Canine Behavior/Pup eating sticks.
Hi Jody - I am hoping you can provide some guidance with the problem we are having with our pup. We adopted him at the end of November from our local humane society. He is 9 months old now, eats a good quality kibble (2 cups am & pm), and according to our vet, he is at a healthy weight (approx. 50lbs). The problem? He eats everything he can get his mouth around, including, but not limited to...sticks, toilet paper, orange peels, pre-chewed gum, banana peels...about the only thing he won't eat are cigarette butts and dog poo. He picks these thing up on our walks - I think he's sniffing to pee, and he surfaces with something in his mouth (this makes our neighbourhood sound really littered...it's really not :)). In our backyard he will eat sticks rather than play fetch or other games. He is rarely out on his own - maybe 15 min total during the day - otherwise I am out with him. This morning he vomited bile with several bits of twig in it, and I know eating sticks, etc can cause an obstruction. We have just started formal obedience (3 weeks in). Do you have any suggestions on how to distract him from this all-consuming (literally) habit?? Thanks!
Thank you for your question. It is totally normal for dogs (and especially puppies) to investigate everything in their environment, and to put most of it in their mouths. Humans are able to interact with objects and explore them with our hands. Since dogs don't have hands, they use their best gripping tool - their mouth. Puppies are still learning about the world and so are more inclined to put things in their mouths than most adult dogs (though, some adult dogs are happy to continue this behavior).
Of course, we want to monitor what our dogs put in their mouth so they don't accidentally ingest things that could cause them harm. To that end, the most useful tool you can have is a solid LEAVE IT command. There are a few different ways to teach this skill. Sophia Yin walks you through a couple very effective methods in her book, How to Behave so Your Dogs Behaves
Chapter 15 is called Leave It. Once you have this skill in a low distraction environment - where you set the dog up to see an item and teach him Leave It, then you can build on that skill by slowly increasing the distraction/temptation of things he might find on the floor. Once you can do this successfully in every room of your house, the back yard, front yard, set-ups you create in public spaces, etc., then you can feel confident that when out on walks, if your dog starts sniffing something he shouldn't be engaging with, you can tell him "Leave It" and he'll walk away without picking that item up.
Of course, we also need a tool for when the dog already has something in his mouth. For that we teach a Drop It command. I prefer to say Drop over Give because for the human, if we say "Give" we instinctively want the dog to put the item in our hand. But if it's a gross banana peel or something else we'd really rather not interact with, then I think we'd prefer the dog just put it back on the ground where he found it.
**Anecdote: My older dog has twice brought into my home a dead young squirrel. We used to have a large tree in our back yard which housed a family of squirrels and in their adolescent antics, a couple times, a squirrel fell out of the tree 40 feet to the ground below. My sweet boy, I believe in his effort to get help, gently carried the squirrel into my home. From across the room, I saw him standing with something in his mouth - I didn't know what at the time, but was certain I didn't want to chase him down nor did I want to necessarily handle whatever it was without first identifying it. So from across the room, I said, "Drop" and he gently set the squirrel down at his feet and looked nervous. I was then able to approach and see what I was dealing with.
As you can see, a solid Drop command is an important skill to have. Below is a video of me working with my puppy when he was first learning this skill. You'll see that he's not sure he wants to play this game with me and demonstrates some resource guarding initially. But after just a few minutes of practice, he improves noticeably. The next video is a game I play with both my boys regularly. I call it Tug-Settle. It practices several skills within the game, which improves impulse control and the dog's ability to drop even when aroused/excited. The skills practiced are:
Tug, Drop, Sit, Focus, Wait, Go Get It, Bring It.
I also build Drop into regular activities with my dog so that even if he has a toy I know is OK, or a stick (I don't mind my boys chewing on sticks - I'll explain in a minute), I will tell the dog Drop, then I take the item, look at it, sometimes I pretend to chew on it myself, and then I tell the dog, "OK, you can have this back." By doing this A LOT with things that the dogs are absolutely allowed to have, when I need to do it because it's something dangerous or gross, I can confidently tell my dog to Drop and he does - because 99% of the time he gets the item back. And those times when I don't give it back, I always replace it with something I know the dog does like. In my house, that's often an ice cube as both my boys love to chew ice, and it's super convenient to just grab a cube to distract them away from something they shouldn't have had in the first place.
Drop It / Take It
Hagrid & Chewie Tug & Settle
The keys to teaching a solid Drop are this: Initially you want to be trading him for something that is equally or more enticing. So, while your dog may have a Bully Stick in his mouth, you will want to trade for a bite of cheese or hot dog or other treat that he finds super awesome - not just his regular kibble.
My timing in the video is actually a little off. Rather than present the treat before saying the command, you should instead say, "Fido, Drop." pause for about 1 second and THEN put the treat right to his nose so that he can't help but smell it. If you need to hold onto the object in his mouth initially (as I do in the video), that's OK. Just make sure you're NOT trying to pull it out of his mouth nor trying to pry his mouth open. Instead, hold onto the object and entice him with the yummy trade. Be patient. When he loosens his mouth grip, you can inch the object out of his mouth. Once it's clear of his jaws, move it well away from him and then give him the trade/treat. Once he's done swallowing the treat, offer the item back "Take It." As you can see in the first video, once the dog understands that he's going to get it back, you no longer need to hold the object while he's engaging with it.
By saying Drop BEFORE presenting the trade, we test him on every trial to determine if he understands the verbal command. If he does, then he'll let go before you present the trade. If he doesn't, then we lure him with that trade/treat. When he begins dropping the item with just the verbal cue, you know he understands what's being asked of him. Praise and lots of treats to really reinforce this. As you can see in the second video, you can build this into games and other activities, so that once he knows the cue, you're not obligated to feed him every time he drops something. In the second video, the reward for dropping and showing impulse control (patience) is that the game gets to continue and that is just as, if not significantly MORE rewarding, than a bite of food.
As to the items your dog chooses to chew on. Around 6 months of age, puppies lose their puppy teeth. It takes about 6-10 months for their adult teeth to set firmly in their jaw and so they have a physiological need to chew during that time. It's not just misbehaving. It's an actual need that all puppies have during that period to set their teeth properly in place. Depending on the sensitivity at the moment, and the individual dog, they may wish to chew on something rather soft like a plush toy, pillow, soft rubber toy, etc. Or they may wish to work on something a bit firmer, but still breakable like sticks or they may wish for something really hard like bones and Nylabones. For both of my dogs, they very much enjoy a good stick or large piece of mulch. I decided I prefer my dogs to chew on those things than, say, the molding in my house.... I do have some rules though. I monitor their chewing activity before I allow it to happen unsupervised. For both my dogs, I find that they spit out 2/3 of the chewed wood, only swallowing small bits. As long as they're only swallowing well chewed bits, nothing larger than the first knuckle of my thumb, then I'm not terribly concerned about a choking hazard or obstruction. Stray dogs and wild canids chew these kinds of things frequently without ill effect. Of course, if your dog is one to swallow large chunks, then we definitely wan to limit access to that item.
My dogs do occasionally vomit up some chunks of stick (once or twice per year) and it's always very well chewed and small. The thing about dogs and vomiting is this. It's not nearly as big a deal to them as it is to us. The dog's body is designed that if stuff in the stomach doesn't pass through into the intestine in about 8 hours, it will be rejected and vomited back up. This is to help keep stuff from rotting in the stomach, which can make the dog sick. My dogs have both vomited up bits of toy as well (both plush fabric - they're no longer allowed to have those unsupervised - and chunks of a Nylabone that had a particular design that broke up rather easily - that toy is now taken away when they work it down to that part of it).
Of course we want to be careful, and we prefer that our dogs don't ingest things that may cause vomiting, and you can see that I've changed my management of certain items that pose a greater risk to my dogs' welfare. I would do the same with sticks if they were regularly ingesting enough that it was making them sick. In my house, though, I mostly find the remnants of that chewing escapade in the form of wood crumbs all over my floor - waiting to be vacuumed up. :-)
But, it's helpful to have appropriate alternatives that we can direct the dog toward if we don't want them chewing on other things.
Favorites include Kongs - which can be stuffed with a mixture of kibble, treats and various soft "binder" materials such as mashed potato or mashed sweet potato, pumpkin puree, apple sauce, cream cheese or peanut butter, plain nonfat yogurt, cottage cheese, a little sour cream, high quality canned dog food, a bit of liverwurst, etc. Pretty much any dog-safe spreadable food can be used to bind the kibble and hard treats together. I usually do a 10% binder to 90% quality food mixture and stuff the Kong with that. This is a passive reinforcement toy because every time the dog chews on it, licks at it, engages with it, he gets a taste or chunk of food!
Other options include:
Bully Sticks (100% edible, high protein treat which, depending on size of stick and chewing prowess of the dog, can take 3-30 minutes or longer to enjoy fully)
Marrow Bones - I get the ones that are basted and still with some marrow inside as this makes it more enticing for the first several interactions. Then, once the dog has cleaned it completely, you can stuff it just like you do the Kong.
Antlers - Deer, elk or moose. Antlers are 100% digestible and many dogs really like them. My dogs prefer the deer over the elk (never tried the moose). They're more expensive than marrow bones, but they're collected from naturally shed antlers, sterilized and cut to size so no animals are harmed for these.
Nylabone makes several varieties of chew toys, some made with potato starch and fully edible (don't last as long) and some from a nontoxic nylon material. The latter is designed so that as the dog chews on it, it creates little crumbs that break up. Those small bits are safe to go through the digestive system without issue. But you need to monitor the use of these toys. In my house, with 2 pretty heavy chewers, they last 2-4 months before they're worn down enough that I'm concerned about large chunks being broken off that may pose either a choking hazard or increase the likelihood of vomiting. When they get worn to that point, I just throw them away and replace them with new.
By providing your dog with lots of acceptable options to chew on INSTEAD of those things we'd rather he not engage with, we help him learn that he can tend to his chewing needs with choices other than those he's currently picking.
Between a solid Leave It and Drop command, and "here chew on this instead", you should be able to curb this habit in no time.
CAVEAT: I should mention that some dogs do have a condition called Pica, which is the eating of nonedible things. In your dog's case, his eating seems to be limited to things that are edible (or near edible - sticks). He's not going after rocks and dirt and fabric, etc. So, I'm not as concerned about this possibility with your dog. But, if you feel his habit is beyond normal dog behavior, you should definitely speak with your vet to rule out Pica as a possibility. There are medications that can help as well as veterinary behaviorists who can work on a proper protocol to help you and your dog work through that condition.
Good luck. I hope this lengthy response proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist