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?
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!