By Dr. Sophia Yin
“We were on a cruise in Juneau when we got the report,” says the client sitting across from me. “The surgeon had to open his intestines in three places and they found part of a sock and a shoe. Three feet of the intestines was severely swollen and the intestines were close to busting open.” Dan explained that the surgery had gone well but this time Barnaby was septic, meaning that his illness had caused bacteria to spill into the blood causing a system-wide infection.
“We immediately flew home to see him. He was emaciated and his prognosis was bad. We were close to euthanizing him, but he was wagging his tail and he didn’t have a fever, so we waited overnight. He got a little better every day.” After transfusions, intravenous antibiotics, and a tremendous amount of supportive care, Barnaby survived and was now standing with his tail wagging in front of me.
This wasn’t Barnaby’s first expensive belly-ache. He had already been to surgery twice for eating foreign objects and had a history of eating both edible and inedible objects in the house for attention and when out on walks as part of his routine of vacuuming the sidewalks. Most people’s scavenging dogs are not nearly as compulsive about eating and ingesting objects the way Barnaby was, but the outcome of their dog’s behavior can be equally as dangerous. So can you fix this behavior and do so permanently? That depends partly on whether your dog’s just snuffling for snacks because he has nothing more entertaining to do or whether the scavenger hunt has developed into an addictive game.
In either case, the solution starts by first seeing the world from your dog’s point of view. To us, the ingestion of food wrappers, horse poop, and other smelly things seems gross. To the dog, it’s like walking into a room filled with French pastries and desserts and they’re free! It would be hard for you and me to avoid tasting one or two of the desserts, even if we had just eaten dinner. A warning from others to avoid these riches would be about as useful over the long-term as trying to force a kid to eat healthy when locked in a room filled with candy.
The trick fixing this errant eating behavior in dogs requires something much more refined than punishment. We have to modify the dog’s desire and make him somehow think that ignoring the tasty items or at least spitting them out on cue is more fun than gulping it down fast and then running from you. It is possible. Here’s the plan.
For dogs who are primarily on leash or nearby when they grab the loot, teaching a “love to leave-it” will do. Start in a warm up exercise to get him in the right mindset and make sure you’re in a non-distracting environment with a hungry pet . Let him know that you have bite-sized treats (preferably bits of his regular meal) and just stand still and wait for him to sit. If he wants the food he’ll try whatever he usually does to get his way such as vocalizing or jumping on you. Your job is to make like a tree and hold perfectly silent and still. Resist the temptation to blurt out “no” or push the pooch away from you. We want to keep the environment calm so he can figure it out on his own. Eventually, a light bulb will go on in his head and he’ll try a sit. As soon as he sits, give him the treat and then while he’s still sitting and focused on you, give him a few additional treats for remaining calmly seated. Next move a few steps away and repeat the exercise. Practice in sets of ten sits in a row until he regularly sits quickly and automatically. The goal here is that the dog has “sit” fresh on his mind as his default good behavior for getting what he wants.
Next we’ll apply this to leave-it, where saying “leave-it” will come to mean get your smelly nose or mouth off that thing and come to me to get something better. Here are two versions.
Version 1: Start with your dog on leash and make sure you keep your leash-holding hand glued to your side so the leash length does not vary. Toss a treat out of your dog’s range. When he gets to the end of the leash make sure you don’t budge. He’ll pull and pull and then realize “Hey this isn’t working.” Eventually, he’ll look up towards you and perform his default behavior of sitting. Immediately, give him a treat followed by several more one-by-one until he continues to focus on you instead of looking to the treat on the floor. When he’ll look at you for at least two seconds even after he’s gotten a treat, then give him the ultimate reward by releasing him with a verbal “Ok” and walk towards the food on the floor so that he can get it. If you never want him to pick food up off the ground, then instead, walk over and pick it up for him while he remains seated and then give it to him while he’s still sitting. In both cases, he’s learning he can have the thing on the ground if he just asks your permission. And he may get something better for sitting and asking you first. In reality, he can’t have everything on the ground, but he won’t think of that if you make it a habit. Once he reliably comes to sit in front of you within one second after you drop food on the floor or right after he gets to the end of the leash you can start training the leave-it cue by saying “leave-it” in a happy tone of voice right after you toss the treat.
Version 2: You’ll start by blocking your dog from getting the treat by standing right in front of him. Note, similarly in basketball, you’re not allowed to grab him or his leash. Rather you have to outmaneuver him by quickly moving to block his path. If you think he’s faster than you, then you may want to practice near a wall or in the hallway so that you can use the walls to help block him too. Start with him in a standing position and conspicuously drop a treat in front of him, but in a way that you can step between him and the treat as soon as you drop it. At first he may move from side to side trying to get to the treat. Keep outmaneuvering him until he stops and looks at you and then finally sits. Reward him immediately once he sits and then intermittently until he keeps looking at you. Next stand aside so he has a clear path to the treat but don’t let him charge for it on his own. Block him if he starts to look at the treat or gets up to move towards the treat. If he remains seated and looks at you for two seconds, then release him to get the treat or pick it up and give it to him. As with Version 1, you can train the cue word “leave-it”, once you know he will reliably back off and sit when he sees you block him.
Now, practice around the house and on walks so your dog learns that this is the rule for picking up dropped food all the time. While cooking or walking around the house randomly drop food, but be ready to block your dog from getting to it. Also have tasty rewards handy so he finds it worthwhile to wait. Try this ten times a day for several days in a row, so that the good behavior quickly becomes a habit and generalizes to all the time in the house. Do the same with him outside where you set “food” that you or a friend “plant” along your walk. Remember, the more you practice and get it right, the faster he will develop a habit of responding to “leave-it.”
Now if you’re on a walk and your dog wants to sniff something inappropriate you need only tell him “leave-it”. In fact, yesterday my Jack Russell Terrier, Jonesy and I were standing around at the bus station. I saw him pick something up so I told him, “Leave-it, Little guy.” Ptoeey, a chicken bone popped right out of his mouth and flew onto the floor and Jonesy bounced over to me just in case I had something better.
If you have a dog who spends his entire walk trying to clean up the street, then once you have him focused on you reward him every several steps. Systematically increase the amount of steps he needs to take while focused on you in order to earn a reward. For this type of dog, the walks should become about interacting and playing with you instead of scavenging food off the ground. Better for him to earn treats by looking at you while walking down the street than by scavenging on his walk.
For dogs who scavenge when off leash, such as at the park you’ll need to add a fantastic come when called. For instance, several months ago, Jonesy was chasing squirrels in a field. From 100 yards away I could see him pick something up. I called “Jonesy, Come” and he sped back with the uneaten item—a dead squirrel. “Leave-it”, I told him and he immediately released it and got something equally good. Then he went back to his business of looking for live squirrels.
Unfortunately, these solutions do require that you supervise your dog. While some dogs may stop the scavenging altogether, others can never be trusted. In those cases, where you just can’t keep an eye out all the time, it may be best to train him to enjoy wearing a basket muzzle.