Yet guarding food and growling when someone approaches, is a common problem in dogs.
Labradors have a well-deserved reputation for having a wonderful temperament.
So if your four-legged friend starts to guard his food bowl, it is quite understandable that you might fear the worst and wonder if you have a the makings of a vicious dog on your hands.
Happily, this is rarely the case. And in most cases, this is a problem that is fairly straightforward to resolve. If you go about it in the right way.
The wrong way to behave around a growling dog
Sadly, despite the fact that we know a great deal about resource guarding and how to treat it successfully, I still frequently come across reports of trainers that are tackling this problem the wrong way. Using force and dominance based techniques
You may have seen television shows where dogs that growl are punished, and dominated.
This can and sometimes does, end in people being bitten, and in dogs becoming increasingly distressed. Fortunately there is a better way, as we shall see.
The scared dog
The old fashioned assumption was that the dog who guards his bowl is trying to be ‘in charge’, to dominate his owner.
In fact quite the reverse.
The dog who guards stuff is a scared dog. He is scared that humans are going to take his food away.
In this article we will look at what causes this ‘food guarding’ behaviour and how to stop your dog growling in easy stages.
Three stages to success
Treating this problem is achieved in three distinct phases
The three phases are:
- Stage 1: Don’t make things worse
- Stage 2: Understand the problem
- Stage 3: Behaviour Modification, step-by-step
Stop your dog growling Stage 1
The first stage is to make sure you don’t make the problem any worse.
Food guarding often starts whilst dogs are still very young.
Do not be tempted to punish a labrador puppy for growling, we will explain why below.
Until you have read and understood the following, stay away from the puppy whilst he is eating and make sure other members of the family do the same.
Read Stage Two to understand the underlying problem, then read Stage Three and follow the six steps to stop the growling and permanently improve your puppy’s behaviour.
Do not be tempted to punish the dog!
Dogs that guard their food have two problems. One is that they believe you are going to take their food away. The other is that they believe you won’t give it back again.
It is possible to punish a puppy severely enough to stop him growling at you whilst he is eating. However, this is a very bad idea for the following reasons
- Growling is an important ‘early warning’ device
- Punishment tends to be specific to the punisher
An important warning
Normal healthy dogs growl a great deal before they bite. Growling is a polite warning. It says ‘back off! If you don’t, I am prepared to fight…’. Even the best tempered dog will growl at some point in his life, perhaps when injured or severely frightened.
Dogs that are not permitted to growl when they feel threatened may bite without warning. All dogs should feel able to give a warning before they bite, this helps to make them safe citizens. Preventing the growl, is NOT the same thing as preventing the bite.
Growling at others
Another reason not to use ‘growl prevention’ techniques is that whilst you may be successful in teaching your dog not to growl at you, that does not mean he will stop growling at others.
He may well continue to keep growling at others when he is eating, including at children, and especially in your absence. This is not appropriate behaviour. You need to get to the very source of the growling in order to fix the problem effectively
The right approach
To successfully treat growling we need a system that removes the growling at its root cause. The correct treatment is to teach your puppy that people in general are well meaning, and not in competition with him for food. With young puppies this is often surprisingly easy and quick to achieve.
Stop your dog growling Stage 2
Food guarding belongs to a group of behaviours known as resource guarding. Some puppies will only guard food, others may attempt to guard their toys, bedding and even you. Food guarding is the most common of these behaviours, and understanding what causes it will enable you to cure the problem effectively and without punishment.
It is not uncommon for puppies to attempt to guard food. It is a very natural behaviour designed to stop other puppies or dogs from stealing his dinner.
In the wild, puppies who ‘hand over’ their food will starve. Many domestic dogs have lost this guarding instinct. They don’t need it because we make sure that they get fed. However a substantial number of puppies from all breeds still instinctively guard their food.
It is important to emphasise that food guarding does not necessarily mean that your puppy is going to be vicious! What it does tell you, is that he may be a little anxious and need his confidence in the good intentions of ‘people’ building up.
The more anxious the puppy is, the more distance he will need between his dinner and passers by before he feels comfortable enough to stop growling. The purpose of the behaviour modification techniques outlined below are to build that confidence.
The third stage is modifying the behaviour of the puppy that guards food. Because the food guarding dog is afraid his food will be taken away, it is very important that you do not do this.
On the contrary, you are going to do the exact opposite and add to his food whilst he is eating it. Which brings us to Stage Three
Stop your dog growling Stage 3
The behaviour modification process outlined in the six steps below is for treating the problem puppy who is guarding his food. If you are unsure of how to proceed, or have an older dog with an established problem, treatment is best attempted under expert supervision.
If you are concerned about your dog’s temperament or health in any way, or if this process does not seem to be going smoothly, it is important that you contact your vet for advice and further information. It is also a good idea to have a vet check over your dog before starting this treatment in order to exclude any health problems.
Your objective is to be able to actually put your hands in your puppy’s bowl whilst he is eating without him becoming at all unhappy.
His tail will be wagging throughout.
You will need to be patient and break this process down into small stages. Each step will probably take two or more days. The older the puppy, the longer it may take.
Don’t proceed to the next step until the dog is comfortable, and not growling, with the step you are working on. If you can break the dog’s daily food allowance into four or five meals, the learning process will go faster than if he is only having one or two meals per day.
If at any step you feel you are not making much progress, ensure that the food in his bowl, is fairly boring compared with the food/treats you are going to add to it.
Step 1: ‘Stand and Throw’
To begin with, each time you feed your dog his dinner, you will put only a small amount of food into the dog’s bowl. The rest you will have to hand and whilst he is eating you will stand two or more yards away and throw little pieces of food towards his bowl. How far you stand from the dog, depends on him.
Your job is to make sure you do not trigger the growling.
Do not go so close that he feels the need to growl. Over the next few mealtimes bring the distance you can stand near the dog down to about a yard. Don’t go closer until he is able to eat without growling at each distance.
If you are struggling to find any distance at which he won’t growl at you, use very tasty treats to add to his bowl rather than his ordinary food.
Don’t worry if you are not a very good shot. The food doesn’t have to go into his bowl, just near to it. Don’t go to stage 2 until you can stand a yard from the dog and drop food into his bowl whilst he eats.
Step 2: ‘Walk and Throw’
The next step is to walk about whilst throwing the food. Your movement will worry him as he does not know what you are going to do next. This is very natural, even people don’t usually like someone moving around near them whilst they eat. So back further away, and take your time with this stage.
If walking around at three yards from the dog worries him, go further away. Find a distance at which you can move without him growling.
If you can’t get this far away in your kitchen, try tiny movements (e.g. just shifting your feet around) to begin with, taking larger steps as he gets used to this.
All the while you are throwing yummy bits of food into or around his bowl whilst he eats. When you can walk all around the dog at a distance of one yard whilst he is eating, and when he is so relaxed about this that his tail will wag whilst he eats and you praise him, then it is time to move on to Step 3.
Step 3: ‘The First Touch
The next step is to be able to touch the rear half of the dog whilst he is eating, without him growling. Each dog is different so think about the kind of contact your dog enjoys.
Keep your hands away from his head, mouth and bowl for the time being. You may be able to lightly touch his flank or stroke his rump.
Keep the touch brief. Follow each touch by dropping a tasty bit of food in his bowl. If he starts to growl go back to Step 2. Get as many repetitions of touch/treat as you can into each mealtime. When you can touch the dog freely on the rear of his body many times whilst he is eating, whilst his tail wags, and he is happy, move on to Step 4
Step 4: ‘Touch with Confidence’
This step will bring you to the point where you can stroke your dog’s head whilst he eats. Just as in all the previous steps take it slowly. If at any point the dog growls or displays pre-growl behaviour, go back to Step 3. Put some food in a bowl as usual, and give it to your dog.
If the dog is happy, touch your dog lightly on the shoulder or neck and immediately drop a treat into his bowl. If the dog is still happy, tail wagging, move your hand higher and touch the top of his head.
Work up to light strokes interspersed with frequent additions to his bowl. If all goes well, you should be able to thoroughly stroke and praise the dog in a normal manner, whilst he is eating, by the end of this step. If he seems unhappy at any stage, go back to the previous step.
Step 5: ‘Trust in You’
This step is complete when you can actually trail your hands in the dog’s bowl whilst he is eating, touch him anywhere on his body, step over and around him and generally do all those things that other people, especially children, might one day do to your dog whilst he is eating.
Proceed in the same cautious manner as for all previous stages. Hold your hand a little closer to his bowl each time you drop a treat in, until you are actually holding your hand in the bowl.
Observe your dog very carefully at all times. Stop and ‘back up’ if he seems unhappy, or if he stops eating and stiffens his body. As long as he is happy, try lifting the bowl very slightly off the ground with one hand as you add treats with the other. If this goes well you can lift the bowl up a few inches, add a few treats and put it back down.
If the dog is happy, repeat lifting the bowl a little higher each time, always replacing the bowl with more food in. When you can lift the bowl right up onto the work surface, putting more food in and return it to the floor you have nearly achieved your goal.
You don’t need to keep testing him by taking his dinner away constantly, and when you do remove his bowl, it should always be to add something nice to it. You want him to believe that anyone anywhere near his bowl is a very good thing.
Step 6: ‘Trust in Everyone’
The final step is for you to supervise a repeat of the whole procedure with each member of your family in turn, and then with any friends/visitors/passers-by you can rope in to help.
Over the next few weeks, make certain that you ensure anyone approaching your dog whilst he is eating has gone through these steps and take care to ensure they observe the rules on when to back off, very strictly. You will find this a much faster process than your initial one.
This last step just finalises the training and teaches your dog that all people near his bowl are an excellent thing. What you need to do now is to make sure that he will behave in this nice relaxed way even when there are very nice treats in his bowl. If not, then back up and go through the above steps with treats and other high value foods in the bowl.
Food guarding is a common problem caused by lack of confidence and fear of losing the food. Old fashioned methods of treatment using punishment and are dangerous and ineffective as they perpetuate and deepen the dog’s mistrust of people.
Food guarding is effectively treated by removing the fear and building up the dog’s confidence.
During this whole procedure, especially with young puppies, you may find the dog quickly loses all his anxiety and forgets to guard his bowl at all, even to the point of leaving the bowl and repeatedly approaching you to beg for treats. This is ideal.
Remember that it is important to avoid touching a growling puppy, a bite from even quite a young puppy can be nasty. Access to the dog whilst eating should be restricted to adults who understand the treatment system. If you are not confident in following the instructions above without help, do consult an up to date behaviourist.
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This article was first published in 2011 and has been fully updated and revised for 2015
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