Last month, I described how to teach a dog to drop something he has in his mouth. The Drop It command is useful during play, when we want our dog to drop the ball or rope toy so that we can throw it again or get a better grip for tugging.
In other cases, we need the Drop It command so that we can confiscate stolen items that dogs universally seem drawn to, such as socks, dish towels or remote controls. While these items can be dangerous for the dog to have, especially if she is chewing or swallowing them, often such item stealing can be addressed with the guidance of a qualified in-home dog trainer and a training plan that incorporates Drop It practice from a young age.
In rarer cases, however, dogs become fixated on picking up and chewing or swallowing items that present serious immediate and long-term dangers. In my 20 years as an animal behaviorist, one mouth-driven canine obsession I find most worrisome is rock eating.
While many dogs will never consider a rock to be a thing of interest, others show some transient interest in scratching at or picking up a rock here and there while hiking or playing along a riverbank. For a few, this interest quickly becomes obsessive, and these dogs begin to focus on rocks as a primary play item while outside.
In some unfortunate cases, owners have begun with the innocent mistake of throwing rocks for their dogs to catch and retrieve. In others, dogs who are left outside for long periods with little other stimulation latch onto rocks as their primary focus of play interest. They will dig or scratch them from the earth, and then either carry and toss the rocks or lie down to chew and ingest them. When taken to its extreme, this behavior can have dangerous consequences.
Rocky was a 6-year-old golden retriever I met many years ago when his owners called me in to address his rock obsession. Rocky and his family lived on a large property with plenty of rocks in the woods, on the driveway and around their garden.
While we sat down to begin the behavior history interview, as if on cue, Rocky bounded in through the dog door to greet us with a rock the size of a football filling his mouth. The owners quickly took it away and described how it had all started when Rocky was a puppy. He had begun picking up rocks when the family was outside together. They found this entertaining and would throw the rocks for Rocky to retrieve. When they started noticing that Rocky was spending more and more time focused on rocks and ignoring his many tennis balls and chew toys, they stopped all rock play with Rocky.
But the habit had been set, and each day thereafter Rocky set out into his yard, searching for rocks. He would stand and stare at large immovable boulders, barking at those he couldn’t budge from the ground. He had worn down all his nails to the quick in scratching at these rocks as he tried to unearth them. After he would get one in his mouth, he would chew and gnaw on it and often swallow it.
By the time I arrived on the scene years later, Rocky had lost many teeth from chewing on rocks. Those that were left had been filed down to the gumline by his rock chewing. More worrisome yet, Rocky had undergone three prior surgeries for intestinal impaction resulting from his swallowing fist-sized rocks and pebbles in large quantities. When the owners got a second golden retriever and saw their puppy starting to show interest in rocks, as well, they realized their situation was desperate and clearly in need of an animal behaviorist’s intervention.
Other cases are less severe but nonetheless difficult to treat. In all cases, direct supervision is required for several months when the dog has access to rocks, so that attention can be redirected to the owner using verbal cues and reinforced with all of the dog’s favorite (nonrock) toys and edibles. In many cases, we work to find those toys that are similar to rocks in their weight, shape and density so as to compete with the enjoyable sensory feedback provided by the rocks.
Of course, this is one situation where a “rock-solid” Drop It command is essential so that any rock picked up can be easily confiscated and removed from the dog’s access. We also need to work to reduce the satisfaction of the rocks by coating them with bitter tasting substances that are aversive to the dog or by prohibiting access to rocks by using uncomfortable surfaces such as pokey scat mats used in gardens to deter critters from walking across them. Finally, we must ensure that the dog’s enrichment is completely replaced with alternative activities that meet the same sensory needs for the dog while keeping him safe and keeping rocks completely out of the picture.
Megan Maxwell, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist whose column appears on the first Tuesday of every month in Extra. Volume may prohibit individual replies to emails. The information presented here may not be applicable for every pet and is not intended to serve in place of an individualized behavior or training plan.