Not everyone who hears a dog growling assumes they are being threatened.

Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary tested whether people can identify the context of a dog’s growl. They used three different natural situations: dogs at play, dogs guarding food, and dogs faced with a stranger. Participants were able to identify the contexts for the growling at levels higher than chance, although they had a more difficult time distinguishing growls for guarding food and threatening a stranger.

Previous studies have suggested people have more difficulty differentiating between playful and threatening growls. The researchers hypothesized that the length of the growls in those studies, which were restricted to 1.2 seconds, caused confusion as that is shorter than an average aggressive growl and longer than an average playful growl.As a result, this study aimed to give the context of natural growling situations without modifying the frequency or time of the growls.

There were 40 participants, 14 men and 26 women. For the first set of growls, they received a scoring sheet for emotional scaling, choosing from five inner states: aggression, fear, despair, happiness, and playfulness. Rather than just choosing the emotion, however, they had a visual analogue scale and placed the mark along a line, allowing them to rate how strongly the growl associated with a particular emotion.

While the participants’ demographics had no effect on how they scored the growls emotionally, women and dog owners were more likely to correctly recognize the context of growls. Because these results differ from previous studies, the researchers concluded that the length and rhythm of the growls likely helped the listeners to correctly identify growls.

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