A Dog Shouldn’t Bite the Hand That Feeds It


        As a child I was taught to never bother a dog while he’s eating. Certainly good advice since messing with a dog at dinner time can be asking for trouble. Food-related aggression problems are not uncommon. The success rate for treating them is relatively high, but can entail a significant time commitment and some risk. On the other hand, prevention can be safe and relatively easy.  Here are some tips to insure that your puppy will be relaxed and safe around his food:

Things to do:

  • Make dinner time family time – Don’t ignore the pup when he eats.  Sit on the floor with him.  Feed dry food from your hand.  Occasionally hold the bowl in your lap and allow him to eat.
  • Teach the pup to look forward to having people nearby – Every now and then, drop a small chunk of canned food or lean chicken in his bowl as you stand near or walk by.
  • Associate food with gentle touch and handling – During a few dinners each week, practice getting the pet used to being touched while he’s eating. Gently touch him, then promptly hand a few pieces of food.  Repeat, gradually touching him all over.  The pup learns that touch means food is coming, not being taken away.
  • Feed the pup enough – If you have a healthy pup that has plenty of energy and no health problems, but is thin and acts like he’s starved – then he probably is. Feed him more. Hungry dogs are more likely to guard their food.
  • Socialize frequently – Have friends of all ages visit as often as possible. Ask them to hand feed small amounts of dry food or small treats, piece by piece. Do the same thing when you meet people on walks. When the pup learns to sit, request a sit before they give the food. Poorly socialized dogs are usually anxious around unfamiliar people and the anxiety can be manifested as aggression near food.
  • Start obedience early – Teach the puppy to respond to obedience cues as soon as possible. Enroll in a puppy class at eight to ten weeks of age. Take it through a basic obedience class at six to twelve months of age. Obedient dogs are less likely to be aggressive.
  • Establish a relationship in which the family is in control – Remind the pup that you are in charge by asking him to sit before he gets anything he wants or needs (food, toys, play access to outdoors, social attention). Frequently reinforcing deferential behavior is a safe, effective and humane way of accomplishing this.

Things to avoid:

  • Frequently snatching the food away from the pup while he is eating to show him “you own the food  – This will just irritate the puppy and can actually cause food bowl guarding and aggression. I’d think about biting someone who did that to me!
  • Physical “leadership exercises” – Don’t try to teach the pup you are the boss by rolling him on his back, shaking him by the scruff or by using any other rough techniques. This can cause distrust of people, make the pup hand-shy and lead to defensive aggression.
  • Punishment – Physical corrections and harsh training techniques weaken the bond, cause distrust and can lead to aggression. If your pup growls, do not physically discipline him or harshly scold him. Immediately contact a pet behaviorist for instruction on how to handle the problem.

These techniques should only be used with friendly, young puppies.  They should not be attempted with adult dogs or any dogs that are already showing signs of aggression.  If your pet is already exhibiting aggressive behavior, seek the help of a professional.


Cats and Punishment

Cats don’t do well with punishment, especially interactive social punishment. Swatting, thumping, grabbing and spanking are more likely to cause the pet to be fearful of you and, perhaps aggressive, than to learn your rules.


Yelling isn’t even a good idea. Cat’s often begin exhibiting avoidance behaviors after being yelled at a few times. For example, if you repeatedly yell at your cat for scratching furniture, it won’t be long before you notice that the pet is leaving the room whenever you enter.

Another downside to interactive social punishment is that smart cats quickly learn to be sneaky and only engage in the behavior when family members are not around.

Think positive
You really need to take a positive approach when it comes to shaping a cat’s behavior. If the pet scratches furniture, provide a scratching post and toss a treat to it every time it makes contact. If it gets on counters, provide climbing areas, perches and “kitty condos” for the pet to climb around on. Boxes and paper grocery bags also provide exploration areas to substitute for counter tops. Hide treats in those areas to encourage the pet to explore them.

If using distractions and rewarding desirable behavior doesn’t get the job done, then you may need to consider using something aversive to stop the behavior. But is is very important that you do this in a way so that the cat doesn’t associate anything he dislikes with you.

Stopping behaviors
Cat on furniture
A squirt from a water gun may be helpful to stop unwanted behavior but you should use it without saying anything or looking directly at the cat. If the he doesn’t realize the interruption is coming from you, you are less likely to bruise your relationship with him.

Scraminal - Motion-activated alarm to keep pets off furniture, counters, plants, etc.


There are also products available, like the “Scraminal”, that make a loud noise when a pet gets on a counter top, sofa or Christmas tree. The Scraminal is very effective, and applies a correction without anyone being near the pet. It is one of our more popular behavior products.

Doorknob alarm

Doorknob alarm

Door knob alarms which can be purchased at travel stores, electronic stores and home security stores can also be used to keep cats away from problem areas. They can be hung on trash cans, plants, drapes and pantry door handles.

Alarms should not be used with pets that are extremely sound sensitive or nervous. The volume can easily be reduced, though, by taping gauze over the front surface of the product where the sound comes out.

Still another way to keep a cat off the sofa is to take a section of vinyl carpet protector and turn it upside down so the knubs (which are normally are used to keep it from sliding around on the surface of the carpet) are facing up.

Don’t Take Good Behavior for Granted

GoldenLeashMouthOne of the most powerful tools you can use to shape your pet’s behavior is positive reinforcement.

All too often, families rely predominantly on punishment to teach their pets. They punish the pets for chewing shoes, scratching the couch, peeing on the bed or barking at the neighbor’s children. Good behaviors, such as chewing the right toy, scratching a scratching post, eliminating in the yard and not barking at critters in the yard are often taken for granted.  A good plan is to make a list of important behaviors you want your pet to display and then actively look for the behaviors to reward. Praise the pet when he is doing a desirable behavior and occasionally give a small treat if the behavior is exceptional – like not jumping on aunt Gladys when she walks through the door.

Parents with young children are quick to brag to friends and neighbors about how good their pets are around the children, when they really should be sharing their pride with their pets. Any and all tolerant or acceptable social behavior around the kids – not jumping on them, not growling near food or toys or when jumped on or pulled by the collar – should immediately be rewarded.

Catching the pet doing something right and reinforcing the behavior is especially important when you’re training against problem behaviors.  Yelling at the dog when he jumps on you just communicates what you don’t want himto do. But more importantly, the pet needs to learn how he is supposed to behave during a greeting. Teaching a solid sit-stay at the door is an important part of training against jumping on people. I emphasize ‘training’ because if you just occasionally attempt to guide the pet into the behavior you want, your progress will be slow. Effectively changing behavior requires practice and repetition. If you really want your pet to behave when you greet him, then you need to practice greetings a dozen time daily, just like you do when you’re teaching the pet to sit or lie down.

Let’s face it, we’re not much different from our pets when it comes to acquiring behaviors and completing tasks. Wouldn’t you rather learn to do something for a tasty dessert rather than because someone is holding a stick over your head?