Tips for Dogs that Eat Sticks, Rocks, & Other Stuff Outside
Does your dog eat sticks, rocks, pinecones, acorns or other objects on a walk? It is especially dangerous if your dog eats sticks and rocks since they can injure the mouth and cause intestinal blockages that can require surgery.
Sometimes puppies eat inappropriate things and grow out of it, but other times it can become a habit and continue into adulthood. If your adult dog continues to eat things that are not food, it is a behavior disorder called pica that you should ask your vet about.
I've come up with some tips on training dogs not to eat stuff that they shouldn't. These tips are meant to be used while you are in the great outdoors with your dog and supervising him or her. If your dog is eating things while alone in the yard, the best solution I know of is to make sure your dog's needs are being met (exercise, toys, etc) and to keep him or her in an area where there is less potential for "getting into trouble", such as a gated area or crate.
Training: Here are two different ways to train your dog to leave objects like rocks and sticks alone. If your dog has a very dangerous problem with eating items, I would not rely on training alone and would use one of the prevention methods discussed below such as the muzzle.
Let's start out easy and obvious! If the swallowing of rocks or sticks is happening while your dog is off leash, sometimes simply putting a leash on your dog can help you be more aware of your dog so that you can interrupt the behavior of eating things on your walk. It is also helpful to keep your dog busy with other activities such as playing with a toy, or interacting with you while outdoors. Think of some behaviors you could reward with treats such as checking in with you, playing with a toy or playing "hide and seek" with you. This will keep your dog's mind off of searching for things on the ground to swallow.
If your dog has only a mild issue with eating things and you would be happy to be able to tell him when you want him to leave something alone, then you can use this method to train your dog to "Leave it". You can substitute the food described in the article with the item that your dog tends to want to eat. Then practice "Leave It" on walks. If you want to take this to the next level, you can teach your dog to automatically leave the item by not saying "leave it". Instead, you go through the exercise in the article with the object and teach the dog that he or she will be rewarded when she turns away from the item even when you don't say anything. You can even progress to being able to have your dog leave the item when you are out of sight. The trick getting your dog to leave items in "real life" using this method is paying attention to when your dog "leaves" something so that you can continue to reward him or her. If your dog is "leaving" rocks and you are not rewarding it, he or she will quickly learn that this new trick is not so fun and go back to the old habit of picking up rocks. If your dog already has the stick or rock in his mouth you can ask your dog to "drop it" and exchange for a treat. However, be careful of doing too many "drop its" with a dog that likes to pick up objects as you may inadvertently be rewarding the dog for picking things up. Try to do a lot more "leave its" than "drop its" on a walk.
Prevention: For dogs with serious issues with eating inappropriate items you will need to use a device of some in order to be sure to keep him or her safe. Of course doing training as explained above is always a good idea too!
Many people have success using a basket muzzle on their dog. It's important to take a lot of time teaching your dog to wear the muzzle because at first your dog will most likely find it very unpleasant and try to get it off. With time your dog can learn the muzzle means good things like treats and walks.
Another idea to use to stop your dog from eating objects while outside is a new product called the Outfox which was invented to prevent a dog from getting foxtails, but I think would fit the bill perfectly for preventing "grazing".
Another option that can work is an elizabethan collar (cone) like those put on dogs after surgery, that is longer than your dog's snout so that your dog cannot reach the ground in order to pick up things. This is probably the most cumbersome of the three choices, but your dog might find it the most comfortable (ask him or her!).
My first dog Gigo, had a big problem with eating sticks and while it was not as relaxing to go for a walk with him, he sure had a great "leave it"! If you have any other ideas to share with us, please leave them in the comments below! Happy training!
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