Ask the Behaviorist: Eating Non-Food Items

Check out the Michigan Humane Society blog on Wednesdays to see common pet behavior questions answered by our Senior Director of Operations and pet behavior expert, CJ Bentley. If you have an immediate behavior concern with your pet, please call a qualified trainer or behaviorist! If you have a non-urgent question you would like answered on the blog, you can comment here or email us at mail(at)michiganhumane.org.

Senior Director of Operations CJ Bentley and her adopted dog, Rogue

Senior Director of Operations CJ Bentley and her adopted dog, Rogue

“Our 2 year old mini dachshund loves chewing up my underwear! I have tried everything I can think of to break her of this but if I accidentally leave a pair on the floor and walk away she still rips them to shreds, it’s getting expensive. Also, she eats q-tips. We bought a bathroom garbage can we thought she wouldn’t be able to get into, it took her a couple of weeks but she figured out how to open it. When she was a puppy she would eat the q-tip whole but now she just chews the cotton ends off. She’s never had trouble passing them but still, that cannot be good for her. No amount of reprimanding has ever done any good. Please help!”

“How do I get my 38-lb poodle mix to stop eating non-food items?”

“My dog eats underwear pacifiers and socks if left to her own devices. Why?? Are the delicious?”

Well, obviously eating non-food items is a concern held by many folks. So we’ll try to get a basic “one size fits all” answer here. First, and most importantly, dogs who consistently eat non-food items – especially if doing so is a new habit – need to see a vet. If this is something your dog didn’t do previously and is now eating things that are uncharacteristic, a call to a Michigan Humane Veterinary Center (www.michiganhumane.org) is in order.

Next, assuming it is not medical, we have some work to do. I really don’t think, based on the items described in these situations, that it is taste related, per se. My guess is that it’s more about (1) the smell; and/or (2) the reaction they get from you. I’ve heard complaints of dogs eating yes, underwear, socks, pacifiers and q-tips…along with tv remotes, eye glasses, retainers, hats and gloves and of course shoes. If you really think about it – what do these items have in common? They all smell a lot like you. Without opposable thumbs, dogs use their mouths to “hold” the things they want to be close to. I got my dog as an adult and he’s only chewed two things in the years he’s been mine A hat and a glove. Both belonging to his favorite person in the house. I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

So…what now? First (and most obvious) pick your stuff up. You’ll have the neatest house on the block thanks to your dog. A trash can with a self-closing lid can also work for some dogs – those who figure out how to open those cans need to have trash cans put in cupboards or behind closed doors when you can’t be there to supervise. Next, we need to monitor how you “give” your attention. If, every time your dog gets something she shouldn’t someone makes a fuss – even if that fuss includes yelling and chasing – well, that is actually a reward for your dog. Remember, rewarded behaviors are more likely to be repeated. So, while you believe you’re punishing…if your dog’s still doing it…you are probably actually rewarding the behavior you’re trying to stop.

You may want to try what I did. Years ago I had a pup who learned to take the rug from in front of my shower and run around the house with it (again, something that smelled a lot like the family). When he did I’d yell at him and chase him to get it back. This started happening more…not less. Then it dawned on me that he actually enjoyed being yelled at and chased. So…I got him a toy that I approved of, and played with him. When he’d take it in his mouth, I’d act like he had the rug. I’d yell (not meanly…I just can’t do that) silly things and chase him. Wow. Did he find that fun! In the meantime I kept the door to the bathroom closed so he couldn’t get the rug. After about two weeks, I tried putting the toy in the same room with the rug. When he touched the toy I chased him and we had a ball. He chooses the toy now every time. No more running around with my rug.

Keys to remember: Deny access to the inappropriate items and reward playing with dog toys – consider food dispensing toys like the Busy Buddy line from PetSafe. Give tons of attention for touching the right stuff and that’s the behavior you’ll see improve.

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2 thoughts on “Ask the Behaviorist: Eating Non-Food Items

  1. Me and member of my family have had several dogs over the years since I was a kid. Is it really shocking that dogs chew up and eat stuff? I don’t know if I have ever heard of a dog that didn’t do this at some time or other. Never seemed to hurt them and never had a dog die of anything but old age. Here is a simple solution to the underwear….wait for it….don’t leave your underwear on the floor!

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  2. Unfortunately my 6 y.o. Shih Tzu mix eats poop. I adopted her from the MHS almost 2 years ago. I can’t get her to not eat poop. She always has hard food available and I try to keep my backyard poop free but that is hard because I have another Shih Tzu. agh!

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