The telephone rings just as you enjoy the first taste of the irresistible cake, your reward for a hard day’s work in the garden; you leave the cake on the coffee table next to your steaming cup of tea and go to answer the call. Annoyed at yet another salesperson calling at an inevitably inconvenient time, you return to your recliner and reach for the cake so hard-earned on a cold day outdoors. It’s gone. Vanished. The cup of now not so hot tea is untouched; in disbelief you look round to see where it’s gone, but the plate is where you left it without so much as a crumb in sight. Your eyes meet the satisfied gaze of an aging dog, grinning at you from the safety of the adjacent armchair. So she’s just had her dinner and now she’s eaten your cake, too! What’s more, she will not feel guilty, because it is a wholly natural act for a dog; maybe “steal” is not the best term to use.
So, who’s to blame?
Dogs are natural scavengers, some breeds more so than others. Labradors, beagles and spaniels are amongst the most prolific food thieves I have encountered on my home visits as a dog behaviourist. Plastic wrapped bread, a packaged Bakewell tart and a whole frozen turkey are amongst the stolen bounty so prized by some of the dogs I have met when exasperated owners call for help in putting a stop on an unwelcome habit. Whether it’s unattended food at home, animal droppings in the park or waste food litter in the street, it’s all there for the taking and “fair game”. Domestic dogs can expect to be fed regularly, however, natural survival instincts have traversed the generations and any unguarded food is greedily devoured in case the next meal doesn’t materialise. Dogs learn by association and from their perspective, each time they grab a delicious morsel of something edible – be it rabbit, fox or horse droppings, a piece of decaying pizza or a nice piece of cake on the best china plate – the owner chases the dog and attempts to prise the food from her clamped jaws; the dog will naturally think that the owner wants to eat it herself! So what does the dog do? Run, fast, away from the owner to protect her prey!
Comfort, a nine-year-old black Labrador, just loves food. She lives to eat and will not pass any opportunity to gobble anything that is remotely edible. Her owner, Jane, is devoted to her and has been since Comfort was liberated from a rescue centre at the age of five. On several occasions Comfort has caused Jane great concern after having eaten something she shouldn’t and been rushed to her very caring and understanding vet. Food poisoning is just as unpleasant for dogs as it is for humans. Parasites and worms lurk in the droppings of herbivores, so it is always best to deter our best friends from acquiring a taste for this habit that we find so abhorrent.
Jane is a lead nurse at a busy care home and works shifts, which means that Comfort is occasionally left on her own for short periods until husband Chris arrives home. Stealing food is sometimes a dog’s way of breaking the monotony of being left alone; searching out something to eat is a stimulating and often rewarding activity to a bored dog. Dogs’ sense of smell encourages them to sniff and explore and is far more acute than ours, but their taste buds are less discriminating, hence they will eat what we consider to be inedible, contaminated and decaying food. Tipping over the waste bin or ripping up unattended refuse bags to plunder the contents is a worthwhile exercise for scavenging pet dogs. So if dogs are successful at finding scraps on worktops, tables, bins or anywhere outdoors, they are likely to repeat the highly rewarding habit at any opportunity.
Comfort has a tendency to put on weight, so Jane took the vet’s advice and reduced her food ration to shed the few extra kilos that she was carrying, however, Comfort became very hungry and her desire to eat overwhelmed her when food was left on the worktop or in other accessible places. I suggested that Jane reverts to her previous regime and gives Comfort her usual amount of food, but gives her more exercise to burn off the surplus weight. It worked and Comfort seemed to be calmer and less driven to eat everything in sight. She even stopped eating rabbit droppings when out being exercised.
The only way to prevent a dog from developing a career as a scavenger is to train her to be obedient. I find the best way to start the training programme is to teach the command “No!” This is not negotiable; it means “No”. I find setting up a controlled situation will quickly teach your dog what you want. Jane put a large cookie onto a plate (you can use a plastic container) and left it on the coffee table where Comfort was able to see and smell it. They walked around the house together with Comfort on a collar and lead. It didn’t take long for Comfort to locate the cookie, so as she approached the food Jane checked her with the lead and said “No!” firmly. Just remember “once is a habit” for a dog, so Comfort had to be prevented from snatching the food. She quickly understood and even left unattended food on a plate on the floor – Jane of course was watching Comfort, who is known to be a cunning dog! I emphasised to Jane that this training needs to be reinforced regularly to ensure that Comfort does not regress to scavenging. I would just mention that it is especially important when teaching puppies what is and what is not acceptable behaviour to constantly reinforce their obedience training.
With Comfort, I suggested that Jane makes a habit of putting food away into cupboards and ensuring that waste food is deposited into a bin with a secure, dog-proof lid. Food left out on worktops or seemingly out of reach on top of the microwave were prime places where Comfort used her cunning to reach it and although Jane was diligent in clearing up after preparing food, her family were perhaps less so. Any hope of successfully training Comfort to stop her bad habits depended upon all family members being “on side” and following Jane’s example.
I asked if Comfort was ever fed from the table or from plates and it became apparent that it is extremely difficult to refuse her doleful deep brown eyes and appealing expression when she sits in front of people who have food. Slipping Comfort the odd morsel of food now and then would undo all the good work and good habits that Jane had been rigorously teaching her and at times it was an uphill battle! Homes where there are children present an even greater challenge when training a scavenging dog, so it may be necessary to train them too! The rule here is: Never hand-feed your dog, especially from a plate. This sends a signal that it is pointless for the dog to even try to persuade you to give her your food, which is a sign of human weakness in dog language. It had been suggested to Jane, by several dog owners, that she should put temptation in Comfort’s by smearing food with unpleasant tasting/smelling products, such as pepper, citronella, mustard or chilli sauce to discourage Comfort, a very determined dog; whilst some dogs may not go near it, when tasty food is left unattended you can be sure that she will eat it!
Another option to deter a scavenger is to use a short sharp noise to interrupt the behaviour. A bunch of keys or discs dropped near to where the dog is about to do the deed can be quite effective, however, I felt that Comfort, being a somewhat nervous dog, would benefit more from regular training, stimulation and exercise. Comfort becomes very mischievous when bored!
The combination of keeping food in the ‘fridge or secure cupboards and not leaving food unattended, coupled with regular training set Comfort on the road to being a reformed scavenger. In addition, Jane is doing a great job of training her family to put things, especially food, out of harm’s way.
Some dogs are less obedient and more determined, in which case they may need to wear a muzzle when in a park or the street to prevent them from vacuuming up all manner of faeces, decaying food or rubbish. Owning a scavenging dog can be an exasperating experience, you feel you need eyes in the back of your head to prevent your dog from fulfilling its natural instincts, however, with regular training and a good deal of resolve, like Jane, owners can have the last word – and the piece of cake that they deserve.
Written by Sue Gilmore
This article appeared in Dogs Monthly magazine