If your dog is a sidewalk scavenger, I'm going to bet that walks are a source of frustration for you. Dogs are scavengers. They're hunters, scavengers, and opportunists...so let's get used to that fact! If they see something they want, they take it whether they have to work for it or not.
All those fun things on the ground are so enticing, but then add a flailing, hollering human to the mix and you have a real party!
We often over-react to our dogs picking things up off the ground and this makes for an exciting experience that is reinforced time and time again. Have you found yourself saying "no!!", "leave it!!", "drop it!!" and not even realising that you haven't spent time training these behaviours to full fluency? (If you had, they would work.)
Let's turn your luck around and make walks more pleasant for both of you!
Management & Prevention
This is what a leash is for! And I don't mean that we use it to tug or pop or correct our dog - we use it to prevent access to the item on the ground. When walking your dog, it's key to be focused; don't try to multi-task with your coffee in one hand and your smartphone in the other. Scan the ground in front of you and if you see some debris or enticing items, watch the length of your leash and shorten it up if you need to. The goal isn't to let your dog get close so that you can yoink them back - the goal is to prevent access altogether and pass by the item. This is until you've trained your foundation behaviours.
Okay, so let's say your dog gets an item. If it's something dangerous, you'll need to retrieve it. Some examples of dangerous items:
- broken glass
- cooked bones
- suspicious meat
- corn cobs
- rat poison
Quietly and calmly, just like you wouldn't want to panic a child who shoved something in their mouth, you shorten the leash, approach your dog, open their mouth by cupping the top of their mouth and pressing their lips around their top row of teeth so that they open wide, and with the other hand, retrieve the item. Calmly happy-talk while you do this so that you are not overly threatening.
(Pocket the item. Don't throw it away - they'll go after it again.)
Immediately, throw a party!! Happy talk, praise, and food! Feed a generous jackpot of snacks so that you've erased this thievery and can prevent them from becoming aggressive towards you the next time you have to do this. Make it worth it to them to give up this item.
No, you are NOT reinforcing them for picking up the item - these two things are totally separate and you're preventing aggression. Your dog will otherwise see you as a thief and instead of allowing you to open their mouth, they will swallow the item quickly and even bite you. Trust me.
Now let's say your dog gets an item but it's not dangerous. Some examples of relatively harmless items:
You've got a few options here:
- You can practice a "drop it" if you've practiced it before
- You can trade it off for a few tasty treats
- You can move on and simply watch that they're not choking on it or harming themselves - they're likely to drop it anyway once they realise how not-so-tasty it is
Most of these things are not going to cause a bowel obstruction or harm if ingested unless they're in a larger quantity. I try not to overreact. If you have a known "ingester" it's a different story, but we'll talk about that shortly.
You can't get away from this without some training, so when you don't need to use the behaviour, practice it until it's fully fluent.
- practice drop it like it's your job (with nothing in your dog's mouth 99 times out of 100) as it's a life-saver!
- consider practicing leave it if you feel that you can truly work on this one until full fluency and continue to manage/prevent access. We often over-use this and under-train it, so I'm hesitant to recommend it to most people.
- work on eye contact and polite walking so that your dog is spending more time focused on you and not as much time focused on the endless litter-possibilities.
- consider training a gator-mouth so that your dog LOVES when you open their mouth to see what's in there!
What if my dog gets growly over it?
Watch our Resource Guarding webinar if you haven't already seen it and book a 1:1 coaching call if you're worried! Don't escalate or add punishment - this will make it much worse...
What if I have a known "ingester" - a dog who has a history of ingesting items, choking, having a bowel obstruction, or a poisoning?
This requires an extra level of management that is critical to keep your dog safe! Stop everything and go muzzle train your dog and then focus on training. It will save you so much heartache and so many vet bills!