Puppies get into things, and even with the best training, odd stuff is going to find its way into their mouths.
This eating behavior is sometimes part of normal development, but it can quickly turn serious if left untreated or made worse by mismanagement. A dog can learn that inappropriate chewing is a great way to get attention, but the chewing may also be a sign of pica.
If it is pica, you will probably witness abnormal behavior — quite often attention-seeking behavior — that has been so reinforced that it spirals out of control. Your dog may grab a non-nutritional item because doing so gets a response from you, and swallowing the item is a satisfying way for your dog to end the challenge.
I recently encountered a worst-case scenario that I was fortunate enough to help catch in time: A client had a young Weimaraner who had eaten a rock on 2 occasions. We avoided a more serious veterinary emergency because we saw the symptoms early and got the puppy treated before any real damage was done.
When we noticed that he wasn’t acting like himself, we immediately took him to the veterinarian. An X-ray and a few surgeries later, he was on the mend.
Prevent Inappropriate Chewing
When you have a dog who has odd eating habits, prevent the behavior from happening at all and start a behavioral modification program.
The first step in implementing a treatment plan is to stop the dog immediately from continuing the unwanted behavior, both for behavioral and safety reasons.
Because you can’t train away a health issue, it is a good idea to see your vet first to rule out a medical problem. Nutrition could certainly be a cause of odd consumption habits, so check the dog’s diet and the condition of his digestive system.
Limit Your Dog’s Access to Non-Nutritional Objects
Make sure the dog’s area at home is cleared of anything small enough to consume. It might be difficult, but it’s better to confine your dog than risk continued injury.
Use a basket-type muzzle on walks as a preventive measure. Dogs will commonly (and often reflexively) pull against the pressure of the leash, so avoid a retractable leash and don’t allow the dog to wander.
If you tug on the leash, you’re likely to make the behavior worse. I have seen too many dogs try harder to pull in response to someone tugging on the leash.
Teach Better Behavior
Rewarding your dog during walks with a small treat and praise for looking up at you is a good way to go. The most successful walking solution is to teach that walking with his head up will be more engaging than trying to scan the ground for something to eat.
Of course, as with any training exercise, it is best to initially train where there are no distractions:
- Start on a clean sidewalk or driveway, or even inside your house in a clear hallway.
- Build up to eventually going outside after you have had good success with the dog walking without scanning the ground.
Another approach is to teach the dog that when he sees something, it becomes the cue for him to turn and look at you. Give him a “touch” command or another targeting response (targeting is useful for other behaviors too, such as teaching your dog to stand for grooming or even to come to you).
See this type of training in action with Ghost the Weimaraner. We used targeting, attention and a loose leash walking exercise to teach him to walk without grazing:
- Start by teaching your dog to touch his nose to your hand.
- When the dog has effectively learned to turn toward you and touch your hand, you can use that training when he sees something on the ground.
- In time, his cue to touch can be prompted by seeing something on the ground. Then your dog can learn that an alternate behavior is more rewarding than eating something off the ground.
You Can’t Fix This Behavior Overnight
These training exercises take time and practice. If you have a serious problem with your dog, see a qualified positive trainer or behavior consultant.
Punishing your dog might suppress the symptoms but could also make the dog unpredictable and cause problematic side effects. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Pet Professional Guild both have searchable directories to find someone qualified to help your dog in your area.