The fact you are reading this chapter of my new book means there is a high chance that you already know that dogs love to scavenge! But, you might be surprised to learn that there are several deep-rooted reasons for this; it’s not as simple as them just feeling hungry or being greedy! Understanding why your dog loves scavenging so much can help you better work out how to manage this behaviour successfully.
So, here are the reasons why your dog values scavenging so highly:
Scavenging Is A Basic Need For Your Dog
Something that every species of living beings rely upon is finding food. This is essential to their survival, and it is no different for our dogs. Although our own domesticated pet dogs no longer rely on scavenging as their only way of finding food, it is often still something they naturally desire and feel the need to do.
Your Dog Is Simply Hungry
This is perhaps the most common reason which comes to mind when owners are faced with a scavenging dog! Many think their dog is doing it to be greedy, but in actual fact, they may be hungry. Some modern-day dog foods don’t keep your dog’s hunger satisfied for long, so when they come across something tasty on the ground, it can be very hard for them to resist, even if it’s something potentially bad for them. Consider the type and amount of food your dog is getting, and how often they are fed over the day. Making changes to these things can be a good starting point for reducing your dog’s scavenging, although it won’t eliminate it completely! Even dogs who are fed high-quality foods can still find the temptation of some ‘freebies’ too difficult to ignore! Try feeding your dog around 20 minutes before you go for a walk. Do this for a week and see if this is able to reduce their scavenging urges.
Dog’s Find Scavenging Intrinsically Reinforcing
There are two things at play here that makes scavenging intrinsically reinforcing for our dogs – their seeking system and their play system. The seeking system is the most addictive of the two and can be likened to people who enjoy gambling. Although they don’t win every time they take part, it’s the thrill of the possibility of winning that keeps them coming back for more again and again. They invest increasing amounts of time, energy, and concentration in anticipation of a win that might happen, in exactly the same way a human would when playing slot machines, or placing bets. When your dog wins by finding something to eat on the floor, the feeling of euphoria and excitement, along with the Dopamine that is released into their system, makes them want to scavenge again.
The play system means that scavenging feels good for your dog, they enjoy it, and it makes them happy! Your dog’s enjoying the searching, finding, sniffing, chewing, licking, eating, and swallowing aspects of scavenging food. This releases feel-good endorphins into your dog’s system, which leaves them feeling happy, satisfied, and relaxed. It’s not hard to see why they would want to repeat this process as often as possible, so they can feel this way more often! This is similar to how humans feel when we have a lavish 3-course meal. We feel indulged and will look forward to the next opportunity we have to experience this.
Scavenging Is Genetically Anchored Into Your Dog
Wolves first started spending time closer to humans because they realised there was food near them that was easily accessible. Humans created waste and stored food, which was much easier for the wolves to scavenge from than them having to find and kill their own food. This relationship turned out to be mutually beneficial as the wolves deterred other animals and intruders from getting too close to the humans. This sparked the start of evolution from wolves to the dogs we know and love today.
Some wild dogs still live in a very similar way to their ancestors, living on the outskirts of villages and scavenging from what the villagers leave behind. Some breeds still retain these strong instincts to scavenge, even though they no longer depend on it for their survival.
Your Dog Is Used To Needing To Scavenge
The saying ‘old habits die hard’ is relevant to dogs who have been used to needing to scavenge in order to survive. For dogs that have lived on the streets, often for several months, they need to scavenge food to eat. This could be hunting and killing their own animals, or easier for them, scavenging food that humans leave behind. In fact, their whole life will have been structured around finding food, and it will have taken up a large part of each day for them. They will have practiced their scavenging skills to make them excellent at finding things to eat, so they are not wasting precious time and energy searching for food. So, this can be a tough thing for them to stop suddenly, even if their new lifestyle no longer requires them to do it.
Boredom Can Make Your Dog Scavenge More
This is particularly common in breeds with high intelligence and energy levels. If they’re not provided with enough mental and physical stimulation, your dog may start using scavenging to remedy their boredom. This gives them something fun and rewarding to do. So, it’s important to ensure your dog’s mental and physical needs are being met, before you start this training protocol. Without this, the training won’t be as effective.
Over-aroused Dogs Tend To Scavenge More
Dogs that are stressed, anxious, or over-aroused can use scavenging as a way to distract themselves and make themselves feel better. Dogs that are reactive towards other animals, people, and new scenarios can be more likely to resort to scavenging to try and help them feel more in control and calmer. If you feel that your dog is scavenging because of underlying stress, or to try and distract themselves from stressful situations, it’s best to contact a force-free trainer or behaviourist for advice prior to starting this training protocol.
Your Dog Is Searching For A Novel Taste
Humans tend to be creatures of habit, and we like to stick with what we know. So often, once we find a food that suits our dog, we stick with the same flavour, day after day, month after month. Although this might be the most convenient option for us, it is by far the most boring option for our dogs! Unless they suffer from allergies or intolerances, our dogs can benefit from having a wide selection of different flavours and protein sources in their diet. Whether they are raw fed, kibble fed, or you cook at home for them, so long as their diets are complete, nutritious and tasty for them that is the main thing! If dogs constantly eat the same food for extended periods, it will quickly become monotonous for them. This can lead to them having a stronger urge to scavenge in a desperate bid to find something different and more exciting to eat!
Artificial Selection Can Increase Scavenging
The artificial selection of certain breeds can increase the likelihood and frequency of their scavenging behaviour. This is often seen in members of the hound family, who are bred to live and work in large packs of other hounds. Many working hounds live in a large group and are fed together, meaning it’s in their best interest to find, grab and eat the food as quickly as possible, to make sure they get a decent amount. Those that are not as fast, will get little to no food and will be hungry, so it’s better for them to refine their scavenging skills to become more successful at it.
Also, some gundog breeds like the Labrador, Flat Coated Retriever and Golden Retriever have been found to be missing part of or all of the gene known as POMC. The Proopiomelanocortin gene (POMC) gene affects appetite, food motivation, fat storage, and most importantly satiety. Satiety signals when your dog is full and without this signal working correctly, which is the case with dogs with the faulty POMC gene, they won’t know that they feel full. So, they will continue to eat more, even though they have had enough! This understandably can increase their scavenging, as they constantly feel hungry, even if they are well fed and nourished.
Your Dog May Have A Medical Condition
If your dog is an excessive scavenger, or has recently started scavenging much more than usual, it is best to get them checked thoroughly by your vet to rule out any potential medical issues before you start training. If your dog’s scavenging is due to a medical condition, then this training protocol won’t be successful until your dog has received the relevant treatment to cure or manage their condition effectively. Conditions like gastroenteritis, gastritis, heartburn, indigestion, pancreatitis, acid reflux, IBD, and parasites can all increase scavenging because your dog is looking for something to make themselves feel more comfortable or to ease their symptoms.
Pica Makes Your Dog Need To Scavenge
Pica is a disorder which makes your dog crave and eat non-food substances. This can mean pebbles, wood, plastic, paper, or anything else at all which in non-nutritional, wouldn’t be considered as food and holds no physical value to your dog. It is not fully understood what causes Pica. Some say it is a medical condition, related to stress and anxiety, because of boredom, or a habit the dog has formed. Whatever the reasoning behind the Pica, you should work with a qualified behaviourist under the advice of your veterinarian to try and manage it effectively before beginning this training protocol.
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“Don’t Eat That!”
If you want to learn more about force-free food-avoidance training for dogs, this book is perfect for you: