Dear Bark: Our adorable dog 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?
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 dogs to eat socks or the other things your dog has ingested, and b) it’s a considerable financial strain to have a send-your-vet-to-Europe dog. This sounds like a condition called pica in dogs, a compulsive behavior, where dogs crave and eat things that are not considered food. Here are some suggestions to minimize both the danger and the expense of pica in dogs, and to hopefully stop your dog from eating dangerous items like rocks.
Up your prevention game
Helping your dog stay safe (and keeping yourself sane!) will always involve some management. You’re doing the right thing by restricting his access. To keep your dog'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. This might be a lot easier said than done.
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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.)
Provide extra enrichment
Some dogs develop a habit of swallowing strange things (also known as pica in dogs) 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 your dog'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 the dog. Since he is so voracious, this requires thoughtful consideration. Run every possibility by your veterinarian and supervise your dog whenever he has such an item.
Use Reinforcement Training
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.
Animal behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, suggests something similar on her post on pica in dogs.
Another and even better way to manage pica is to use the object itself as a cue to get something better. This only works if the dog is focused on only one type of object, but it’s a favorite because it takes the owner out of the picture and teaches the dog to make the decision herself. That’s the beauty of this kind of operant conditioning, in which the dog learns that if she seeks socks (for example), she’s going to get chicken if she turns around and goes back into the kitchen. If you know the basics of training, and if the object is consistently identifiable, and IF the dog is not so compulsive it has no control over itself, this is the way to go. I know, lots of ifs… but if possible, it’s a great thing to try.
Increase the Dog's 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 dog enjoys the world in safe ways from here on out!