogs like routine and a feeling of safety and comfort, and this means being assured that what they believe belongs to them will safely remain theirs.

Some dogs are more possessive of their property, toys, beds, food, and people than other dogs are, but most dogs will experience possessive feelings and demonstrate possessive or territorial behavior at some point in their life over something.

Usually, it’s pretty easy to tell when a dog is trying to growl you or another dog away from a toy or its food, you probably won’t fool this type of growling for growling at nothing.

However, it is important to be aware that it is possible that your dog is growling only when they are standing over their bed or at a certain spot on the couch and you may not have recognized it. 

Or it may be that they are sensing someone outside and are growling to keep them away.

Reason 7: Canine Dementia

While it can sometimes be more subtle in our canine companions, they can suffer from age-related dementia just like us. The range of symptoms for canine dementia is very wide covering everything from incontinence, confusion, increased barking, or increased growling.

Because dogs suffering from dementia may think they’re hearing (or even seeing) things that aren’t there this is the rare case where dogs may really be growling at nothing. Well, you’re dog thinks they’re growling at something but sadly there isn’t anything there.

Should I Worry? 

Growling is normal for dogs. That means growling on its own isn’t something you should be especially worried about since it’s a normal form of communication for our canine companions.

This video does a great of explaining this:

Growling is your dog communicating to you and those around it. It typically means something along the lines of “back off,” but what they are communicating is up to you, their beloved pet parent, to discern. 

If you can’t figure out what your dog is growling at then it can become a concern since pain can be one reason why dogs growl. If you’re ever unsure, consult your veterinarian.

Why Is My Dog Barking At “Nothing”?

Barking indicates that your dog is trying to communicate more aggressively, either to you or to whatever it is barking at, what it’s feeling. A dog barking at “nothing” is responding to an external factor and likely indicates that they expect immediate action, from you or from themselves.

Growling is much quieter than barking. It is a form of communication also, but it is communicating the dog’s feelings to an audience in a closer vicinity than barking.

It is less active on the part of the dog. A dog is likely to growl even when it does not expect the situation to escalate further. It is often a sign of fear or pain because it allows the dog to remain small and less active in whatever situation it is in.

Barking, on the other hand, is loud and communicates the dog’s feelings to an audience in a wider vicinity. It is trying to attract attention, to draw and others from the pack, or to scare off the intruder.

It makes the dog loud and requires both the physical ability to bark and also the confidence to engage with the situation further.

If your dog is barking at nothing, again, it’s not that it is barking at nothing but rather is engaging with something that you cannot see.

Your dog may start out as growling and then move on to barking if whatever the factor is that started them growling gets worse or remains.

Your dog wants that outside factor to exit the situation, and they are escalating things to ensure that it knows it’s there, scary, and wants it gone. 

How To Stop Your Dog From Growling And Barking At Nothing

Something is causing your dog to growl, so you must identify what that is. Next, you either need to remove that influence from your dog’s environment or work with and train your dog to peacefully coexist with and eventually ignore the source.

I think at this point I have been pretty clear that your dog is definitely growling at something, not nothing.  So the first step for you is to identify what is causing your dog to growl at seemingly nothing.

This can be a difficult task given what we know about dogs’ ability to sense things that we do not like smells, sounds, sights, and changes to the environment.

If your dog is healthy, take a second look around your house and especially when and where your dog is growling. If it always happens in the same place, at the same time, or around the same given activity, you can use that to pinpoint what is setting your dog off.

If you are absolutely sure that there is nothing in your dog’s external environment that is causing them to growl, and you have also received a clean bill of health from your dog’s veterinarian, then I really don’t know what to tell you, dear reader. Maybe your house is haunted, which is unfortunately outside my realm of expertise.

Once you are able to pinpoint the source of agitation that it’s causing your dog to growl, then you have two choices to make:  Either get rid of the source or help your dog get used to it.

This of course depends on what exactly it is that set your dog off.

Remove The Cause Of Growling

Some of these things will be obvious. If at the end of your search, you discover that your dog has been growling at a beehive behind the wall, then you probably should plan on getting rid of that, and not teaching your dog to live with the bees.

Burst pipes, animal intruders, electrical shorts, and many other broken or unwanted household mishaps will need to be fixed. Hopefully, this is enough to put an end to your dog growling at the wall or whatever else.

And, frankly, you should probably give them their favorite treat and encourage the behavior. They did, after all, help you identify a problem in your home.

Some other things that you find, however, may not immediately register as something that you should get rid of, but maybe you should. 

A new pet in the house, something as impactful as a cat or as low impact like a snake, may be enough to set your dog off and get them growling. This is a situation that may overtime escalate, and for the safety of everyone in the household, it may be best to get rid of one of the agitations in the situation.

Another situation in which you might want to consider getting rid of the agitator rather than getting your dog used to it is if you have installed something in your home that you like, but maybe don’t need enough to stress your dog out to keep. Things like a trickling water fountain or a scented candle may not be worth the effort to keep.

Get Your Dog Used To The Stimulus 

You may need to just get your dog used to some things that are currently making it growl. Some things are benign, and you just need to get your dog accustomed to that influence. Or some things are just going to be outside of your control, so you have no choice but to work with your dog to overcome their growling.

I need to point out here that it is possible that your dog will escalate things. Growling may lead to to barking or it may go straight to a bite. Only you can gauge how best to interact with your dog, but here’s another helpful video to decide how to engage with your dog who is growling.

If you are able to engage with your dog, you can follow some of the below steps to help them to get over whatever the thing is that is making them growl.

This will be much easier if you know what is making your dog growl, but even if not, you can still do these steps to help calm your dog down. If that works, then the source of the growl May remain mysterious forever. But at least you got your dog to stop.

Comfort Your Dog

Your dog is probably growling because they are afraid, so you should intervene by trying to comfort them and often this is the first thing you’ll want to do. 

Physical touch is a great place to start. Place your hand on the back of the dog and make sure that they know that it’s you who’s touching them. Make sure you announce yourself first so you don’t startle the dog while they are growling and afraid.

Hopefully, this is enough to get your dog to turn back its head and look at you. Reward them, pet them, scratch them, and softly speak comforting words to them.

Your dog is probably afraid and is just trying to act tough, so reassuring them that you are there and that you have their back can be enough to shake off the worst of their growling-at-nothing behavior. 

Distract Your Pup

Now that you have shaken off their growling, you should immediately move to distract the dog so it does not just go back to growling at the same thing again.

Treats are always a great way to distract my dog, especially if I use something that I don’t typically give to her throughout her day. If you are working with your dog to get over their growling, consider upgrading their treats.

A yummy, smelly treat like these salmon bites on Amazon will help pull your dog away and get them thinking about snacks instead of growls. Their favorite toy will also usually do the trick! 

Whatever you use, having a solid strategy for distracting your dog is critical to managing all kinds of behaviors from an obsession with eating acorns to excessive licking.

Ignore The Growling

This may seem contrary to the advice I gave above, but it is a very important step to get your dog over their fear and get them to stop growling at seemingly nothing, whatever it is.

In any of the above situations, your dog growls and then gets positive reinforcement. Your dog loves treats, hugs, and playtime, and it is not that far of a leap for them to understand that if they growl, they get treats.

Not only that, if your dog growls and then immediately gets comforted, they never have a reason to actually get over their fear and learn how to deal with the main influence that caused them to growl.

Giving them some time alone to get over their fears, after you have given them distractions and other things to reassure them that they are safe, will give them the opportunity to learn how to be comfortable by themselves with whatever used to make them growl.

It also prevents them from picking up bad habits, like learning to growl at things in order to get treats.

And after all, the point of all of this is so that your dog will go back to behaving normally when it seems like nothing is going on at all.

You don’t want to have to constantly reassure your dog that the clock, the couch, or the electrical outlet is safe, so work towards a situation in which you do not need to be hands-on with your dog constantly to get them to stop growling at nothing.

Closing Thoughts

If you are not convinced that there is some outside or inside factor that is making your dog growl by this point, then I have utterly failed the purpose of this article.

Your dog is definitely growling for a reason. You may not be able to immediately recognize what that reason is, but one is there.

It could be an external factor, so slight or benign is that it is not even registering on your radar as something to pay attention to. But your dog is picking up on it loud, clear, and with aggression.

Or it may be something that is going on on the inside of your dog, like pain or some other influence that only your will be able to identify and correct.

Growling is a communication tool for your dog. It is important for pet owners to understand that when your dog growls, they are communicating to you and to those around them.

The best pet parents will use all of the tools and resources at their disposal to translate and understand these communications so that they can help your dog live their best life.

While your dog may have super strong senses, they have the same five that we do. There is no sixth sense in dogs, and they are not peering into the supernatural. When they growl, they are never growling at nothing