(Note: this is a past Hyde Park Living column)
A friend told me the other day her dog had adopted a very, well, unpleasant interest…or unpleasant to her anyway. He loves rolling in dog ‘poop’. Why on earth would any animal find eating dog poop something fun to do? And how can you put this horrible behavior to rest?
This actually is a common enough problem that if you look online, there are many websites and articles devoted to just this topic.
So, why would any animal eat poop? Well, let’s think about what we know about behavior. Behavior happens because it serves a purpose for the animal – to achieve something positive or reinforcing (from the perspective of the animal doing the behavior), or to move away from something negative. Given a choice animals tend to do things that are the most rewarding to them. And when a behavior has positive consequences, it is going to continue…even strengthen.
We may never truly know what our dog is thinking when he eats poop but we can hypothesize several positive consequences – sensory feedback (yes, a dog may actually like the taste of dog poop especially when he is hungry) or social feedback (maybe after eating dog poop, his favorite human becomes very animated in running away from him as an example), or it could be that he has some nutritional deficiency.
Punishing our dog for this behavior WILL NOT teach our dog what TO DO instead of the problem behavior and will not teach us how to find positive solutions; but it may create aggression, apathy, escape/avoidance behaviors or generalized fear. When we look at modifying a pet behavior using the most positive, least intrusive way we look at what we can do to change the environment so as to set our pets up for success. We do that by either changing the consequences to the behavior or changing the setting event (antecedent) for the behavior.
I spoke with Donna Hill, a Canadian dog trainer who uses only positive reinforcement strategies to train assistance dogs, about this recently.
Let’s look at both. We’ll start with the situation of your dog in your own yard. From a behavior analysis perspective, these are some potential scenarios: Possible antecedents – dog has access to poop, dog smells/sees poop. Behavior – dog eats poop. Possible positive consequences – tasty meal (I’ll never understand), reaction from human.
One way to manage the behavior is simply not giving your dog access to the poop in the first place. This would require you to always be watchful of your dog and either removing the poop right away (or removing your dog) or teaching your dog a strong drop it or leave it behavior. This isn’t always practical because many people have fenced yards and want to leave their dog outside unsupervised. Donna had this problem and learned that apples make poop taste bad. She eliminated her problem by simply adding a little apple to her dog’s diet, and thus making the consequence of eating poop no longer a pleasant experience. That solved her situation.
You also should make sure this nasty behavior is not due to a health issue. It’s always a good idea to have your dog examined by your vet to make sure the underlying cause is not a medical one.
If your dog is eating poop outside your yard, antecedent change is probably the simplest solution by simply not giving your dog access. Having your dog on a leash when outside your yard will not allow him to wander off and find that tasty treat. Teaching the ‘drop it’ or ‘leave it’ behavior will also allow you to call your dog off his drive toward the treat. Remember though that any new behavior should be taught in an environment with minimal distractions first (NOT when your dog is highly charged).