Dear Miss Behavior: My Dog Growls When I Near Her Food Dish

Dear Miss Behavior: A former neighbor told me she didn’t have time for her Westie puppy so she gave her to me. She let me have her papers and everything. I love her so much, but Princess doesn’t like me; she even growls when I go near her food dish. What can I do?



I’m glad you love Princess, but you need to remember she doesn’t know you very well. She’ll need a little time to adjust to you and your rules. Speaking of rules, as much as I prefer to be in charge, we all need rules. Princess sounds like she’s gotten a little too much freedom, too soon. Now is the time to make sure she knows all of your rules so there’s no confusion later on. You need to start training Princess, not only does she need to know how to sit, lie down, stay and walk on a loose lead, she also needs to know how to come when called. Training will also help the bigger issue of growling at you over her food dish.

Princess has learned that if she growls, she gets her way. We–I mean, Dogs are very protective over their possessions unless taught that it’s okay to share. To teach her to not growl when you approach her dish, let’s teach her that you+her dish=good things.

Use her meal times as training times. Put her empty dish on the floor. Walk towards her with another dish full of her food. Drop a piece of kibble in or near her dish, pause long enough for her to eat it and walk away. Repeat this until her food is gone or she’s eagerly waiting for you to approach with her food. Next step is to make sure you always drop the piece of food in her dish without bending over and repeat, until soon you’ll be able to bend over to drop food into the dish.

When she’s comfortable with this, start hand-feeding Princess. Keep her dish in your one hand and feed her with your other hand. Go just a piece or two of kibble at a time until her food is all gone. Once she’s very comfortable taking food from your hand, then start holding the dish while she eats out of it.

If she growls at you, don’t panic and don’t punish her. Just go back to the last training step you had success. Most likely you moved too fast for her comfort.

What doesn’t work? Punishing her for growling. Don’t snatch her food away either. All this does is increase the chances she’ll bite. We need to teach her that you are the bearer of all good things and she can trust you not to take away something you’ve given her. Eventually, you’ll start teaching her to trade for items; this will be helpful if she gets her mouth on something she’s not supposed to have.

You should also consider going to a trainer. The Greater Lincoln Obedience Club has many trainers who can help you to select a good class for Princess as well as help you with her other issues.

Thanks to this feature goes to Greater Lincoln Obedience Club, who ran the Miss Behavior Dog Advice Column in their newsletter. Appreciation also is extended to Marcy Graybill, a trainer at GLOC and the expert behind this column. She also hosts her own blog, Dog Log, where she talks about training adventures with her dogs.

marcygraybillAfter Marcy adopted her first dog in 1988, she began to research about dog care. Research took the form of checking out books and videos to learn how to train Lady. Eventually, Marcy and her sister began taking their dogs to the dog run and taking formal dog classes. For about six years, Marcy volunteered for the Capital Humane Society, where she performed a variety of jobs, and took time to watch the dogs and learn about their behaviors. Currently, she’s an obedience instructor at GLOC. “I think the most important is to keep up to date on what’s going on in the field.  I try to read articles, blogs and  new books that come out, and watch any DVDs that are available.”


Cinder’s Advice: Growling and Food-Guarding

In December 2013, my husband and I adopted a one-year-old tortoiseshell cat from Hearts United for Animals. Cinder has taught us so much about cats that it seemed proper for her to have her own advice column.

QUESTION: Why do cats growl and how does one stop them from guarding their food?

“Grrr!” I growled as Allison placed my breakfast in front of me.

Allison pulled back. “Cinder, no!” she scolded.

She turned to Andy who had just entered the kitchen. “Cinder growled at me!”

He approached me. Before I could stop myself, I growled again. “Grrr!”

Allison shook her head. “I thought only dogs growled.”

Ha! I thought. If a dog can growl, so can a cat! We can get just as annoyed as dogs. And scared. Even angry.

Andy shrugged his shoulders. “What are we going to do about it? How can we teach her not to growl?”

Puzzled, I glanced up at them. Growling had been the only way I could tell all those other cats at the shelter to stay away from my food. Why would I stop growling?

A common reason cats growl is to protect their food. But why do some cats feel the need to guard their food? Like me, some do so because they were in a situation where it was necessary. Some reasons cats guard their food are:

  • As kittens, they were separated from their mothers too young and never properly weaned.
  • They were forced to live outdoors and to scrounge or even fight for food.
  • They receive too little food or are fed too often during the day and their protective instinct gets aroused.
  • As part of a multi-cat household, it’s just the presence of other cats that triggers the instinct, even if none of the other cats are actively trying to steal their food.

After I’d cleaned off my plate, Allison leaned in and gently stroked my head. “Sweet Cinder. Your food is safe here. No one’s going to take it,” she whispered.

Wow! I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard! Allison understood what I felt. Instead of rushing off to play, I basked in her attention.

For a long time, nothing changed. Then one day at mealtime Allison didn’t immediately place my food in front of me. Instead she ordered me: “Sit!”

My heart began to race. I started to frantically turn in circles. Allison had been teaching me to “Sit,” but telling me to sit now didn’t make any sense. Was she trying to taunt me by withholding food? I could see my dish in her hand. Why wouldn’t she give it to me? When Allison wouldn’t budge I reluctantly sat, but the instant she put down my food, I growled and hunched over my dish. No one was going to keep me from my food!

“Cinder, you have terrible manners!” Allison scolded and took back my food. I began to whine and pant.

Allison’s face looked sad and she tried to soothe me. When I finally sat, she returned my dish. I instantly growled. I couldn’t help it.

Every day was like this. I started to hate mealtimes. Maybe Allison figured this out, because after a while she tried other ways to teach me this thing called “manners”. One day after preparing my food, she gave me a treat. I gobbled it up. “Good girl for not growling,” Allison murmured and then gave me another treat. I soon figured out that my Allison was giving me treats whenever I didn’t growl at her, but I still couldn’t quell my panic.

There are many ways to teach dogs and cats not to guard food. My pet mom has tried them all!

  • Don’t feed at the table. This only trains us to always expect food.
  • Restrict our exposure to food of any kind except at meals, which means you pet parents can’t eat in front of us.
  • Give meals at a set time, so we take comfort in knowing when the next meal will come.
  • Give attention, not food. When food is always used to meet our demands, we’ll always want food.
  • Play with us before meals. That way, we’ll be in a positive mood before our meals.
  • Feed us more than once a day. We like our independence and take comfort in having some control over when we eat.
  • Add more food to each meal so that we have the chance to feel full. Don’t let us get overweight, but just give us more food so that we feel more secure.
  • Make us work for our food by using puzzle feeders. These reward us when we figure out the puzzle, along with keeping us slim.
  • In multi-pet households, feed everyone in different areas or rooms. Separating where we eat eliminates competition and our need to bully.

One day Allison had a talk with me. She told me again that I didn’t have to worry about anyone stealing my food, and then told me that she was going to stop trying to change me. Instead she said that she and Andy were going to give me privacy at mealtimes. “We love you the way you are, with all your quirks, and we want you to be happy.” I touched her with my paw, thanking her. Maybe one day I’ll stop being stressed about food, but for now it feels good to be accepted as I am.