Q We have a new dog, a Border Terrier, she is now 10-months-old, but she will eat anything she can get hold of - wood, paper, plastic, cloth, any sort of poo she finds in the garden or on her walks. How can we stop her?
A Vet Joe Inglis says: This is a potentially serious problem as your dog sounds like a prime candidate for ending up with a ‘foreign body’ – this is the veterinary term for something that shouldn’t be there getting stuck inside the dog’s digestive system, and it can be a very serious and even fatal complication.
It’s worth having your dog checked over physically by your vet as it could be that some underlying condition such as hypothyroidism or a malabsorbtion condition leaving him continually hungry is the main problem rather than it being purely behavioural in nature (although this is less likely in such a young dog).
If a scavenging habit or pica as it is technically known turns out to have no medical cause, then you need to consider the behavioural and psychological factors that have led to the problem if it is going to be solved. Some dogs scavenge because they are anxious, have compulsive tendencies or simply because they have a naturally high appetite, while others will do so out of hyperactive curiosity; there are many reasons and each case needs to be considered individually if it is going to be successfully treated. For example, a dog with a compulsive or anxiety based scavenging habit will need a more subtle and careful approach than a dog whose only problem is controlling a high appetite or simple curiosity.
The basic tools at your disposal for tacking a scavenging habit include distraction with positive stimuli such as treats, and negative reinforcement using intimidating stimuli such as sounds and odours associated with sounds. Again, distraction is usually the best and ‘nicest’ option to use, and is generally effective – the typical example would be offering a food treat to entice the dog to drop something less appropriate such as something scavenged from a bin. This is far better, and safer, than trying to forcibly remove an object form your dog’s mouth, and has the secondary benefit of rewarding the action of dropping the inappropriate object, so if you combine the treat with a command such as ‘drop it!’ you should find that in time your dog will become conditioned to the command and no longer need the treat.
Negative reinforcement techniques such as those used to prevent inappropriate destructive behaviours in the house can be useful, particularly in cases where more positive techniques have been tried and not succeeded, but again I would urge caution. It is all too easy to see a negative deterrent as an easy option, but in 9 cases out of 10, the positive approach is just as or more effective and has a much better long term effect on your relationship with your dog.
About Joe Inglis: Having qualified as a vet in 1996, Joe's appeared on a variety of TV programmes including Vet School, Vets in Practice and Blue Peter, where he was the on-screen vet. Currently a vet for BBC's The One Show, and for The Wright Stuff on Five, Joe is MORE TH>N's official pet expert.