Does your dog follow scent across fields, try to drag items with them during a walk or settle down to chew items they should not? Congratulations! You have a normal dog as this is just what dogs’ love to do!
So you are not alone, as dogs are primarily foraging animals who just love to find things, carry their find with them in their mouths or get straight down to chewing on it or eating it. Even though this is very natural behaviour it can lead to problems when dogs go in search of things they should not, such as wildlife, or they carry things in their mouths that they should not, such as huge sections of trees or peoples clothing or they chew and eat things they should not such as sheep poo or sticks.
Fortunately by understanding the motivations behind these normal and natural behaviours of our dogs, we can manage them better and then teach our dogs more appropriate things to find, carry or chew.
Watch any group of street dogs living their lives with little if any intervention from people and they basically sleep, go in search of food and eat, before going back to sleep again. So each day they make two primary trips to find food, once in the early morning and once in the early evening. These trips comprise of walking to a food source, such as anywhere humans discard food, and then searching through that area to find items to carry, chew and eat. It was the dog’s ability to evolve this set of behaviours that allowed them to live around human settlements and then ultimately to become the domesticated dogs we have today. What this means is that we are never going to stop our dogs finding, carrying and chewing or eating items they find, but we can manage this behaviour and redirect it to more appropriate items.
So the number one priority is to teach our dogs appropriate items to find, carry and chew. In general this means any toy that we can add value to by smearing it with food, such as ham, chicken, squeezy cheese, hot dog or just their normal kibble soaked in water. Hollow rubber toys such as the popular Kong Classic are ideal as they can be packed with a range of foods and once the dog has a habit of chewing them they can be frozen to create a more long lasting chew. But there are also many other toys that can have food pressed into them and there are also items that cannot carry food inside but that some dogs just love to chew. So the first priority is to find an item your dog loves and Kong Classics smeared with food are a good start point.
So now we need to teach the dog to be interested in the item. This is best achieved by not leaving it out all day, as otherwise it soon becomes boring. Instead bring it out once or twice a day for a short period and make it more interesting by smearing some new tasty food over it. Then just place it on the floor for the dog to investigate. Almost certainly the dog will want to investigate and will begin to sniff it, lick it, chew it and eat the food elements of it. Once the dog has enjoyed it then take it away and repeat later that day or the next day. Once the dog regularly enjoys the item, you can begin to teach the dog to go and search for it.
To teach a dog to search for something just make it easy for the dog to find it and then reward the dog when they get it right. So you can bring the fresh chew item out smeared with smelly food again. Move the toy toward the dog, so they have some idea of what you have. Ask the dog to sit, walk away and place the toy in view, but slightly behind a chair leg or other furniture. The dog will have watched you place it there so will easily find it once released. Pointing to the object often helps. Now keep repeating this exercise but make it harder each time, by placing the item just a few centimetres further away each time. You can then begin to hide it more challenging places as the dog learns to find it more easily.
When the dog finds the item, they may chew it, lick the contents off or perhaps carry it away to a safer place, such as their bed. You can at this stage begin to teach them to bring the item to you by giving a signal such as ‘come’ and then toss them additional food on the floor between you and them, or feed to them food from your hand as they move toward you. They will almost certainly drop the item to get your food. By practicing this game you can gradually teach the dog to bring items to you that they find and also to drop them in return for food items that you hand them.
Once you can do this in the house, then try in the garden and then try on sections of walks. With practice you can teach your dog to search for this one special toy or a range of toys that you take with you on walks. You then just need to bring out your dogs favourite toy when your dog has the urge to behave the way the dogs do, which is to go and find things, carry things and then chew or eat those things. By controlling the things the dog wants, you can control the behaviour the dog needs to do.
Graham Thompson is the Technical Editor of Trail Magazine, has sold his photography worldwide through Getty Images and written articles for photography magazines. He also has an Msc in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling and is a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist and he is on the Animal Behaviour & Training Council Register of Clinical Animal Behaviourists
28 May 2019 by GrahamThompson
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