My Dog Eats Everything! How Do I Stop Him From Scavenging on Walks?

There are many ways to curb your dog's ground-scavenging behavior, from walking in "safe" places and enriching their environment to training the "leave it" cue.

My Dog Eats Everything! How Do I Stop Him From Scavenging on Walks?
Dogs are often tempted to scavenge on walks. Luckily there are many ways to curb this behavior.

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How Can I Stop My Dog From Eating Stuff on the Ground?

"My dog won't stop eating stuff off the ground, and I don't know what to do anymore. In addition to being annoying, I'm also worried he'll end up eating something dangerous. What can I do?" —Juana

10 Ways to Stop Your Dog From Eating Stuff on the Ground

Stopping your dog from scavenging will require a multi-modal approach. In many cases, this behavior can be dealt with through several behavioral and training fixes, although it’s important to understand that, ultimately, scavenging for stuff is simply a normal aspect of a dog’s nature.

1. Rule Out Medical Conditions

A dog’s desire to eat stuff off the ground may sometimes stem from medical disorders. For example, a dog who frantically eats grass or ingests twigs or leaves may be trying to soothe an upset stomach. Certain metabolic disorders may also keep dogs feeling hungry all the time, which may prompt them to eat anything they find.

Dogs showing an interest in eating non-food items (see the section about pica below) should have a medical exam and a full panel of blood work so as to rule out medical conditions. If some underlying medical issue is found, then you can proceed with the appropriate treatment.

Clearing your yard of toxic plants (and keeping an eye out for them on walks) is critical.

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2. Routinely Inspect Your Yard

If your dog is routinely eating stuff on the ground in your yard, it’s important to keep your yard as clear as possible from temptations. Any time your dog finds a little “treasure” out there, this reinforces his searching-for-stuff-on-the-ground behavior, which can get pretty addicting in the long run (think of a gambler winning several little bets in Vegas and not being able to stop).

While clearing a small yard from sticks, potentially poisonous plants, and various knick-knacks can be fairly easy, clearing large acreage may be an overwhelming task. In this case, it may help to fence off a portion and transform it into a dog-proof space to ensure your dog’s safety and well-being.

3. Scan the Environment During Walks

On walks, you may find it helpful to continuously scan the environment. Consider it a form of proactive hazard prevention. Walk in areas where you can see what is ahead of you on the path, and avoid areas with tall grasses where you can’t see the ground.

4. Try a Head Halter

If you’re struggling to prevent your dog from quickly grabbing something from the ground, you may find a head halter useful to quickly and gently redirect your dog the moment you notice his intent in trying to swoop something from the ground. This tool can come in handy as a management option, at least until your dog is better trained.

5. Consider a Basket Muzzle or Outfox Field Guard

A basket muzzle can help prevent your dog from grabbing things he finds on the ground. However, some dogs may find this restrictive, and a conditioning process is needed to get them to habituate so as to not be pawing at it all the time.

An alternate option is the Outfox Field Guard. This ingenious invention is a mesh bag that can be placed over the dog’s head to prevent them from eating inappropriate items. It also protects dogs from bugs and the potential penetration of foxtails.

6. Train Your Dog to “Leave It”

The “leave it” cue is very valuable when it comes to dogs who eat stuff off the ground. Start training it in a room free of distractions, practicing with low-value items and using high-value foods to reinforce leaving the low-value items alone.

When your dog is consistently succeeding with this activity, bring the training outdoors, practicing in the yard and on walks. Place a cookie on the ground and practice walking past it with your dog on leash and telling him to “leave it.” If your dog obeys the cue, reward them with a higher-value food such as several slivers of chicken.

The "drop it" cue is a great fallback if your dog struggles with "leave it" or beats you to the punch.

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7. Train Your Dog to “Drop It”

The “drop it” cue is a backup in case the dog has already managed to pick up something in his mouth. Start training this in a quiet room, always using high-value items to reward your dog for dropping lower-value items.

This article goes more in-depth on how to train a solid response to the "leave it" and "drop it" cues with some video demonstrations: how to train your dog to leave it and drop it.

8. Work on Response Substitution

You may also find it helpful to train your dog in a behavior that replaces the problematic behavior. For example, you can train your dog to make eye contact with you and gaze adoringly into your eyes rather than devouring something on the ground in exchange for a treat he loves.

Or you can train your dog to carry something in his mouth so as to keep his mind off from perpetually going on a “scavenger hunt.”

9. Add Environmental Enrichment

What do scavengers do for most of the day in the wild? They sniff around looking for tidbits of food. The food may consist of just about anything, from food left behind from humans to the occasional edible fruit or even some type of animal poop containing nutrients.

Nowadays, though, humans take care of “hunting” at the supermarket and pet stores and come back with a bag of kibble that is readily served in a food bowl. This leaves dogs with little to do during the day, with few to no opportunities to scavenge, which can result in a buildup of boredom and frustration.

When these domesticated dogs do "scavenge," this often leads to dog owners reacting negatively, especially when it involves inappropriate “treasures” like rabbit “pellets” and cow manure.

The addition of environmental enrichment into a dog’s life can therefore help provide legitimate outlets for a dog’s natural inclination to scavenge. Nowadays, you can find many toys on the market that are specifically crafted to keep your dog entertained as he works to get his food, such as Kongs, Kong Wobblers, Snuffle mats, Nita Ottoson puzzles, etc.

10. Tackle Any Underlying Stress/Anxiety

If stress is the underlying cause of your dog’s eating habits, you’ll need to address that too so that your dog develops better coping skills. This may sometimes require calming supplements, or in challenging cases, prescription medications from your vet so as to get your dog over the initial hurdles as you work on training new behaviors.

Scavenging is a natural behavior for dogs in the wild.

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Why Do Dogs Eat Everything?

Dogs are naturally drawn to explore their environment and ingest stuff they find on the ground. This natural predisposition stems from their ancestral past. As dogs evolved from gray wolves, they underwent several changes, and one of the most prominent was shifting from hunting live prey to feeding on human food residues.

It's Instinctual

This instinctive drive causes dogs to often sniff, lick and sometimes even eat edible or non-edible items that they find on the ground. While this behavior may appear to be harmless, there are several risks to take into consideration.

It's a Coping Mechanism

Sometimes, dogs who are fixated on eating stuff on the ground are simply dogs who aren’t getting enough mental stimulation or dogs who are stressed, bored, or frustrated. Continuous scavenging gives dogs something to do, providing them with a purpose and a tool to cope with their feelings.

In some cases, eating non-food items may become so ingrained that it risks turning into a real compulsion, similar to OCD behaviors seen in people.

A Word About “Pica”

If a dog is frequently eating non-food items such as rocks, wood, plastic, rubber bands, or strings, this is referred to as “pica” or allotriophagy. This consumption of non-nutritional substances may stem from some underlying medical or behavioral disorder.

If your dog is eating non-food items, it’s important to consult with your vet so as to rule out medical problems.

The Dangers of Letting Dogs Eat Stuff On the Ground

If your dog is eating stuff on the ground, it’s important to address this problem, considering that there may be several risks involved. Dogs are naturally drawn to seek out and ingest anything they find on the ground. There is such a thing known as “garbage gut” in dogs, and it can lead to unpleasant—and sometimes even costly—consequences.

While eating stuff on the ground may look like a rather innocent behavior, there are several potential risks to consider.

Blockages From Foreign Objects

While scavenging, dogs may sometimes entirely swallow or only partially chew items that aren’t digestible, and these may cause choking or get lodged somewhere along the dog’s digestive tract. In both dogs and cats, the ingestion of foreign objects is one of the most common causes of blockages.

Blockages may lead to life-threatening complications and expensive surgeries with long recovery times. Bones, rocks, toys, and anything plastic are just a few of the things that can cause intestinal blockages in dogs.

Poisoning From Toxic Substances

As indiscriminate eaters, dogs aren’t always able to discern what is toxic from what is not. This leads to many causes of poisoning in dogs each year. When dogs eat things on the ground, they may be exposed to a variety of toxic plants, foods (like chocolate, raisins, and products containing xylitol), chemicals and poisons (like rat poison), or pesticides.

Infectious Diseases

Objects on the ground are often teeming with bacteria, viruses, and parasites, which can easily be transmitted to your dog. For example, by eating dirt or feces, your dog can contract intestinal parasites such as roundworms and various other pathogens.

References

  • Sylvia Masson, Nadège Guitaut, Tiphaine Medam, Claude Béata, Link between Foreign Body Ingestion and Behavioural Disorder in Dogs, Journal of Veterinary Behavior
  • Yamada R, Kuze-Arata S, Kiyokawa Y, Takeuchi Y. Prevalence of 25 canine behavioral problems and relevant factors of each behavior in Japan. J Vet Med Sci. 2019 Aug 9r,Volume 45, 2021
  • Englar, R.E. (2019). Abnormal Ingestive Behaviors. In Common Clinical Presentations in Dogs and Cats, R.E. Englar (Ed.).
  • Wynne CDL. The Indispensable Dog. Front Psychol. 2021 Jul 26

If your puppy or dog shows signs of potential aggression (lunging, barking, growling, snapping, biting), please consult with a dog behavior professional for direct in-person guidance. Articles, videos, and general information provided online are not meant to replace in-person training/instruction. By using this service, you are waiving any liability claims or other types of claims related to any of your dogs' behaviors against you or others.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli CPDT-KA, Dip.CBST


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