5 Reasons Your Dog Scarfs Harmful Foods and What to Do About It


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Although it is winter as I write this, and Food Safety Month was back in September, I wanted to dedicate some time to a discussion of dogs and why they seem to go snout first for things that can, quite honestly, kill them. After all, as I type this, Christmas is a few weeks out and I worry about the panicked calls I’ll get from friends whose puppos have managed to ingest things noted for their toxicity or health risks.

“Ash,” one call will begin, “Roscoe ate the garbage again…can dogs eat coffee beans?”

“Um,” another will begin, “I know chocolate is bad for a dog, but…”

“Hey, how’s it going?” still another will probably start, “I know it’s late, but I just found a small can of macadamia nuts…empty.”

And usually almost every single one of the calls will end with a “why?” question. “Why does Roscoe eat stuff that can kill him? Doesn’t he know it’s bad?”

The thing is, he doesn’t. Dogs navigate through our world successfully only if we help them with this challenge. Just like little kids need to be told that a beautifully glowing ring on the stove top is a definite “No!” and that it is “Hot!”, dogs need similar instructions. And sadly, just as that child might get a painful burn through their own willfulness, so too may a dog become gravely ill by ignoring our advice. The thing about the dogs, though, is that they may be unable to resist and not simply ignoring us.

The Reasons Dogs Just Go for It

So, just why is it that dogs go after things that can or have already made them sick? Is it because they’ve not been made sick by certain things in the past? Can dogs drink coffee or gobble chocolate and yet fail to learn the lesson that it makes them sick?

There are 5 very good reasons that dogs eat things they shouldn’t, and at this time of year it is important you are clear about them and help your dog to stay healthy and safe.

So, why is it that dogs eat potential toxins? With dogs, you’ll find the following five reasons behind this risky behavior:

(1) You are the reason – I know, I sound like a terrible person suggesting this, but the number one reason that a dog is able to gobble up something that they shouldn’t is because of their owners.

For one thing, food safety has to start with us and it has to involve more than just food. Here is what I mean: How often do you replace or update the dog’s toys? A bored dog or a dog who has nothing to mouth or chew may become interested in anything that they can eat for a bit of amusement or entertainment. So, be sure your dog has something to chew on every day (especially if you are out of the house for long stretches of time). It doesn’t have to be food – chew toys are just fine and even better are food puzzles that take a lot of time and motivation. And be sure that dangerous and tempting things are not within reach.

How much exercise does your dog get? Again, boredom in many breeds leads to unwanted behavior. The bored puppo left alone and without anything to keep them busy or distract them is likely to start digging and chewing. This can mean swallowing huge chunks of foam used to stuff the sofa or destroying plants and eating potential toxins. Be sure your dog is both exercised and given something to gnaw throughout the day.

How much training have you done around any of these issues? Have you taken any steps to teach your dog that you are in charge, that specific behaviors are not allowed, and that there are better and more rewarding things they can do instead of chewing, digging or destroying? If you don’t train a dog or tell them what is expected, how on earth are they to know what they should, shouldn’t, can or cannot do?

Are you the one who brings risky foods into the house? If so, why are they within reach of the dog? Is coffee bad for dogs? Yes! Put it where the dog cannot possibly get at it, and also remember that coffee grounds and dogs don’t mix. The same goes for tea and used tea bags, all kinds of foods and spices, medications, and more. No matter what it is that should never be eaten, the first step in preventing it from occurring is by not bringing it into the home OR storing it in a place that is impossible for even the slickest and smartest dog to get it.

As one expert said about this, “dogs eat things that are toxic to them — including table scraps and other human foods — because we freely offer them! Is your trash can securely fastened when you leave the dog at home alone? Did you leave your socks on the floor? Did you leave the bathroom door open, and your rubber ducky easily accessible on the side of the bathtub?”

It all begins with you, so be sure you’re not freely offering these harmful foods and non-foods. And with mention of non-foods…

(2) They are omnivores – Do you know the etymology behind the word omnivore? It is Latin and comes from the word omnis (all) and vorare (to devour). In other words, dogs are creatures that eat everything. In the past, I’ve written about vegetarian diets for dogs, and explained that they are, technically, workable because dogs are omnivores (unlike cats who must have meat). However, I’ve also noted that most dogs are healthier when they have an authentically omnivorous diet with fish and meat rather than just fruits, veggies, grains and some dairy or eggs.

Keep in mind, though, that as omnivores dogs are just going to want to gobble up anything that doesn’t smell truly repugnant to them. There is very little “why?” when a dog is asking itself whether or not it should chew up and swallow something. Really, can you see a dog thinking, “Dogs and coffee…hmm, I’ve heard something about this from the guys at the park. Maybe I’d better not…” That will never happen.

Dog's Harmful Foods

Dogs don’t seem to use much reservation or deep thought before eating something, and this is why they are so often found eating things that are risky or not even, technically, food.

It is why people like me and millions of other dog fanatics get asked questions that include words like, dogs and coffee, grapes, socks, rocks, rubber ducks, chocolate, or macadamia nuts in a single sentence. For instance, all of those questions I noted at the beginning of this article originate from the fact that dogs are omnivores that consume without questioning.

So, as I said in the first point – don’t provide them with the potentially harmful foods and other items. However, you must also be vigilant about giving them an opportunity to exercise that omnivorous nature.

Be sure that your dog is not on the prowl for anything to eat by keeping a close track on their daily diet, habits, weight, exercise and so on. I free feed dry food for a few hours per day in addition to wet meals in the morning and the evening. Janice and Leroy may attempt to scam friends and guests for a nibble of something particularly delicious, but they are entirely free of the “I must forage or starve” habit that is part of the omnivore’s regular routine. They don’t look around in boredom or hunger for something to eat or chew because their dietary and psychological needs are met.

Yet, it is entirely possible that you are doing optimal feeding and your dog is still going to forage. That is the next reason for a dog scarfing potentially harmful things.

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(3) Digestive problems and/or nutritional deficiency – If I have gotten 1,000 calls from friends asking me “can dogs drink coffee?”, then I must have had 10,000 calls from friends trying to find out if dogs should be eating poop or scarfing huge amounts of grass from the yard.

Should they? Even the experts are not 100% sure. There are many reasons given to those two behaviors. Some say that they eat grass and even poop for digestive reasons, such as grass scrubbing out the digestive tract or poop giving the dog a specific nutrient it requires. Some even argue that these are ancient behaviors that were once performed by the wolf-like ancestors of today’s dogs. The point being – the experts are still unsure about the precise causes for a dog to gobble grass or empty the cat box.

Yet, there are times when a dog eats something that is a clear indicator of a deficiency. For instance, sand, concrete and clay (dry clay or grout) are often indicators of a health issue known as hemolytic anemia. Yet, it could also be a condition known as Pica. Nutritional deficiency is seen as one of the most common causes for this issue, and it usually finds dogs eating inedible materials such as fabric, paper, plastic, chalk, string, rocks and more.

What can be done about it? Pay attention to the materials the dog is eating and speak with a vet to determine if these are compounds that a dog might ingest in order to supply a missing nutrient. For example, many dogs eat cat poop because they are deficient in protein. Some dogs go after certain risky foods due to electrolyte imbalance. Some may have an upset stomach or even parasites and seeking a way to alleviate symptoms. So, first things first, talk to a vet and work with them to figure out what could be missing or causing a digestive issue.

Then, consider pica. If it is pica, you need to train the dog to stop eating harmful materials. This is best done through the use of deterrents. For instance, if your dog is persistently raiding the litter box, remove it and keep it somewhere the dog cannot reach it. If they eat their own poop or that of other dogs in the house, you can use specialty supplements that cause the dog’s waste to smell horribly (to the dog) and have a terrible taste (as if it actually tasted good in the first place! Ick!).

If you think the dog has developed pica, just keep an eye on the things they try to eat and eliminate them from the dog’s surroundings. Use positive reinforcement to train in an alternate behavior. For example, clicker training is great for pica issues. When the dog goes after the forbidden material or food, use the clicker to get their attention. Say “Good” or “Yes” when they look at you. Hold up a treat and when they walk away from the undesirable item and eat the treat, praise them. Soon, they may associate the desire to eat the forbidden item with paying a visit to you instead, and though you’ll need to be careful with too many treats, it will be much better than the vet bills for a dog who swallows all kinds of plastic, stone, sand or other materials.

(4) It’s stress related – You eat out of boredom or stress (at least, most humans do), and dogs do as well. Stress or anxiety are very common factors in a dog eating something potentially harmful. As an example of this, one of my friends adopted a puppy over the summer break, and when she and her kids went back to the usual routine (the kids to school and my friend to her part-time job), the perfectly behaved puppy went a bit insane. The second day of school, they returned home to a few scented candles in bits and pieces all over the house, the trash everywhere, and a corner of the leather sofa gone. A rush to the vet confirmed the dog had chewed but not swallowed anything dangerous, but it also confirmed they had a problem.

The young dog had gotten used to being surrounded by the joys and comforts of human companionship all day and night. No matter where that little cutie wandered, he found a friend to pet him, snuggle or play. Then, suddenly, he was alone for around six hours at a time! He had no comfort, and so to relieve his anxiety he took to chewing, digging, gnawing and eating.

To overcome stress or anxiety eating and chewing, you need to use a lot of different techniques that offer the dog comfort and distraction. I’ve covered this issue in the past, but let’s do a quick review. If a dog is suffering from separation anxiety, it is likely that their chewing symptom is not the only issue to emerge. They might soil inside, bark or howl, pace a lot or try to escape and run away. Be sure that it is not a medical issue before you assume it is separation anxiety, and then use “counter conditioning” or “desensitizing”.

This would mean simply getting the dog to feel that time alone or the family’s daily departure is not a bad thing at all. For instance, buying the dog a puzzle toy that takes up 30 minutes of time is a good idea, so is giving them a safe toy to snuggle or play with during the day. If the dog is a bit more stressed than a treat can overcome, you’ll have to dedicate time to slowly get the dog to change how it feels about being apart from you.

This can mean changing your “departure cues” and the result they create. As a simple example, let’s say one of the last things you do before leaving the house is picking up the car keys on a table by the door. Your dog is well aware of this. So, your task is to pick up those keys, let the dog take note, and NOT leave. This prevents the keys from triggering anxiety when you do leave. Dogs need “fake outs” many times to alter their attitude about the cues, but it is the best “first step”.

You must also plan a lot of “short absences” as a way of preventing your dog from becoming upset when you are gone. For instance, give them a chew toy, pick up the keys and leave. Return in 30 minutes – before their time playing is through. This tells the dog that you are out of sight, but that you will be back soon. Gradually lengthen the time you are away and eventually the dog is fine with your absence for several hours at a time.

Always remain calm and don’ over soothe the dog as this can make them just as edgy as if you were to just get up and walk out the door. It takes weeks for most dogs to master this problem, and you may find you need to pay someone to come into the house throughout the day to alleviate a very stressed dog’s anxiety.

If you find you just cannot prevent a dog from experiencing severe anxiety, it could be time to consult an expert or even find a way to take the dog with you whenever you go out. It could be that your routine turns into a stop at a friend or family member’s home and they provide “day care”, or you may need to enroll your puppo in day care to end the anxiety and the risky chewing and eating.

What I want you to recognize here is that a dog cannot help but feel this way, and you need to do what you can to alleviate the anxiety. Trying to train them out of the chewing and eating is only going to make other symptoms worse. As I said, digging and chewing are the most common indicators of anxiety because they are a natural outlet and comfort. Take that away and your dog may exhibit everything from constant soiling, Coprophagia (which is when they eat their own feces), and aggression, to non-stop anxiety and whining.

None of us, dogs included, have a lot of control over what causes us to feel stress, but as a pet parent, you do have it in your hands to recognize that your puppo is not willfully eating things that could actually kill them and to take any steps necessary to reduce their emotional upset.

Then, there are the dogs who eat whatever they feel like eating because they can.

(5) Because they can…without any penalties – Our family refers to this behavior as counter surfing, and though it can be hilarious in the different viral videos made by owners who capture their puppos in the act, it can also be harmful or deadly. For example, if you watch the video at the link above, you will see fairly astonishing stuff in the first 15 seconds. A dog takes a sandwich directly from a small child’s hand. It is actually going into the child’s mouth and the big dog reaches in and snags it. I gasped and thought, “That’s not funny, the dog could have bitten the kid’s face!”. There is a clip of a Dachshund opening a cabinet beneath the sink, and it looks like it is full of household cleaners as well as dry food – a real disaster in the making!

This sort of food stealing is not really cute when you realize that it puts the dog at risk, along with some of the people around it. We know that dogs and coffee, chocolate, grapes, certain nuts, and all kinds of other foods don’t mix, but neither do dogs and stovetops, countertops, dining tables, cabinets, high chairs and all the rest.

Typically, dogs will do this (and continue to do so) until stopped. It is a natural behavior because it is instinctual (remember, dogs are omnivores and that means they scavenge).

And I want to get up on my soap box for a few minutes here and say that I have come to a firm belief that dogs counter surf and plate raid because we humans have shown them that many of our foods are just so, so tasty! I read a fairly scary article earlier this year and it explained that “Sales of dog and cat treats have raced past sales of actual pet food over the past five years…[and humans] are snaking more than ever…noshing between meals two to three times a day.” Because we are actively humanizing and replacing human families with pets to a degree never seen before, we are also involving our pets in our snacking. We share our human treats with pets, and reports show that more than half of all dogs and cats are obese because of it!

Experts advise we steer away from human snacks and even most pre-packaged snacks and try to get our dogs more interested in natural foods. Since our palates and dogs’ palates are similar, just about anything we like they will like. So, toss them a baby carrot rather than a biscuit or human snack. Share a slice of cheese or scoop of peanut butter instead of a doughnut or piece of that burger. You’ll do your dog’s health a favor and start to deter them from interest in counter surfing.

Yet, we also learned that dogs steal food and other things because they are hungry, bored or nutrient deficient.

But, honestly, they also do it because they can. If you do not use any sort of negative conditioning (I do NOT mean negative training or harshness), they won’t stop snitching from surfaces or people’s plates and hands. The lack of full obedience training is never good, and as one expert noted, “A lack of obedience training can lead to this type of behavior. Some dogs steal food simply because they have never been properly taught that it is inappropriate.”

And I can hear many of you asking, “And just how does one do that, Ash?” Well, I’ll tell about it…below.

So, our dogs steal food and eat things they shouldn’t because of our failings, because of their omnivorous natures, potential deficiencies and health issues, anxiety or stress, or because they can get away with it. That means it is up to us to do all that we can to teach them that they shouldn’t ever help themselves to just anything at any time, and that they must hand over anything we ask them to hand over. It also means we have to show our dogs that being an opportunist, i.e. stealing when our backs are turned or when we are not home, is not satisfying or acceptable either.

That is a big order, but it is actually not so difficult to achieve.

Your Food, Inedible Objects, Coffee Grounds and Dogs: How to Prevent Disasters

A dog that helps itself to food, inedible objects or potential toxins like coffee grounds is a dog on the way to a disaster. You can avert that disaster following a few simple steps:

  • Change the dog’s emotional perspective on food or other items they shouldn’t eat – If food or getting away with grabbing something and chewing it up is an exciting thing for a dog, you need to find a way to turn things around.

One way to do that is to actually trigger their excitement and then shut it down. This is the method recommended by Cesar Milan, and it involves putting a bowl of food or the item they seem to chew or destroy. It could be the kitchen garbage can, a shoe, or anything else. Just bring that item close to the dog and let them stand up or show they are excited to see this.

Then, ask them to sit and stay. Use the commands and make them obey. The dog is still going to be emotionally excited about the food or item, and you will want to place it a few feet from the dog. As soon as they move towards it, make a sharp sound like an loud, quacking “Uhuh!” or a hissing “Tsk”.

This will get the dog out of that excited mood, but you still need to reinforce the unhappy feeling. You do that by nudging the food or object a bit closer to the dog, and if they make a move, repeat the loud and unpleasant sound. Ultimately, the dog is going to back away from rather than get closer to the item. This has changed their emotional response to it and sometimes that is enough.

  • You can also reward resistance – In the past, I’ve told you how to teach your dogs to go to their place, often a bed, a room or even a cage. Just use this same command when you see your dog sniffing around counters or acting as if they are going to steal something to chew or eat. What you are doing here is telling them that leaving the food or the item alone is always going to mean they get rewarded for it by simply heading to their safe space.
  • Take it away – One thing that is a must is that you must get anything the dog should not have – whether food or an object – away from them. They cannot have their cake (or shoe) and eat it too. I’ve told you how to train your dog in the “leave it” command, and that should be enough to get them to drop anything stolen. If they refuse to drop, you need to dig into some serious training because you now have a safety issue.

If you have a dog who is stubborn about eating what they want, you need to use booby traps. There are any number of bitter or hot sprays that make everything completely unpalatable. You can also use simple motion sensors that light up or make unpleasant sounds if a dog nears something that is forbidden. As an example, dogs and coffee grounds are particularly lethal, and if you have a garbage raider, a motion detector that makes a scary sound can be mounted near the trash and scare the pants off a dog who tries to go dumpster diving.

I know that this goes a bit contrary to my usual thoughts on training, but a dog who persistently eats things, and it is only because they are getting away with it, needs non-stop training and deterrents in order to remain safe.

There are so many reasons our dogs snitch food or chew up stuff they shouldn’t, and we’ve considered them all here. Be patient about this issue because there can be multiple reasons your puppo is being naughty or persistent. Remember that dogs and coffee, leather, plastic, most nuts, chocolate and oh-so-many other things don’t mix. It is your job to find ways of preventing such combinations and helping keep your beloved dog safe at all times…even when something deliciously tasty is involved!

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