he growls and snarls if we pet him while he has a treat..can we correct?

by Sherrie
(St Catharines Ontario)

My question: I just adopted a 7 yr old shi tzu and he growls and snarls if we try to pet him when he has a treat. Can this be corrected as my boyfriend feels we should give him back.

Otherwise, he is such a quiet and good dog.


Our Answer:

First, bless your heart for adopting an adult dog. Not everyone is willing to give a “pre-owned” dog another chance at a forever home.

The bad news is that rescue dogs often come with behavioral problems that require patience and attention.

Your Shih Tzu is exhibiting a behavior known as food guarding and may be a sign that your dog had to compete for food or was underfed in his former home. I notice that you only mention the dog’s snarling and growling with treats, and I wonder if the behavior also extends to mealtime.

Begin by making certain your pet is fed regularly and with the right amounts of a high-quality food formulated for small dogs. Are you feeding him the same type of food he was getting in his former home? Sudden changes in diet may cause behavioral issues as well as upset stomachs.

Check the directions on your dog food for proper amounts. Typically an adult Shih Tzu should be fed 1 cup of food per day, preferably receiving ½ cup in the morning and ½ cup at night. If your dog is over or underweight consult his veterinarian for more specific feeding guides.

Shih Tzus are bred to be companions, they want nothing more than to please you and be near you. Training that focuses on strengthening your bond may help him overcome this fear-based behavior.

Try this multi-stepped solution for food guarding adapted from the ASPCA:

  • Give your dog a treat only after he’s earned it. The simple command to “sit” is enough to convey the message that the treat is a reward for positive behavior.

  • Once the treat is earned give it to the dog and stand still. If he leaves don’t follow him. Talk to him in a conversational tone (not overly friendly) while he eats. Every few seconds repeat something like “Hey, what are you eating?” But don’t use words like “good boy” if he’s growling. He shouldn’t receive praise while exhibiting the negative behavior. Don’t reach for the dog or the treat once it’s been given. The goal is to build trust while maintaining a presence. After several tries your dog should show signs of relaxing with his treat. When he’s eaten in a more relaxed way for 10 treats in a row move to the next step.

  • Repeat the process of command, reward and conversational talk, but this time take one step toward the dog while he’s eating. Repeat the process until he’s eaten in a more relaxed way for 10 treats in a row.

  • Continue the process by taking another step forward, kneeling down as he eats, extending a hand toward him and eventually petting him. If at any time he growl or snarls back up to the previous step and start again. With each step remember to allow at least 10 successful trials before moving to the next stage.

It’s natural for a dog to guard what’s precious to him, but food guarding can lead to other unwanted behaviors and needs to be addressed. Never reach into the dog’s mouth, tease or intimidate him with food – he’s already insecure and these kinds of dominate actions will only increase his fears.

Your boyfriend has probably made a mistake or two along the way, but you understand that relationships require compromise and understanding in order to develop. The same is true with your Shih Tzu. By adopting an adult dog you missed out on some of the joys, but also some of the chores of puppyhood. However, your Shih Tzu still needs your guidance and patience to become the best companion he can be. Don’t give up on him, teach him.

Comments for he growls and snarls if we pet him while he has a treat..can we correct?

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Feb 13, 2013
food aggressive
by: Karen

this can be difficult to retrain a dog that old, but you should give it a try.

I adopted a shihtzu a few years ago that did the same thing. It takes alot of time to retrain.

He probably didnt get enough food at one time & that is why he is that way. If he shows no other signs of aggression, I would try to work with him.

Feb 13, 2013
growls and snarls
by: Cera

some dogs grow and snarl when they have a treat or near a bowl of food. That's called protecting their food/meal/treat/whatever...

Just leave him alone let him/her eat without being disturbed. After your pet has eaten then you can play, pet your pet...Just leave your pet alone while she/he is eating whether its a treat, or meal....they're protecting their food.

I've had many a pets that protected their treats/food, bones, etc..How would you like it if someone would try to take your food off your plate, I don't think you would be a happy camper so leave the little fella alone fot s few minutes to enjoy his treats and meals.

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