How to Deal with Your Scavenger Dog

Scavengers feed on dead animals or other food left behind, and even though your dog’s lifestyle doesn’t quite allow this to be fully externalized, he/she fits this description. 

Photo by David Levêque on Unsplash

Looking way back in dog history, we see dogs’ wild ancestors (a wolf–like canid) ditching the life of a hunter and opportunist scavenger to live as full-time scavengers on human waste. Tens of thousands of years later, they still eat our waste, and even though they don’t need to go out and scavenge through our landfills to find it — now it is packaged in fancy paper-plastic — the behavior is not extinct. 

Those proto-dogs followed the smell of a new food source in their area, and they seized the opportunity. We, the humans, had just invented the bow and arrow that advanced our hunting skills. This translated into more food for our communities and more food waste left behind for the opportunist wolf of the area. Scavenging our prehistoric dumpsters was a much easier way for those animals to secure their daily calories. Those dumpsters were nothing else than food left-overs scattered around our temporary settlements or left behind as we moved in the wild searching for more food to sustain the growing population. 

Those ancient canids gradually adjusted their brains and bodies to their new diet and lifestyle. Living off of human waste resulted in what we call now doggy characteristics. The friendlier they were and looked, the easier the access to food, and shelter.

When we discovered agriculture, we didn’t have to move anymore and dogs clung to our settlements forever. Now, after such a long time, they sleep in our beds, but the scavenger in them still dictates the deep-rooted instinct to stick their nose into anything that seems and smells intereting. They have no choice but to obey. 

So, when your dog sticks his/her nose in a pile of leaves, or your trash in search of edible treasures, you are witnessing what separated them from their wild forebears. It can’t get deeper than that. 

I hope this gives you an understanding of what you are dealing with when you try to stop your dog from scavenging. 

How to stop a scavenger dog from scavenging 

So, scavenging is part of being a dog. It comes with the package. It’s such a distinctive feature of theirs that to teach them otherwise we need to act with tact.  

But first, let’s answer the question ”Is scavenging harmful for the dog?”. 99 times out of 100, no, this is a harmless habit. But it only takes one wrong swallow for things to turn ugly. A piece of ham from someone’s sandwich won’t cause any harm to the dog, but a used tissue, another dog’s poops, or toxic material mistaken for food will. What’s more, beware of malicious people who intentionally poison dogs —yes, they exist. The more you follow the following tips, the more you reduce those ugly possibilities. 

Start with the realization that if you wish to see your dog growing out of picking things up from the ground, there is a big chance you will be disappointed. Your first realistic goal should be to teach them the ”leave it” command. Because If they are going to pick it up anyway, you should at least be able to stop them from swallowing it. 

The LEAVE IT command 

You are about to introduce a new cue/command/trick. For that, you will need your dog’s full capacity. Choose a familiar environment free from inviting nearby distractions. Don’t think too much, your home is exactly that. Tell all members of your household to keep quiet and you are all set for some good old indoor training — which by the way is a great way to enrich the quality of your dog’s indoor experience. 

Take two valuable objects (two bone-like toys or two new tennis balls). Let the dog see you holding them both. Leave one on the floor and let her examine it and pick it up with her mouth. Before she gets to enjoy it, say ”leave it”. Now remember you are dealing with their prehistoric scavenging nature; be firm, be serious, be calm but confident. Say leave it and keep the other object in sight asking for an exchange.  

Two things could happen here: 

  1. Given a dog’s curiosity nature, she leaves it and looks up to the second pleasurable object. Right away, mark the behavior with a bravo or good girl, and hand them the thing. She learns that leaving something on command leads to something equally good, why not obey?
  2. Your dog doesn’t leave it because she doesn’t want to risk losing the treasure she has found. In this case, insist. Insist without raising your voice. Tension in your tone will sabotage your efforts. If a second try is fruitless or you lose patience, bring in the winning bacon and get the object back.

Resist losing your patience. If so, stop and start again later or tomorrow. 

When you see progress, take it outdoors and repeat. This time take two sticks or pine cones so that the exercise is similar to a real-life moment. 

Note that you can replace the second object with a treat and skip the exchange overall, but that’s not my first recommendation because the exchange game is a valuable lesson to teach a dog. 

With time, when you are confident that your dog knows how to exchange, change the game a bit. Add a somewhat more challenging request for the dog. Work with only one object. Ask the dog to leave it and take the object. When she/he leaves it, grab it, hold it for a second, and give it back. This way, they learn that listening and responding to you doesn’t cost them any loss. Have some treats handy to further reinforce the behavior from time to time. 

Find other outlets for the nose 

So scavenging, nose down, eating off the ground is what makes dogs dogs and they are going to do it anyway. Another way to deal with the issueis to redirect their scavenging energy to something safer while indoors. By doing so, you hope to ease up their urge to scan their environment with their nose the moment you walk out of the house. 

Activities like stuffing a snuffle mat with dry food, or hiding treats around the house (find-it game) are designed to keep the dog’s nose happy for some time. Improving the quality of your dog’s indoor experience will have an impact on how well-behaved he/she is when you hit the road. 

Now, there is a big chance that nothing works to a desired level. Your dog keeps eating everything that worths to be swalloed. Consider unleashing the power of your verbal disapproval. 

The NO command 

This is the one word we say to our dogs more than any other, whether we realize it or not. We repeat it throughout the day so much that it becomes background noise for the dog. For that, it is wise to give it a more clear meaning. 

Use it as a cue to target behaviors you disapprove of. It serves as a cue/command that stops your dog from doing whatever it is they are doing. If you have already abused the word no, or if ”no” is too common in your household, say ”stop” or anything that suits you. 

This is something I’d rather let my dog learn organically, given how organic saying no or stop is. Saying no with some conviction is going to get a puppy’s attention sooner or later. For older dogs that live with their people for some time now, no or stop, or whatever word it is that you use for disapproval, is already known to some extent. What you need to do is pair their successful response to your disapproval with a good outcome. For that, you need to have some treats handy and reward them when NO or STOP stops them. 

Note that there will be times when your dog will choose not to come, stop, or leave it on request. This is serious, not because it hurts your ego, but because it can get unpleasant and even dangerous. 

Eating off the ground is one of those habits that dogs should be supervised that the dog needs to follow your guidance (your commands if you prefer) and not just cooperate. Remember that there is a big chance your dog will do very well during your training sessions. Moving forward though, there will be a time that a known command will be ignored. To prevent that from happening, make sure your dog listens to you because your guidance matters and not because you are holding a treat. 

I am not trying to introduce another training technique here. I am talking about your stance as the leader of your dog. A leader of a dog needs to inspire obedience. That’s not a master/servant relationship. This is you being a sufficient guardian of your dog. 

The way to make your words of guidance matter, even when treats are not promised, is called positive reinforcement and negative punishment. This is a killer combination, take a minute to explore those links. 

But leadership is not limited to training methods. Leadership is how you carry out your self around your dog. Are you involved with your dog daily? If not, do not expect a responsive dog. Are you confident in your ways of handling your daily doggy tasks? If not, do not expect your guidance to matter. If yes, you might as well be surprised by how well your dog responds to your cues/commands. Training sessions will not even matter. 

Before the end, let’s be clear: don’t think of physical punishments for your dog’s unresponsiveness. You don’t want to risk your dog’s relationship by violating his/her trust that you mean no harm. 

A quick final though 

The best way to keep your dog away from ”bad habits” is to keep him/her entertained, and the best way to have a responsive dog is to give him/her a happy and meaningful life. The benefits mount up because you get to be a part of it. 

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