How to stop your dog growling over food

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It is very upsetting when your dog starts growling at you whilst she is eating.

Labradors have a well-deserved reputation for having a wonderful temperament.

So 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.

However, this is rarely the case.

You may have seen television shows where dogs that growl are punished,  and dominated.

This may end in people being bitten,  and dogs becoming increasingly distressed.

Fortunately there is a better way.

In this article we will look at what causes this ‘food guarding’  behaviour and how to stop your dog growling in easy stages.

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.

Summary

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.

More help and information

If you enjoy Pippa’s articles, you will love her new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook – a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.

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Pippa Mattinson

The Labrador Site is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson. Pippa's latest book The Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to early puppy care and training

by Pippa on November 9, 2011

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Lee May 24, 2013 at 10:43 pm

Our dog (spaniel not lab) has a food guarding issue which we’ve been working on for some time with some minor progress. He’s also shown resource / toy guarding when in the company of other dogs. He nicked a toy from my father in laws dog and sat out in the garden with us all two days ago. No one noticed he had it until he started growling, snarling and then he bit my wife’s boot and then on the arm when she went to get it off him; concluded with a couple of stitches in A&E. it all happened very quickly and has unsettled us quite a bit. We’d really started bonding with him since getting him at a year old last year and in every other way he’s absolutely brilliant, around the house and his gundog training is spectacular. We spoke with an aggression specialist who concluded that it was a vicious attack (without asking what happened in the lead up) and that there was nothing that could be done to ‘remove’ this vicious streak only to manage it in the knowledge that he could choose to do it again over any resource he chose to value in the future. We’re in bits but are committed to his welfare and helping him in any / every way possible. Any help, thoughts, guidance, recommended contacts would be gratefully received.
Very best wishes, and great sites, book and blogs.

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Pippa May 25, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Hi Lee,
Thank you for your kind comments. What a very upsetting and worrying experience for you and your wife. You don’t say how old your dog is, but I am assuming that he is an adult. As you have discovered, trying to take an item from a growling dog is not a good idea. In the short term, you need to swap the item for something that he values more. Usually some tasty food is the best option. However, in the long term, you need to decide whether or not your dog represents a danger to your family and the wider public. And whether his resource guarding can be treated successfully. This is something that needs to be decided by an expert after spending time with your dog.
Ask your vet to recommend a qualified behaviourist. If he cannot help you, The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour has a register of certified practitioners.
I hope you are able to get some help for your dog soon. In the meantime, I am sure you will be taking steps to ensure that those around him are aware of his problem and that he isn’t put in a situation where he might hurt anyone.
Best wishes
Pippa

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Lee May 25, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Thanks Pippa. We spoke with our vet this morning and will be taking him in for a check over on tuesday to make sure there’s no underlying health issue. He had a drontal the day before and he was a bit nuts for the rest of the day/night. Highly likely we’ll be referred to langfords vet hospital / behaviour centre in bristol for assessment / help. I strongly suspect that it can be worked through and he only bit as he was approached and ‘challenged’. Nevertheless, one attempted bite and one actual bite does escalate the seriousness even further and as you say, he won’t be in a position with any family or members of the public. Very much looking forward to helping him. Thanks again for your help.

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Mickey August 9, 2013 at 6:35 am

I rescued a dog 3 months ago. she’s 2 yrs. old and other than growling about almost everything she’s a well rounded and social w/ other dogs. The problem I have with her growling is that there is no reason for the trigger of the growl. she is normally not protecting anything like a bone, toy or food. She does not growl at me, simply because I would not tolerate it from the start and corrected her immediately. However, she will growl at anyone that comes near her (male or female) at random. Just this eve she’s laid next to my husband and the minute that he moved she growled. If she’s lying on the floor, relaxing w/ no bone or toy next to her, and someone (besides me) walks past her, she growls. I cannot always be near her to correct immediately I’m at a loss as to what to do. I would like to “share” my life w/ her completely which means visiting w/ neighbors and such but I need to stop the growling first. PLEASE HELP me and my girl.

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Pippa August 9, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Hi Mickey,
As you have discovered, correction does not cure growling, it just inhibits the growling in front of the person administering the correction, in this case you. The article also explains why it is very important NOT to correct growling. I think you would find it really helpful to re-read it, and to seek help from a behaviourist that uses modern methods.
Pippa

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Dianne Mckeown September 3, 2013 at 8:50 pm

I have a 3 year old springer, but recently adopted a 1 year old Golden lab from my daughter, the novelty of the andrex puppy wore off and she hadn’t trained him very well. How ever i have hi toilet trained now, he still at the chewing stage and he has selective hearing but we getting there. The problem is feeding time, they are both male and not neutered my Springer suddenly became aggressive and attacked the lab a few times. I started seperating them at feeding time, but i don’t like doing this i would rather they got along. I know it may be the springer thinks his food is being taken from him, and they get along fantastic otherwise. Any advice on this problem???

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Pippa September 4, 2013 at 6:57 am

Hi Dianne, feeding them separately is the way to go. Pippa

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Marg October 4, 2013 at 7:48 am

My labrador puppy has just turned 9 weeks. I live in Sri Lanka.i I’d like to know the right quantity to feed my pup. For breakfast she is given Nestum Cerelac (red rice cereal), for lunch I give her home cooked food which includes rice dhal pumpkin and sometimes meat and green leaves. She gets yoghurt at around 4pm and for dinner she is given Eukunuba (processed dog food). My vet said this diet is okay for my puppy owner I’m confused with the quantity.

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Jenny October 25, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Hi my Labrador puppy is very over protective with her food she is 5 months old and she only growls at me but not other members of the family. However when she isn’t eating she is perfectly fine she plays,runs and other stuff that is just the one thing she is naughty about.

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Elaine December 22, 2013 at 11:17 pm

I have a 1 year 7 month golden retriever who just continues to growl and seems so stressed when I have his bowl with food in it. If I waited until he stopped growling it would definitely take a lot of time before i actually gave him the bowl. It’s just my husband and I and he seems to really only do this towards me. Any advice?

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Pippa December 23, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Hi Elaine, follow the steps in the article above :)

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Liz January 27, 2014 at 7:57 am

My 9month black lab pup, which I rescued when he was 5months, never looks happy when he is eating his dinner, his tail is between his legs and his body is all tensed up, he doesnt have a problem with me or anyone else going near him or indeed stroking him when he eats his dinner, but the way he eats his dinner you would think he’s been starved. I bought a bowl that has compartments so as it slows him down, but I don’t think his food touches the side of his mouth lol. My problem is, he has a beautiful temperament is very loving, but looks sad quite a lot, he growls when anyone goes near him when anyone goes near him whilst he chews a raw hide chew. He never growls or even barks any other time. This worries me cause it seems to be out of character for him. I have no idea what type of home he came from or how he was fed before I got him, I feed him dried food. I would like a bit of help with this problem.

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Pippa January 27, 2014 at 12:18 pm

Hi Liz, he is tense and bolting his food because he is worried you might take it away. Work through the instructions above to get his tail wagging again :)

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Marie July 31, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Hi
My black lab Bella is really funny with my husband. If he fetches her a treat she growls at him until he gives it to her even if he’s still un wrapping it , also if he asks her for a kiss or he comes in to a room where she is with me she really growls at him it’s quite scary sometimes she doesn’t do it with me or my son and I’m frightened she might bite my husband ,he is the one who walks her and I know she loves him because when he goes out she sits sulking at the gate until he comes home, I can’t work out wether she is guarding me or just sees herself above him in the pack

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Laura August 4, 2014 at 9:24 pm

Thank you for this article. It makes so much sense. My two year old lab cross has just started growling when i touch her if she is eating. I will apply the above principles and let you know how she does. I am also working on separation anxiety. Thank you, Laura

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Rebecca August 5, 2014 at 6:45 am

Hi, I have a collie x lab, he is 6 yrs old. He is showing some very weird behavour. He is fine with the family very loving etc but in the evening when he goes outside (not all the time) he will sit in the garden and he will growl if i try and call him in. I thought perhaps he had a bone but i have tested this when he does have a bone and he has no problem me coming close to him. He did use to do it with the bin in the kitchen but i have got him out of that by calling him away and then dancing round the bin (crazy perhaps) but basically to show him its my bin not his. In the past when he has got growly with food i have managed to call him away from the food and then tell him when he can go back to it. So im a bit confused as to what is going on, Im more worried if he gets snappy with the kids. Any suggestions?

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