Dear Bark: Our adorable dog Mercury eats everything in sight—mostly small socks, but also napkins, dog toys, food wrappers and so much more. We’ve tried to train him to “leave it” and “drop it” and sometimes it works, but usually he becomes possessive of whatever it is and will choke down said item like a snake. Recently, he had emergency surgery to remove a child's sock. He’s now restricted from most of the house so we can keep an eye on him but he's also taken to eating fruit pits in the yard. What do you advise?
—Mercury & Co
Nobody wants their dogs to be picky eaters, but we do want them to be discriminating enough to draw the line at things that are not food, since a) it’s dangerous for them to eat socks or the other things Mercury has ingested, and b) it’s a considerable financial strain to have a send-your-vet-to-Europe dog. Here are some suggestions to minimize both the danger and the expense, and to hopefully stop your dog from eating dangerous items.
Up your prevention game. Helping Mercury stay safe (and keeping yourself sane!) will always involve some management. You’re doing the right thing by restricting his access. To keep Mercury’s insides free of items that should remain on the outside, keep his favorite inedibles out of his reach. I’m not suggesting that you Marie Kondo your home to the point that visitors think your dog is the only thing that “sparks joy” for you, but known offenders have to be unattainable.
A deterrent such as a citrus or bitter apple spray might work and if it does, make use of it. (Honestly, since they rarely seem to be effective with such eager eaters, I’d be surprised if it did, but would feel irresponsible if I didn’t give it a mention.)
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Provide extra enrichment. Some dogs develop a habit of swallowing things out of boredom; a dog looking for something to do often explores with his mouth, and for some, ingestion of the treasure is their next logical step. Adding stimulation to his life can help with this, so, as much as you can, add more fun and activity to Mercury’s days. Consider new activities such as agility or nose work, more walks or outings, short training sessions throughout the day, play sessions or car rides.
Another option is to feed him via sturdy enrichment toys. He needs to be able to chew on things that he can’t swallow or that are digestible if he does eat them. Kong Extreme toys in the largest size are a good choice for many dogs. Stuff one with wet food and freeze it, then give it to Mercury. Since he is so voracious, this requires thoughtful consideration. Run every possibility by your veterinarian and supervise Mercury whenever he has such an item.
And, while it’s not the quick fix we’d all like, more positive reinforcement training can also help. Improving his response to “drop it” and “leave it” is important so that his possessive behavior (you can’t take it away if it’s in my belly!) doesn’t lead to harm. Start working on these cues with items he’s not very excited about and that are too big to be swallowed. Use the tastiest treats you can find so it’s worth it to him to do the right thing. Trading up (“give me that mediocre item and I will give you this far better one”) is a great way to improve this behavior.
Another training strategy: since seeing you head toward him prompts your dog to swallow things he shouldn’t, instead of chasing him down, encourage him to move away from items that pose a risk. To do this, toss a handful of treats to another spot in the room so the dog has to get up to get them. Then retrieve the item while he munches away.
Increase his exercise. Though not the cure-all it is sometimes made out to be, there is no doubt that exercise can help. Dogs who are tired and content from a hard effort, preferably off leash, are less likely to get into whatever trouble they are prone to find, and more likely to sleep.
I know how hard this problem can be, especially if there are small children at home as they tend to leave things out and about; if there were an easier way, I would share it. Paws crossed that some of these tips work for you and your sweet Mercury enjoys the world in safe ways from here on out!