Dealing with Dog Coprophagia? Train the Treasure Hunt Game
Make yourself more attractive than poop!
Dealing with dog coprophagia isn't easy. It's one of those behaviors that requires more management than anything else. Many owners are on the lookout for remedies and solutions that will often not prove themselves helpful, especially in the long run. This article will outline a training method that can help, but I must forewarn it's not that magic pill every one hopes for that will stop this behavior once and for all. Many owners of dogs with coprophagia report that they have tried a long list of remedies. From feeding pineapple, to using Deter, Forbid and even calling the aid of a trainer. Unfortunately despite all the effort, things may and often fail.
First and foremost, the most important step is to contact a veterinarian to rule out medical problems. Some dogs may suffer from medical or nutritional issues such as malabsorption, an enzyme deficiency or conditions such as exocrine pancreatic deficiency. However, there are times when the behavior may just become an ingrained habit whether the dog enjoys the attention it gets when caught in the act, has learned from watching other dogs, is bored, stressed or simply hasn't overgrown this behavior from early puppy hood. Regardless of the cause, one thing is for sure, many owners are at their wits end to find a solution.
It's unfortunate that still as of today, coprophagia is often dealt with by using harmful products or harsh training techniques. Following are a few examples of steps dog owners take to stop dogs from this behavior:
Taste Aversion Methods
These are special products that when given to the dog, cause the dog to produce poop that has an unpleasant taste. There seem to be mixed reviews on these products with many people reporting that it fails to work or even makes their dog sick. If you look at the reviews for Forbid, for instance, you can see that it has 21 happy customers and 48 unhappy ones. Statistically, things don't look good. According to a study conducted byDr. Ben Hart, DVM, PhD, DACVB and his colleagues at University of California, despite the wide range of food additives crafted for poop eating, these were effective only 0-2% of the time! Another problem is that not only are they ineffective, but many of these products contain MSG (mono sodium glutamate) not the healthiest ingredient on earth! Veterinarian Karen Becker recommends looking for a non-toxic product that doesn't contain MSG.
A more simple and natural solution dog owners often resort to is feeding the dog foods that are believed to make the poop taste unpleasant. Commonly used additions include pineapple, pineapple juice, spinach or pumpkin, but again, these remedies often don't work, especially when the dog enjoys the poop of other dogs as well other than his own.
And then we have owners adding stuff to the poop directly in an effort to discourage the behavior. This often requires following the dog, waiting for him to poop and then strategically pouring some condiments that taste bad. Actually, more than pouring on top, to prevent your dog from learning which poops you have "treated" by simply looking at them, you'll have to dissect a poop, place the ingredient in the middle and then close up the stool-- I know, yuck! who wants to do that!.. Ingredients often used include Tabasco sauces, Cayenne pepper or even a spritz of Bitter Apple spray to discourage the behavior, but again, this often stops working unless you're there rain or shine always adding that stuff on each and every poop your dog makes. Not to mention that many times, dogs don't seem to mind the bad taste, so you're back to square one!
Harsh Training Methods
When dealing with unwanted behaviors, dog owners often feel compelled to utilize harsh training methods based on positive punishment. Dog owners may scold the dog, try to chase the dog away or act in intimidating ways in hopes of deterring the dog from engaging in the undesirable behavior. Often, these methods don't work either. Punishment will only teach the dog to fear the owner and will ultimately cause the dog to eat poop secretly when the owner isn't watching. Most likely, because of the fear of getting caught, the dog will also learn to gulp the poop down even faster than before.
Some dog owners may employ the aid of a dog trainer who uses shock collars in hopes of solving the issue. In these cases, the dog is shocked every time he shows interest in the poop (positive punishment) or the shock is delivered continuously until the dog shows disinterest or spits out the poop (negative reinforcement). In order to be effective, the shock will need to obviously cause discomfort. Again, this may work only temporarily and many dogs return to the poop eating behavior in the future and require refresher sessions just as it happens with snake-aversion training. Not to mention the stress,shock collars bring! For more on this, read my article on how to correctly use a shock collar and why I don't recommend their use.
As seen, harsh methods seem not to work. Back to the study conducted by Dr. Ben Hart, punishment including yelling, chasing the dog away or using electronic collars were ineffective. Not to mention, such methods can have serious repercussions. These methods risk affecting the dog and owner bond as dogs may start seeing the owner as a source of punishment. Even though you may scold the dog right the moment he engages in the unwanted behavior, it must be remembered that Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder and may cause your dog to associate you with negative happenings. And with shock collars, even though there's belief that the dog will not associate the owner or trainer with the shock, it must be considered that there are always chances for the dog to sadly associate the shock with whatever is present in his surroundings. Sadly, I know of some cases of dogs being scared of pooping in the yard because the yard was associated with the shocks of an electronic fence. These dogs therefore started pooping inside. Definitively not worth the risk!
The best way for dealing with poop eating dogs in the long run is management. Indeed, according to the study by Dr. Hart, supervision and and cleaning up after the dog is what turned out being the best solution. Many owners are often unhappy with this protocol because this is often not really what they want to hear, but it's ultimately the only really effective way. Management means controlling the dog's environment so to eliminate or considerably reduce the source of the problem.
And what about trying reward-based techniques? We have seen how harsh techniques bring more problems to the table, so what about more positive,based methods? Unfortunately, Dr. Hart's study also claims that reward based techniques including clicker training were ineffective in treating dog coprophagia. However, for those like me who want to give training a try, there's the treasure hunt game. Let me be honest here, I didn't really invent this game, it was the evolution of the leave it command with a twist. A dog with a chronic case of poop eating actually invented this game during his extended stays with me. Read on, to learn more about our journey.
I found the treasure, now where's my treat?
Lessons from a Poop Eating Dog
This is my experience dealing with a poop-eating dog I had the fortune to have over at my boarding & training center for several extended stays. Many of those folks who own poop-eating dogs would call owning a dog as such a misfortune as they know how frustrating this problem can be, but I found this a marvelous opportunity to make the most out of the experience and try to see what could be done in such desperate cases, especially when chronic and with a history of poor success. So yes, I feel blessed to have had this opportunity, as I ultimately feel with any dog I get to work with because it's my belief that "Every single dog has the potential to teach valuable lessons if you're open to learn."
My Poop Plan: Management
So I had plans in place and knew I would set the dog up to success by investing in management as my primary strategy. This meant keeping him on leash and keeping the yard as immaculate as possible. Keeping the yard completely immaculate though was a bit arduous in my case. Things get difficult when you have a lot of acreage, tall grass and other dogs that poop in the most secluded places. With my best effort, it always seemed like I would miss a turd or two or some naughty poop particles would fall off the pooper scooper without notice, and of course, there's no better poop-detecting machine than a poop-eating dog! This was the first time ever I wished I had a smaller yard where poop would stand out and scream "pick me up, pick me up!"
Poop Strike on Leash
The first day this dog spent with me, I took him out on leash in the yard to relieve himself. I could have left him off leash, but thought not to, just in case I left behind some stray poop somewhere He peed but did not poop that day. I wasn't really surprised as some dogs are picky about where to poop their first nights at our place and need some time to adjust. But when he didn't poop the next day, I called the owner to ask if his dog had any preferences when it comes to surfaces or locations and he told me "he was probably on pooping strike because he wasn't used to pooping on leash." I therefore tried with a long line so he would feel a bit more free, but nothing. So forget keeping him leashed on his outings in the yard. I had to go to plan B.
Luckily, he didn't seem to care at all about my dog's poop which was a good thing that made things easier. He apparently was only interested in his own stools, so I made it a habit to follow him with my pooper scooper in hand, wait for him to poop and then quickly pick it up. I did this every single day. This became quite easy once I discovered that he had the habit to always poop around the same area.
Fortunately, I also learned that he didn't like his poop when it was fresh as he never made an about-face to consume it right after emission and he had plenty of opportunities to do so. This gave me time to clean up without worries. Apparently, like some of the best cheeses, it looked like he liked his poop "aged" but not too much. The study by Dr. Hart interestingly backs this up with the claim that "90% of stools were eaten within 2 days." He also offers a possible evolutionary explanation for this by possibly looking at the behavior of canines in the wild. Basically, dog poop tends to become incubated with parasites at an infectious stage after a certain period of time, so by eating the poop fresh, this practice protected other pack members from getting pesky parasites. Sounds almost like a famous commercial: "Poopway: Eat fresh!"
A Sudden Modus Operandi Change
Right when I thought I was managing the situation pretty well, came a modus operandi change I didn't expect. Almost an extinction burst, if you will. I noticed how day after day, when he was sent out in the yard, he always ran first to the area he routinely pooped on in hopes of finding his treasures. As mentioned, he always made an effort to poop in the same area, perhaps for convenience sake. Well now, day after day, he seemed to be getting more and more upset. The grassy strip of land he used to poop on, was no longer allowing him to harvest his meals as I was always removing the poops on a daily or twice daily basis as they happened. You could see he was getting a bit disappointed by this. So then it happened...he started liking my dog's poop. I really should have not been surprised, even statistics backed this up. Indeed, back to Dr. Hart's study, the majority of dogs (85%) ate the stools of other dogs.
Instead of getting upset over this and blaming myself for not thinking this could happen (well, I honestly did get a bit upset with my myself), I thought to turn watching the behavior into a learning lesson to study him better and get an assessment.
"Drop it" Morphed into "Gulp it and Live On"
One thing I noticed was that he was extremely fast in gulping down poop. Yes, the owners told me that this dog's previous owners (this dog was surrendered when he was younger, and the poop eating was a factor) often verbally reprimanded him for poop eating in the past and sometimes they even pried his mouth open to get him to spit it out, so it made sense that he would eat fast..very fast. The owners also told me that if he would get a hold of something he shouldn't have, his mouth was so shut they could not pry it open--crocodile style. As per the advice of a previous trainer, the owners had tried teaching him to drop on command but when it came to dropping poop on command, they did this so much with no results that the "drop it" command had morphed into the "just gulp it down and move on" command.
I had noticed hints of the past unsuccessful training in his modus operandi. As he started eating the poop, I was getting closer to make sure it was indeed poop. I was under the impression that upon noticing the slightest interest I manifested, even just looking at him or slightly moving towards him, triggered him to swallow as fast he could and then trot away happily while still smacking his lips with the most satisfied grin on his face. The eating fast suggested to me that he perceived poop as a highly valuable resource that had to be gone before anybody tried to interfere. As with dealing with any other resources, it was important to proceed with caution.
Giving Up is Reasonable
The owners had also told me they had given up.. and that they had several trainers try already so they had low expectations. So they picked up as much poop as they could and let him stay in their 3-acre yard, which of course, also meant eating poop to his heart content as watching every move he made all day and picking up poop every single poop after him was nearly impossible. It made sense to give up. After trying it all, sometimes you just learn to live with some doggy habits as long as they're not harmful. The owners did take him to the vet for the issue and nothing was ever found, he always got a good bill of health in his 7 years. He was also fed a pretty good diet enriched with enzymes and probiotics..This again was consistent with Dr. Hart's research which claimed that when it came to coprophagia, "We found that diet of the dog had no effect." Thankfully, the dedicated owners (bless their hearts for taking such good care of him!) did a good job in getting his stools checked twice a year just to make sure he wasn't infesting himself repeatedly with parasites and they were also letting him get general check-ups. I felt their frustration, but it truly seemed like they made peace with it or were at least trying to.
Trying Never Hurts
Yet, I was not ready to let it go. I love challenges and changing behaviors the force-free way. I knew for a fact that I would not leave him unattended in a yard to eat poop all day, not at least at my place. I had to find a way. So after some time, I went back to keeping him on leash, this time using a slightly longer leash and taking him to his favorite poop party spot, making sure to interfere minimally and rewarding him lavishly when he pooped on leash. Soon, he became regular and even seemed like he enjoyed pooping on leash!
Yet, even on leash, he was extremely fast and he managed to outsmart me a couple of times. He loves to sniff, so he would always be sniffing on his outdoor adventures. With his furry tail, almost always kept high like a proud banner, it kept blocking my view when he was walking ahead. It was hard at times seeing exactly what he was doing. I often figured it out when it was too late...When this happened, I would feel a complete idiot.Yes, I felt like hitting my head repeatedly with a newspaper, Ian Dunbar style. It may have helped to keep him on a shorter leash, but when he was out, I didn't want to interfere much with his activities as he was used to do as he pleased at home on his farm.
A Need To Change the Emotional Response
As the days went by though, I noticed that this dog was starting to resent being leashed to go in the yard. Why? It ultimately made sense, this dog was always free to do as he liked and have as many poop banquets as he wanted and now he was leashed. I could see his disappointed face when he went with me to his favorite area in hopes of enjoying poop, but there was nothing there. I know the feeling because I often felt it as well. Yes, indeed, but I do not eat poop, no thank you. Realistically speaking though, how many times did I go to my favorite restaurant only to find it closed. Boy, that angered me especially when my mouth was watering thinking about what to order...With this dog, the frustration became quite evident the day we went to the area, he sniffed and then started to scratch at his collar. Often, I see this frustrated displacement behavior in dogs when they're waiting for their meals to be prepared and it's taking too much or see food on the counter and can't get to it, but I found it curious that he always aimed for the collar almost as if telling me that he didn't like being on leash to begin with as it prevented him from engaging in his favorite poop eating activities since we walked at a distance from problem areas.
With the leash on and taking away opportunities for reinforcement (by removing the poop), I was doing management, but I started thinking that repeated and strict management wasn't ultimately nice, plus he wasn't learning anything new. How would I feel if every day I was taken out to walk past many restaurants and never got to dine in them? How would I feel if I went to my favorite restaurant, smelled the great food but food was never served? I had to find a better way. Perhaps the leave it command would help.
"Leave it" Is Often Trained Harshly
The leave it command is often trained as a harsh command. I see many trainers use a strong, intimidating tone of voice to show they're boss and mean business. If you look at it from a dog's perspective the "leave" it command taught this way looks like a dog growling over a possession. "This is mine! Don't even think of getting close." Back a few years, I could almost hear the trainer growling one day as I watched him teach" leave it " in a big box store. He had a bone on the floor and every dog that was approaching made him growl loudly "leave it" as he stepped his shoe over the bone making sure it was out of reach. "OK,OK" seemed to say the dogs as they walked by sending calming signals left and right under the form of lip licks and yawns. "You can keep it!" they seemed to remark.
Leave it the Force-Free Way
Years back, I used to train leave it that way as well. Today, I know better. My "leave it" no longer means a thump-chesting "It's mine" but rather "You can't have that... but guess what? I have better!" It's something I train often and if trained correctly works even on those days you don't have treats as long as you reinforce it with something else like praise.
How I trained it... So I first start indoors, I would say "leave it" and pop a treat in his mouth several times in a row until he started reliably turning his head towards me for his treat upon hearing the words "leave it." This classical conditioned approach made the head turning almost reflexive. After ward, we needed to add distractions into the mix, so I starting upping the value of treats. So we started walking by a toy, I would say leave it and he would turn his head towards me. Then we walked by a pile of kibble, then his bone, then his food bowl before meals. He seemed to understand the concept. Leave it meant:" turn towards me and come and get your treat." I always made sure the treat was always higher in value than the items he had to leave so to make it worthy.
Of course, we then expanded to the yard. I had to find things he found interesting so I compiled a list of those things he would tug on the leash to investigate when we were out. Of course, poop was one of them, but there were so many others. So we started practicing leave it for when he passed by a few feathers he used to sniff at, we practiced it as we walked past a hole he started to dig and we used it when he was going towards a bush he would randomly sniff. Of course, I didn't want to take charge of his life and take him away from these innocent activities he loved. I wanted him to do as much as he would do at home in his yard--minus the poop eating of course. So after saying leave it and rewarding him, I would allow him to go enjoy these innocent activities.
The Big Testing Day Had Come
Then, it happened. He went to his favorite area and there was poop. I crossed my fingers hoping it worked.As soon as he acknowledge it, I told him "leave it" and he turned his head, walked past the pile and came to eat his super high value treat. Bingo! This may seem like something insignificant, but this was a dog that had eaten poop for all his life and there he was making a good choice after all those years! I was ecstatic! But the best still had to come...
The Treasure Hunt Game
As mentioned, there were times where I would miss a turd or two so of course, that was a big problem because as a seasoned poop eater, this dog was great at detecting it. So one day we were walking, and he pulled suddenly, sniffed the area and then turned his head towards me. I didn't say leave it, so this behavior left me a bit surprised, I still rewarded him for it just in case. I took a mental picture of the area he sniffed and it was right next to a rock, so when I put him back inside, I ran out and checked it out. I was hopeful it was what I thought.. and yes yes,yes, it turned out it was poop! I didn't pick it up though, I wanted to test this again.
Next day, the same thing happened. Basically, he had taught himself to find poop so he could get his reward! All the training finally started to pay off. He was basically know going on treasure hunts. This behavior has become quite reliable now, I didn't even keep him on leash anymore, but I made sure I was always nearby, because we haven't worked on increasing distance yet. I am not saying he has been treated,that's a long shot, because, who knows, there may be a day where he decides to go back to his old habit, and that's why an ethical trainer won't make guarantees on the outlook of behavior, but so far so good.
My Yard Know is Almost Immaculate
I can actually say that now the poop eating dog is helping me find those occasional poops I miss in the yard. And because there's no better poop-detector than a dog with coprophagia, I think this yard has never been cleaner. Yes, he pulls when he detects poop, but I rather have a dog that pulls to report his findings, than one that pulls to have lunch. Best of all, we are working as a team when he head outdoors and he is an enthusiastic player. This reminds me almost the excitement I had seen once in a Lagotto Romagnolo sent out with the owner to search for truffles. This truffle-hunting dog was happy and couldn't wait to tell the owner of his findings. These dogs are trained from a young age to look for these precious tubers. Dogs Have Great Potential to Learn!
Kaiser Cleaning up the Yard
This breakthrough in poop-eating habits brought me back to something similar that happened to me when my Rottweiler puppy Kaiser was 5 months old. We recently moved to a yard and discovered the previous tenant was a smoker and left several cigarette butts on the ground, scattered just about everywhere. Of course, I was really upset about this, because my puppies wanted to eat them and ingesting just a few could be dangerous due to nicotine toxicity. So one day, I took my male Rottweiler with me and decided to train the drop it command. I used high value treats and every time he had a cigarette butt in his mouth, I told him "drop it." We did this several times, several days. One day, I decided to clean up the yard for good and got a trash bag and started picking some cigarette butts and he picked one up as well, but I didn't take notice. This time though, he brought it to me and dropped it at my feet waiting to claim his treat! I was stunned and of course, praised lavishly and even gave him several treats in a row. I thought for a bit, it was just an occasional behavior, but there he came back and back with more cigarette butts! I took advantage of the trash bag being there and told him to drop it right inside the bag and it worked like a charm! That day, was the most productive day ever. I think we got them all and the yard was finally clean. When my hubby came home from work he asked me how was my day and what I did and I told him happily "I cleaned up the yard... and Kaiser helped me!"
Petra Retrieving Dropped Items
On the other hand, Petra has also her amazing story. When she was a small puppy she often would find items and steal them to eat them up. Her absolute favorites were pens. She would chew them and sometimes even swallow pieces. Of course, this bothered me, not because of the broken pens but because I was afraid of the parts she would swallow. Because back then I wasn't training force-free, I was training the harsh leave it and drop it command using the intimidating, resource-guarding tone of voice. Of course, this only made matters worse because she started stealing them and chewing them out of sight. She could have ingested pieces and I would not have known. So later on, when I learned about better ways, her behavior totally changed. I taught her that wonderful things happened when she would drop the pen. She really got good dropping stuff, but then came the wonderful twist: when she noticed I would drop a pen, she would retrieve it to bring it to me! It was as if she was saying "hey mom, you just dropped this! now where's my treat?"
As seen, force-free methods can do wonders in changing behaviors. Whether you are training a dog to not chew pens, stop chewing cigarette butts or eat poop, it's amazing seeing results, especially when the dog joyfully brings the training to another level. The expressions on their faces denote enthusiasm. Of course, the dog eating poop is not treated, but at least we have found a compromise that works for us for the time being, now it's up to the owners if they want to continue this training. Whichever the choice, this was a wonderful experience and I hope it helps others at least better manage the behavior.
Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy. Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional veterinary or behavioral advice. If your dog engages in coprophagia, please see your vet to rule out medical problem. This article was written with owner's written consent to share. No names are mentioned to protect privacy.
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