Oh, Crap: Solving Your Dog’s Poop-Eating Habit

I first noticed something was amiss when Mischief, my youngest dog, didn’t come in after her last potty break of the night. When I called her, she took a couple quick, habitual steps in my direction, then darted back to swallow something in the snow before running in. My suspicions about her out-of-character behavior were confirmed at 3am the next morning, when she woke me out of a sound sleep by vomiting up three large puddles of fecal material.

I’ll spare you the details of my early morning clean-up other than to say that Mischief spent the rest of the night in a crate and that I left a window cracked for a couple hours, heating bills be damned. Instead, let’s skip over that awful night and speak of more constructive things. Why do dogs eat poop, and how can you get them to stop?

Photo by A Dog Spot.

Photo by A Dog Spot.

The technical term for poop-eating behavior is coprophagia, and disgusting as it is to us, this is a relatively normal behavior for dogs. Some experts such as the Coppingers theorize that this behavior is the root of domestication for dogs. Wild canids would eat human refuse outside of settlements, and over time these animals came to resemble our domestic dogs more and more. Mother dogs eat their puppy’s excrement until the pups are about four weeks of age. Dogs like poop, and their digestive systems are designed in such a way that they can often gain nutrition from the waste products of other animals.

All that said, coprophagia is not a behavior most people will tolerate in their companion dogs. There are some health risks, such as an increased risk of parasites (some of which are zoonotic, which means that people can get them too). If your dog has allergies, as one of mine does, the undigested remnants of allergens in the poop of animals fed certain diets can trigger an allergic reaction. And while dogs’ systems can generally handle the bacteria load found in most poop, ours may not.

As soon as I realized what Mischief was up to, I sprang into action. There are two important aspects to any treatment plan dealing with coprophagia: management and training. Let’s start with management.

The more a dog practices any behavior, be it eating fecal matter or sitting politely to greet guests, the better the dog gets at that behavior. This means that if your dog eats poop and you want them to stop, preventing them from “practicing” that poop-eating behavior is of vital importance. There are several ways to do this.

One of the first things I did then was to thoroughly clean my yard. This was difficult, as nearly a foot of freshly fallen snow made it difficult to find old piles for me, but easy for Mischief with her talented nose. I resolved to pick up each new pile as soon as it happened.

Since there were still likely to be some piles hidden under the fresh snowfall, I also needed a way to prevent Mischief from gobbling up anything new she found. For this purpose, I conditioned her to wear a muzzle happily. (Check out this great video by Domesticated Manners for step-by-step instructions on doing this.)

Management in place, I could get down to training. While there are several food additives on the market such as S.E.P., Deter, and For-Bid that claim to make the dog’s poop unappetizing, these options were not available to me due to Layla’s severe allergies. It’s important to treat every dog in the household with these options, or the offending dog will just learn to keep trying in order to find an unadulterated pile to munch on. These are not 100% effective, although they can work for some dogs.

Mischief already had a pretty reliable ‘leave it’ cue, where she would back away from and ignore whatever she was interested in when asked. I did a little review of this, setting out toys and treats on the ground during several training sessions so that I could make sure her self control was where it needed to be. If she couldn’t ignore an open container of hot dogs on the ground while she heeled, how could I expect her to ignore dog poop on the ground when she was running around in the backyard? We practiced lots of moving leave its, and she was able to successfully recall and heel past all sorts of distractions. We didn’t bother to practice stationary leave its (where the dog is sitting or lying down before the distraction appears), since these didn’t have anything to do with the real life situation she’d be placed in.

As of right now, I am going outside with Mischief every time she goes out. She wears her muzzle if she’s going to be off leash or if I can’t completely supervise her. If she starts to scrounge in the snow, I ask her to ‘leave it’ and reward her compliance with her favorite treats (a little piece of bleu cheese or roast beef). Since my ultimate goal is for her to be responsible without my help, I jackpot her with several pieces of this food and lots of praise any time she chooses to pass by a pile of poop without my prompting. Over time, I will start allowing her to go out on a long leash while I supervise from the doorway, and then gradually progress to allowing her off-leash freedom again.

Coprophagia is disgusting, but like all other behavior problems it can be solved.  And as anyone who has ever had to clean up a mess of the sort Mischief presented me with at 3am the other day can attest, it’s well worth the effort to stop this behavior in its tracks! (Need a little extra help solving a tough poop-eating problem with your dog? Don’t be afraid to call in an expert – I frequently help families with this issue through private consultations.)

Have you ever dealt with a coprophagic dog? Please share your tips and stories in the comments section below!

12 responses to “Oh, Crap: Solving Your Dog’s Poop-Eating Habit

  1. I did just as you suggested and made more of an effort to clean up every bit I could find. We have worked a lot on the *leave it* command and she’s done excellent with it. I have four dogs and my oldest seems to be the one she is most attracted to eating after. I surmised that with him being a senior he is not digesting his food as well and maybe this attracts her more. Whatever the cause, we are working on hard on a solution and while it is not 100% yet, it is fsr better than it was a mo th ago. I am thinking of getting the muzzles for two of my dogs that insist on eating rabbit and deer droppings. Thanks for the great tips.

  2. Hi Sara – I had this problem with a dog long ago when we’d go to the dog park. Really not fun discovering “the hard way” that your dog is engaged in this behavior! (Not my bed but my living room carpet… uck) One thing I recall reading was related to the above post regarding dog feces containing food particles that may not be fully digested. It may be that the other dogs are not fully processing their food so you might try feeding them less. Seems counter-productive if the offending dog is engaging in this behavior because they are hungry but might be worth a try?

  3. Your blog popped up on my Facebook page just as I was yelling at our pug to get out of the cat litter box. Considering she was a momma dog when we fostered, then adopted her I’m pretty sure it is instinctive but not sure why the cat poop. She doesn’t eat dog poop. We’ve tried making the entrances to the litter boxes small so a dog can’t get into them but our pug only weighs 17 pounds and we have cats that weight 25! We’ll work on the leave it – she will stop when I yell at her to get out of them but the problem is we have 4 litter boxes throughout the house so its a constant battle!

    • Holly – Have you tried a baby gate? (cats can scale it but it will keep your pug away from the litterbox) Most dogs will eat cat poop if given the opportunity – must be the cat food. ;)

      • Higher proteins are in cat food. I had a vet tell me cat poo is a “tootsie roll” to a dog. :)

  4. Our newest dog learned to eat poop at the rescue we got her from. She would be one one of her few trips outside of her kennel, pick up poop and then someone would chase her, which is SO MUCH FUN! It took us a few months to get her over it, we used a combination of “leave it”, coprophagia pills, probiotics and constant outside supervision. It wasn’t fun but she got there in the end, it’s been a good 10 months since we had to worry about the poo eating. Hooray!

  5. Oh, dear, my Dachshund, Danny Quinn, has been a poopaholic his entire life; learned at his puppy mill, no doubt. I may never totally solve the problem, but I do know I need to be more diligent about picking it up in the first place….sometimes tough with 17 dogs.

  6. I inadvertently created a behaviour chain of find poop –> wait for me to cue “leave it” –> come get a treat. I’m working on that now, but it’s still a huge improvement- she’s not eating the poop, I’m the one dispensing the reward, and she’s alerting me to all the poop so that I can pick it up, which makes it easier for me to make sure she’s not self-rewarding.

    • I’m sorry, but this made me chuckle! While not ideal, I can see where it would help keep the yard clean! “Here mom, there’s more over here!”

  7. LOL at Katie, I also have a behaviour chain. It involves carrying a chuckit ball, which Cracker usually does at the park (it’s a pacifier thing)..when she tracks some poop she drops the ball to sniff it, looks at me, I cue the leave it and she comes for a treat and the handly ball has marked the place where the poo is so I can go get it. More times than not now she’ll drop the ball and come and get me, rather than have a snack.

    A note: Cracker’s poo eating was extremely obsessive until she was put on anti anxieties for generalized anxiety and SA. The meds highly reduced the behaviour, leading me to believe that stress/anxiety can contribute to the behaviour.

  8. I have a four year old choc lab who has lots if allergies and began eating poo when her diet was restricted, she never ate her own just every nasty fresh pile she came across, she also would be sick. I used a muzzle but she would stick her face in the pile and I’d be left with a stinky muzzle to clean, I found that using a long line, perfecting ‘leave it’ and hard work paid off in the end, there were times when I felt like giving up as we’d get the odd set back, but we got there in the end, thankfully! Only problem is I’ve now got a 7 month old lab doing exactly the same! How lucky am I? At least this time around I’m more prepared to deal with it and hopefully nip it in the bud much sooner, she’a not eating her own but I caught her heating my other dogs so we are on poo patrol, picking up every lump straight away and praising like mad when she sniffs and walks away from the offending mounds while out walking.

  9. Pingback: Myth: Peeing on Your Dog | Paws Abilities

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