When dogs growl, bark, or seemingly “trash talk” during play, it makes some people nervous. While growling could mean “get away from me,” in play, this is rarely the case.
A dog’s body language will determine whether their vocalizations are meant as a distance increasing signal meaning, “Get away from me,” or a distance decreasing signal meaning, “Come play with me.”
Distance decreasing signals are also known as calming signals. One of the most obvious of these is the Play Bow - bottom up, shoulders down, legs in a splayed stance, and mouth open. A Play Bow is a momentary position that can be loosely interpreted as, “I am playing. Even if I look a little aggressive, don’t take me seriously!” If a dog is growling and barking while demonstrating a Play Bow, the growling is not meant in a threatening way.
As you better understand your dog’s body language, you will discover that no behavior happens in a vacuum. There are many behaviors going on at any given time, and if you observe specific groupings of behaviors, you can more easily interpret your dog’s meaning.
Some dogs “trash talk” more than others, so look for the body language that says “I am playing.” Examples of other calming signals are helicopter tail, play face, and the rocking horse run.