Canine Behavior/eating paper
This is Nancy with the Weimardoodle Duncan, who eats paper. When we got him 3 months ago his previous owners told us about how Duncan would go into their son's room and bring toys out and leave them all around. He did that a few times after moving in with us but then he started taking kleenex and paper out of trash cans and eating it. We don't often see him do it but see it in his poop. Recently I found something disgusting on the living room floor. Turns out he'd eaten a pair of my daughter's underwear and thrown it up. I try to get everyone to keep all bedroom and bathroom doors closed. We just got a trash can with a lid for the kids' bathroom. That's the door most frequently left open.
According to his previous owners Duncan never ate or chewed on anything he wasn't supposed to when he was with them, so this is a new behavior since moving in with us. Help?
ANSWER: I am sorry to tell you this, but you can't believe one word any "former owner" tells you about a dog. If this dog were eating their underwear, socks, raiding garbage cans....and they were honest about it....would you have adopted him? ???
Dogs learn to do this. It begins innocently. The dog is under exercised, not engaged in training, is putting up with a lot of anxiety caused in the household by children, etc., is bored and one day picks a particularly interesting paper towel/sock/underwear up. People notice. They say "NO DOG NO" and when dog begins to run (which it will), they chase. The dog does not connect the end result (which might be fear and defensive aggression as I have seen dozens of times in some dogs) with the FIRST STEP: his taking this article. All the dog knows is, that immediately upon his possessing this article, he gets attention.
Chained learning: dog gets attention (even negative attention is a reward), dog begins to generalize: no one is home, I'm bored, I'm stressed, well this always works so let's try it: eats underwear.
There are two things you need to do: address the separation anxiety he may be experiencing (very common in re-homed dogs) and the "training" he received from very bad first owners.
To do the first, try the following protocol, slowly:
1. You can create an emotional independence in the dog by conditioning a "time out" article.
Simply place the chosen article (something you don’t use for any other purpose, like an odd garden statue) in full view of the dog every day for thirty minutes to one hour and call a "time out", during which you actively ignore the dog. When you remove the article, reward the dog with praise, but don’t overdo it. Over the course of two weeks, your dog will begin to recognize the article and begin to acknowledge your unavailability (many dogs go to a corner to lie down, or their favorite couch spot, etc.) Once you observe your dog’s recognition of the article, put it in plain sight about ten minutes before leaving the house (but NOT in the room the dog is confined to, the dog will lose its conditioned response.) In other words, use the article as a CUE to the dog that you are not available.
2. Make your dog earn everything for about one month, including pats, entering/leaving the home, etc. (This is called “Nothing in life is free”.) You will be promoting yourself psychologically, which will help the dog to feel calmer.
3. Purchase Turid Rugaas' book, “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming signals” or go to her web site http://www.canis.no/rugaas/index.php
. Observe the dog’s behaviors before you depart to determine if your departure rituals are creating anxiety. Use calming signals just before leaving the house WITHOUT saying “goodbye” to the dog (which can set the dog up for emotional distress.) Dogs instantly respond to these signals and you’ll begin to see that response immediately.
4. Change your departure rituals so you do not inadvertently "cue" your dog. This means doing things differently EVERY day during treatment (which should last about two to four weeks.) If you put your coat on last, put your coat on five minutes before you actually leave the house; if you pick up your keys last, put them in your pocket ten minutes before leaving the house, etc. Again, given two weeks (at least) of this treatment, along with the others, your dog’s extreme sensitivity to your departure rituals should diminish and/or extinguish. When you RETURN home, ignore the dog for a few seconds, and then ask the dog to “sit” and acknowledge him/her; keep your homecoming attention short and sweet. If there is any destruction around (torn objects, etc.) IGNORE IT. What you don’t want is the dog to fear your RETURN as much as s/he fears your leave taking.
5. Do not allow the dog free “run” of the house when you are gone; this places a heavy emotional burden to “protect” on the dog, and might increase stress (which accounts for excessive barking!) Put the dog in a protected space (kitchen, well ventilated and spacious laundry area, etc., NOT the basement or the garage), or use a crate large enough for him/her to get up and turn around, and only use it for short periods of time. Keep “special” toys there the dog doesn’t have at any other time, like a “kong” with a ½ teaspoon of peanut butter, a Buster Cube which holds a portion of the dog's daily food and which the dog will roll around to obtain it, a squeaky toy, etc. The dog will begin to anticipate this treat and associate it with your leaving the house. Try using sound technology especially designed for dogs, as seen on Amazon:
This will keep the dog in his "safe" place where NO paper products, socks, underwear or anything like that can be found and he will slowly relax. BUT....it might not extinguish his "stealing", so here's what to do about that:
There must be serious consequence for any child whose laundry is left on the floor or whose bedroom door is left open (unless the child is in the room) when you are at home and the dog is free in the house. That consequence is up to you (TV restriction, no video games for two days, etc.) Eating socks, underwear, etc. can kill a dog. Gastric tortion is one way and it is fast and deadly. Intestinal blockage is another and is enormously painful and quite expensive (requiring surgery and hospitalization). A dead dog is a serious consequence of not putting your stuff away as a kid. Make this clear.
Second: you will "set the dog up" at least twice daily when everyone is at home (it being summer, morning and late afternoon might be good). Place a wastebasket filled with crumpled tissues in the middle of the room and "hang out". IGNORE THE DOG TOTALLY no matter what he does UNTIL HE TAKES SOMETHING FROM THE WASTE BASKET. Then, upon pre-arranged logistics (lol) you all LEAVE THE ROOM IMMEDIATELY and put yourselves behind closed doors. Count to ten. Dog will at first be confused but he should come to ONE of those doors. Open the door: if you see he has the object in his mouth, close the door. Do this until the object is no longer in his mouth: now ask for trained behavior ("sit") and praise/reward, go on about your business until next setup.
The dog may begin to process this as meaning that ALL paper products are now totally out of the question but not remote control devices, socks, etc. So if you see this progressing further, set the dog up with those articles (one at a time). He will quickly learn that "stealing" results in everyone's disappearance.
Let's do some round robin recall with this dog with the entire family in your fenced yard or on very long training leash in a baseball field somewhere. Every family member sits on the ground and, in their pocket, a baggy with string cheese bits. This is a "party". Everyone is happy. Person 1 calls the dog (begin using a new recall word, he will quickly learn it: "Presto" is good, make a big deal out of it). As he approaches person 1, be so very happy and encourage and, when he gets to person 1, give food treat immediately. Person 2 (random) then repeats. This "game" lasts about five minutes and can be "played" three times weekly, at least. The dog will LOVE it, the kids will LOVE it, this is fun for everyone, and you're doing two things: First, giving the dog a very solid recall word he will never forget and never refuse; second, giving him intellectual exercise and a solid place in the social hierarchy of your family.
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Hi Dr. Connor,
Thanks so much for your feedback! I really appreciate your time and expertise.
I think some additional background information would be helpful here:
We found Duncan in kind of an unusual way. A friend of mine, who knew my family was looking for a dog, had lunch one day at the home of another friend. Totally in passing this other friend mentioned that she may consider getting rid of the larger of her two dogs (Duncan) if the right family came along because, with the new baby they had, they just didn't have time to give him the attention he deserved. They'd had him since he was a small puppy. The Johnsons (previous owners) were not actively seeking to get rid of Duncan, in fact had not really decided to get rid of him at all. My friend mentioned that she knew of a family looking for a dog and connected us. After meeting us and feeling assured that we would take good care of Duncan they agreed to let us have him. They just gave him to us, along with his large crate. They wouldn't take any money. They insisted on dropping him off rather than having me pick him up so they could see where he’d be living, sleeping and playing. They offered to dog sit whenever we needed (which they have done) and also made us promise that if ever we needed to get rid of Duncan we would give him back to them, even if it's 5 years from now. They came over once to see how Duncan was doing. The Johnson's clearly spent time working with Duncan. He came to us walking beautifully on a leash and doing pretty well at "sit" and "here". He doesn’t jump on people. So you see, this was not a family seeking to make some money or pass off a naughty dog on an unsuspecting family. I've since become friends with Duncan's former mom and I completely believe that the scattering of toys was the only issue they had with him. I believe it partly because I've come to know they are honest people and partly because the toy scattering thing played out in my own home. Duncan didn't eat kleenex right away. That started a few weeks after he came to live with us. So Duncan’s first owners weren’t “very bad” at all.
I have never seen Duncan eat kleenex. None of us have. He does it on the sly. We only know he does it because it’s in his poop. We find kleenex or other paper laying on the floor sometimes, and have seen him with it in his mouth. There is no yelling "NO" or chasing involved AT ALL. If I see he has a kleenex or something in his mouth all I have to say is "uh uh" and he drops it immediately. He never runs away with it. He’ll still take things he sees laying around (a sock, a ball, etc.) and leave them somewhere else but the underwear was the only non-paper thing he’s eaten. He chews on bones all the time but I’ve never seen him chew on anything else.
Duncan is always crated when we leave the house and at night. He very readily goes into his crate. The Johnsons told us that he used to just go lay in there on his own sometimes. He doesn't do that here because of where we keep it, but I believe it based on what a non-issue going in his crate is for him. When we’re ready to leave we’ll call him and he’ll immediately follow us upstairs and run right into his crate. He doesn't bark or scratch when we leave. There are blankets in his crate that he has never chewed on.
My children are 15 and 17 years old so there aren’t little kids bothering him and making him anxious. He plays a LOT with our lab and goes for almost daily walks with me and gets lots of love from us, so I don’t think he’s bored. Other than the paper thing he isn’t destructive or naughty in any way.
Your assessment doesn’t seem to apply to our particular situation. Our lab used to steal things from other rooms but doesn't anymore. I wonder if it's something that Duncan will outgrow.
ANSWER: My assessment was based on 20+ years of dog psychiatry (I actually specialize in active aggression). I cannot see anything from here. I can only read the words you type.
He will not "outgrow" it. This is a self rewarding behavior. People need to take responsibility, the dog must be kept from (in any way) accessing known threats: kleenex, paper towels, underwear, socks, etc. Eventually he will acquire tortion or a blockage, it's almost guaranteed. This is definitely an anxiety related behavior since it was (as you report) acquired in your home. Any re-homed dog will develop separation anxiety and part of that syndrome is the destruction of articles (even, windows, doors, etc.) Use the protocol or not, it is your choice.
I suggest you consult a veterinary behaviorist. This dog is obviously anxious and short term medicinal therapy can help him, along with behavior modification. You can most likely find one by either calling the veterinary school in your area or from the following links:
This venue is not "friendly" toward the sort of interaction (interview and evaluation) required. Regardless of my experience and intuition, I can't diagnose every single thing presented to me but this dog is demonstrating symptoms of anxiety that can be easily managed and extinguished.
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thanks again for your additional feedback Dr. Connor. It is much appreciated!! I understand that you cannot see anything from where you are and that you can only read the words I type, which I way I offered the additional information.
I very much respect and appreciate that you are infinitely more experienced in dog behavior that I can ever hope to be. That being said your advice to "use the protocol or not, it's your choice", in light of the additional information I gave you, doesn't really help me. You based your protocol on false assumptions (the previous owners were very bad, our dog is left to roam the house when we are not home, we holler at and chase our dog when he takes kleenex, he has issues with our leaving him). I thought that clearing up the misconceptions might change the protocol.
For example, I'm not sure "setting up" Duncan will do anything since he always takes the kleenex when no one is around. He never does it in front of anyone. If we were all sitting around with a trash can of kleenex in the room he wouldn't touch it. He'd go for it if we all left, which is kind of the opposite of the protocol.
Another example, observing his behavior before we leave. He's laying around, maybe chewing on a bone, maybe playing with our other dog. He isn't behaving any differently while we're getting ready to leave than any other time and very readily and happily trots after us, sometimes in front of us, to his crate. If he's exhibiting anxious behavior at our leaving I'm not recognizing it.
We had another kleenex stealing dog once. We were her only owners for 13 years. I guess that's why I didn't connect it to the anxiety of rehoming as the kleenex stealing is the only "symptom". You mentioned "symptoms" (plural) of anxiety. I'd be really interested to know what the other symptoms are besides the kleenex stealing.
Sorry to be so long winded. I guess if the only protocol is to address issues that we aren't having then I'm not sure how to address the one we ARE having. Thanks again for your time. I really appreciate that someone of your expertise would take the time to participate in a forum like this.
Have a wonderful day!
I SO understand your frustration! It jumps right off the screen at me and you are such a loving owner, all dogs should be so fortunate.
So: he may be self rewarding/self calming with this coprophagia (eating things not normal) and he may not appear stressed at your departure but that doesn't mean that, at some point during your absence, he doesn't become stressed. This may have begun as a random car backfire up the street, someone knocking on your door, etc. He might also be very bored. I don't think it really matters which of these it may be because his life is definitely at stake in the long run and I know you don't want anything like that to happen.
Using the protocol cannot hurt your dog psychologically or emotionally. In fact, it gives dogs a clear signal of their place in the social hierarchy and relieves them of the "responsibility" of having an entire house to "watch"! I suggest you give it a try. It can't hurt!
If, after a few weeks of this gentle behavior modification approach, the dog still attempts to "eat" things not intended as such, you will need a veterinary behaviorist. There are sometimes physiological issues that cause this sort of behavior. So sorry I couldn't have been more helpful. The spirit is willing but it's not always possible to solve an issue such as this without seeing the dog. Further, it's really no big deal EXCEPT for the very real threat of physical injury and an agonizing death, I have seen it happen. Please keep me updated.