Okay, raise your hand if you have known (or lived with) a dog that raided a cat litter box? What about a dog that could not resist a good old stinky sneaker? Underwear thief? All of the above? Dogs are known for being a bit odd in the things that they ingest or chew up, and yet experts have explanations for a lot of these unwelcome behaviors. As I wrote in my article about “11 Common Dog Toys That Could Be Dangerous,” dogs love to chew, and it can often get them into a lot of trouble. Things like rope, toys and products designed specifically for dogs (including natural chews, i.e. pigs’ ears), can become lodged in the throat, stop up the digestive tract and lead to serious health issues and even death.
Yet, dogs don’t always eat normal things or traditionally “odd” things – i.e. cat poop and shoes. In this article, I want to look at several bizarre choices made by dogs, try to understand what the appeal of those items might have been, and what you can do to avoid finding yourself in a similar scenario. Before that, though, I want to discuss a condition known as “pica”.
Pica is something that humans experience as well as dogs, and it is defined by experts as “the abnormal habit of ingesting non-nutritive items like dirt, sand, clay, paper, chalk, fabric or plastic”. There are more common forms of it, such as coprophagia (poop eating), but almost all forms of pica are caused by one of three things:
- Nutritional deficiency
- Electrolyte imbalance
However, there are some instances when no noticeable medical issue is present and when the pica seems to go unexplained.
Of course, if it is caused by a deficiency, such as inadequate protein, and a dog ingests something to get that protein, does it mean it is a safe (albeit disgusting) habit? Typically, it is not harmful when it is limited to feces. However, there is always the risk of parasites from such behaviors.
When pica includes everything from fabric and string to plastic and rocks, major health issues are created. It can cause severe gastric pain and upset, diarrhea, vomiting, intestinal obstruction and more. That means that training around the pica is the best way to keep a dog safe.
Training to NOT Eat Off the Ground
I trained Janice and Leroy to understand that there are only a few ways that eating can occur. These are:
- From their food bowls (portable and at-home dishes)
- Directly from MY hand
- With my verbal prompt that it is okay to take from a stranger or eat something a stranger (or I) have put on the ground
I trained them in this way because we do a lot of hiking and outdoor adventures. I don’t want them to gobble up poisonous materials, questionable foods, and treats that just anyone hands them. It is also helpful that this prevents them from acting on an medically-based pica behaviors.
How do you do this sort of training? I always say that the best training is the type that redirects or refocuses attention instead of sharp “no” commands. I use “leave it” rather than know or “drop it” if they actually do get something in their mouths. But, if you want to train your dogs to eat only in the ways above, it all has to start with training to not eat from the ground. To do that just follow these steps:
- Gather together:
- Two kinds of treats – their most favorite and their less favorite
- Two identical toys
- A lead with a long line
- Find a quiet spot without distractions and block out about ten minutes at a time.
- Hold up a favorite treat in your hand and let the dog sniff. Don’t give it to them, close your hand around it, and when the dog glances down to see if it is on the floor, say “leave it” the moment their attention leaves your hand.
- This is when you give them the tastier, concealed treat. Why? You are rewarding them for leaving it alone.
- Repeat those steps until the dog actually looks away at the term “leave it”. You will be surprised at how quickly the dog learns to turn away at the words in order to get that treat.
- You then have to advance to an open hand training. Place the less favorite treat on your open palm, and if the dog tries to get it, close your hand around it and say “no”. Should the dog glance at it or sniff it, say “leave it” and then reward them with a tastier treat.
- Repeat this until the dog looks away with every “leave it”.
- Finally, you have to move training to the floor. You do this by placing the less tasty treat on the floor and hold it with a fingertip. Say “leave it” and see if the dog does as asked. Reward for each success.
You will need a few days of practice, with several ten-minute sessions. If the dog snatches a treat and ignores the command, go back to the previous stage of training until they master it.
You might also want to teach the “drop it” command in the event a dog does get something dangerous, odd, or disgusting in their mouth. This is a similar process but uses toys.
- Get the two identical toys and play with one until your dog takes it
- Switch to the second toy and begin playing with it with exuberance
- Your dog is going to take note and soon drop the toy they have to come and focus on the one you have. Keep a sharp eye on your dog and as soon as you see they are about to drop the toy, say “Drop it”.
- As soon as that toy is dropped, give praise to the dog and share the toy with them.
- Simply repeat this, and within just a few days’ time your dog is likely to have mastered drop it, too.
By now, you might be thinking, “Ash, this seems like a lot of work to prevent the dog from eating a bit of food or odd piece of something every once in a while!” And you are right in feeling that way. Yet, if you read a list of the items that dogs have eaten (provided by vets from all corners of the country), you’ll understand just why you must train them to leave it or drop it in order to keep them safe.
7 Potentially Deadly Things Dogs Try to Eat
Dogs like toys and food, and things that smell like their people. That is why they go for items like socks and even bras or underwear, and such mundane items can be very harmful since they cannot be digested. Yet, there are authentically scary things dogs have (and can) swallow, and they are the very reason why you must train dogs to only take things you give them or with your approval.
In one dog horror story, a short haired pointer was left alone for a millisecond with a plate of freshly grilled kebabs. Set on wire skewers, they were easy to snatch and dash away with, but in this instance, the dog grabbed two skewers and managed to swallow one in the process. Though the vet did not think this was possible, an x-ray clearly revealed the six-inch skewer that had managed to make its way into the dogs digestive system without puncturing anything!
Needles, skewers, hooks for holiday ornaments, plastic and wire twist ties…these are all wiry items that dogs may ingest accidentally. If you even suspect this has happened, it is the ideal time for a rapid trip to the vet.
Sock Mystery Solved
Do you have a lot of orphaned socks in your home? If so, you may want to consider whether the dog is guilty. After all, the story of one Great Dane makes it clear that a lot of socks can go missing before the mystery is solved. In this story, the three-year-old pup had been experiencing rather extreme vomiting. The dog’s owners brought him to the vet where…hold on to something…43.5 socks were removed from his belly!
Fabrics, especially nylon blends such as socks, cannot easily break down in the dog’s digestive tract. Whether it is underwear, t-shirts, towels or other garments, the habit of gnawing on and swallowing such materials can be deadly. The Great Dane was okay, but it is proof that you must train dogs to never gobble up whatever they encounter at will.
With the holiday season around the corner, this story has a lot of relevance. It focuses on a Golden Retriever pup not yet trained to leave things alone if they were not presented by the owner or in regular food bowls. The story begins with the pup vomiting profusely for several days, with the issue just worsening as time passed. The owners decided two days of this was enough and got him to the vet. X-rays showed that the pup had consumed an entire holiday lightbulb, and somehow it was still intact. This was one the larger, old fashioned gum drop varieties, and the dog even managed to pass it without breaking it (under medical care, of course).
Whether you use big gum drop bulbs, eco-friendly LED bulbs or have lots of smaller holiday decorations around, know that dogs can and will (for whatever reasons) be tempted to taste and swallow them.
Off the Hook
Yes, you can probably guess what this story emphasizes – hooks. In it, a very young puppy was brought along on a family fishing vacation only to find the chicken liver bait irresistible. Unfortunately, the family should never have let him sample the bait and then turned their backs, because the pup decided to swallow a whole chicken liver that had already been attached to a hook. The pup required immediate emergency surgery because the hook instantly perforated his tiny stomach.
The hook issue goes beyond fishing, though, because holiday ornaments require hooks that dogs may swallow, and lots of arts and crafts use thin wires that can take on different smells from so much human handling. Keep in mind that dogs have also been known to swallow needles. In fact, that’s the next story….
Nine Needles…and More
In this horrifying story, a Chihuahua began to act oddly, whimpering and refusing to eat. The young pup was rushed to the vet where x-rays showed that more than nine needles were in all different parts of the dog’s body. They had not been inserted but swallowed and had migrated through the soft tissue. Extensive surgeries were required to eliminate all of the needles.
Why would a dog swallow needles? It is really impossible to say, yet it happens often enough to be an area of concern. Don’t leave them around or within reach, and use that training to ensure dogs know that picking up anything you have not given freely is taboo.
Mind the Flowers
In a bizarre and yet wholly understandable story, a 12-year-old Corgi was rushed to the vet after being seen gobbling up gravel along the owner’s flower beds. The gravel was pea-sized gravel that had been recently removed from a pet turtle’s tank and repurposed in the flower bed. Unfortunately, the owners had also placed different components from their barbecue on the gravel while cleaning the entire unit. Small, but pungent amounts of the grease had transferred to the gravel, and with its earthy smell, the dog thought it might be a tasty little nosh. Surgery was required to remove two pounds of stones from the dog’s belly.
The Ball That Wasn’t
And finally, here’s a story that is not all that odd, but one to keep in mind. If you have a “hacky sack” around, remember a few things about it. It is a ball. It can smell a lot like human feet. It gets human attention. It is easy to chew. These are all reasons that a one-year-old Golden Retriever pup found himself at the vet’s office for emergency surgery. The fabric, nylon thread, and polystyrene beads inside of the ball had created a health hazard to the pup who’d swallowed it. So, if your hacky sack, or other smaller sports balls go missing – look to the dog…and the vet!
I hope you can see how easily dogs get themselves into trouble. Use the training to help them avoid the worst mistakes and if you suspect a puppo has developed pica, take them to the vet to be checked for everything from deficiencies to parasites! You never know what they swallowed!