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Dogs "stealing" Food

I wrote this in March of 2001 in response to someone's funny story about their recently adopted Bouvier getting into the garbage.

However a dog getting hold of food not intended for him can have undesirable, even lethal, consequences for the dog. It's also likely to have undesirable consequences for the human who had intended to eat that food and who now goes without it.

I am now updating the article slightly and adding a section about "sidewalk surfing" . Also adding a photo of a recent incidence of a dog helping himself to food left within reach.


Dogs "stealing" Food

garbage can raiding, counter cruising, sidewalk surfing

by Pam Green, © 2001, 2020

Introduction (early 2001)

In the current (probably Feb, 2001) SCBDFC Bulletin,amoung the many wonderful Rescue stories written by adopters about how wonderful their adopted Bouv are and the funny things they do, there was mention of a Bouv who has learned to raid the trash can : "we left the trash can lid off one day and she thought she'd died and gone to heaven" and from that point on the bitch in question has made several raids on the trash , though at the momment she seems to be kept out effectively by bungee cords.

So I'd like to say a few words about the related topics of "counter surfing" , "trash can raiding" , etc. (And please everyone understand that I am in no way meaning to criticise the wonderful people whose adopted dog's raiding provokes the discussion.) I run into a lot of adopters who find themselves with the same problems because they don't expect and take appropriate precautions agains normal dog behavior.

a more recent and celebrated incident

a well known photo

Elizabeth Warren's dog Bailey with stolen burrito

(that "stolen" burrito won't harm the dog,
and no one would really want to eat it after it's been in the dog's mouth,
so why try to take it away from him ?)

why dogs "steal" food

First of all, we all need to understand that gobbling up any unsupervised unguarded food left within the dog's reach is totally NORMAL and EXPECTED behavior for all canines. EATING available food is the DEFAULT setting for normal dogs. Abstaining from doing so is unnnatural and unusual for any dog who has not been trained to excercise this highly unnatural self-restraint.

Dogs, like wolves, are biologically evolved , genetically hard-wired , to be SCAVENGERS as well as to be PREDATORS. In fact there is a strong biolgical advanage for any predator to be an eager scavenger of any available left-overs from some other predator's kill. Put simply, it takes far less effort and is far less risky to take advantage of another predator's kill than to hunt and kill one's own meal.

It's likely that dogs are decended from those ancient wolves (ancestors to contemporary wolves) who realized that scavenging human discarded left-over food was a lot safer and more nourishing than hunting would be. These canids began to "self-tame", ie become a little less fearful of hanging closer to humans. An evolutionary process begun.

Just think of every dog as wearing a tee shirt saying "the best thing to make for dinner is reservations !" Wouldn't we ll rather be taken out to dinner than have to shop and cook for ourselves? And leftovers from a meal someone else bought are even better. Our dogs feel just the same way. and that is for a normal dog who has never in his life gone hungry or had to forage to survive.

Years ago a Police trainer told me that if you want a dog to work for a food reward as if he thought his life depended on it, all that's needed is for the dog to have gone hungry just once or twice as a puppy. She didn't say just how many meals the pup should skip, but probably just one meal would do it.

Now for our Rescued dogs, in many cases we may not know for sure what they have been through, but it is a fair guess that some of them have had to survive on the street by raiding garbage cans and so on. For such dogs , the urge to sieze any available food will be greatly exacerbated and may never be truley repressable.

Or as Gertrude Stein's dog famously said : "a calorie is a calorie is a calorie"

methods of prevention

(especially garbage cans, table tops, counter-tops)

So once you have recognized that any people food left temptingly within reach will quite likely provoke a natural reaction of the dog gulping it down the instant you have left the room (or maybe sooner), you are now prepared to realize that you have only two choices : (1) NEVER leave any food unattended and within easy (or not so easy) reach , or (2) do a lot of SET UP type training and a lot of BOOBY TRAP type training untill your dog appears to be truly reliable, and even then still never leave anything excessively valuable and tempting within reach.

put it out of reach (prevention of oppertunity)

I consider preventing oppertunity for the dog to "steal" is the ideal solution. It's not always easy , but it is usually possible. Most prevention methods require that you train yourself to do things in a way that eliminates oppertunity. Other methods involve changing or adding physical equipment or positioning of equipment..

I've taught a lot of adopters that they must put the kitchen garbage can genuinely out of reach of the dog. This could be putting it behind closed doors within the kitchen -- but if so the doors must have a relatively dog-proof latch. It's preferable to move the kitchen garbage a few steps further away and move it outside the kitchen and into the garage (assumeing there is a door from garage to kitchen, as is the case in most homes). If you must leave the can within the kitchen, I'd advise a metal can and a chain accross the lid -- ie from one can side handle thru the handle on the top of the lid to the other ca side handle. Of course you also have the alternative of never putting any food scraps into the kitchen can in the first place, ie trot them out to the outdoor can promptly.

Likewise I advise being very self-disciplined about not leaving food out on any table or counter that a reared up on hindlegs dog could reach. It's OK to have such exposure when you are present, as then if the dog gives a onging look or sniff or starts to reach out towards the forbidden food, you can give a cold hard stare into the dog's eyes and give a growled or snarled warning "leave it" or "get outta that" or whatever. That's the same kind of "social correction" that dogs give to one another. For some dogs this may be enough to start an inhibition -- at least when a human is not too far away and paying some attention and when the food item is not extremely tempting.

Sometimes you think the temptation is out of reach, but the dog finds a way to reach it anyway.
My childhood first dog, a Min Pin, managed to reach the kitchen counter-top once by way of a chair that was normally underneath the telephone desk connected to the counter-top had not been pushed all the way underneath. She walked down the counter-top to reach a cake from which she ate the frosting off the accesible half.

Using stretch gates or closing doors to bar the dog from the kitchen while food is being prepared or is positioned on table or counter-top is an excellent method of prevention. This can be hard to do if your home has an "open floor plan" that has wide areas of opening into the kitchen. Alternatively confine the dog to a crate or some other room that can be closed off for the needed culinary durations.

You may think that your dog will never counter-surf because in the past several years he has ignored all food left on the counter. But be aware that someday if you leave something super-tempting unwatched on the counter, the dog just might be overly tempted and , whamo, food is gone. Cooked meat is especially likely to be the irresistable temptation. (Go re-read Kipling's "The Cat Who Walked by Himself" to remind yourself that Wild Dog first came into our homes lured by the scent of cooked meat.)

One of my rescue buddies, Carol, had Bouvs who had never tried to counter-surf. Then one day she left some lamb chops marinating on the counter. When she came back into the kitchen, the chops were gone.

(update) The most dangerous form of meat cooking would probably be on the barbeque. A dog trying to grab something cooking on the "barbie" could suffer serious burns. This is probably a good time to have the dog confined to a crate or an x-pen. A closed top BBQ is probably safer, but not dog-proof.

Update note : if you are buying a new refrigerator, look for one that would be less easy for a dog to open. Most fridge doors have handles that would be easy for a dog to grasp. My own fridge insted has a recessed slot that one's fingers slip into to pull the door open. Most dogs will never learn to open a fridge, but you might be unlucky enough to have a dog who is extra-brilliant or extra-lucky. A dog who somehow opens a fridge door just once will never forget how to do it.

One of my rescue buddies, Glenda , had a favorite Bouv, Zeke, who not merely knew how to open the fridge, but, even worse, he somehow taught other dogs to do it. Every dog who lived there more than a week or two learned this trick.

set ups and booby traps (training by aversive consequences)

SET UPs are when you do a "sting" or an "entrapment" of giving the dog a tempting oppertunity while apperaing to pay no attention to what is going on, but actually you are secretly vigilant and the momment the dog starts to make a wrong move, you pounce back in with glaring eyes and growling voice. However be aware that this can be excessively frightening to a timid dog, one for whom just one slightly harsh word is quite sufficient. Dogs who are very afraid may defiend themselves by biting, especially if they are unable to run away. It can be very challenging to a dog who is highly confident , very assertive, and who may not have a lot of respect for you. That dog might counter-attack by biting, giving you a "correction" for your rude behavior..

Modern update : we now have the ability to set up "spy cameras" and sound emitters that let us observe the dog from another room (or even from outside the house). When the dog begins the act of raiding, "the voice of god" thunders out of the loudspeaker. That might very well work. It's likely to interrupt this particular raid. It may not have much effect on the next oppertunity.

BOOBY TRAPS are when you leave a temptation available but gimicked in a way that when the dog tries to touch it, something sufficiently startling or aversive occurs. You are absent from the room while this occurs, so the dog associates the aversive event with his own actions, not with your presence or actions.

The most usual booby traps would be mouse-traps (including for easily discouraged dogs, the varient called "Snappy Trainer" which has a plastic flap attached that causes increased startle effect but prevents any stinging pinch if a paw or nose gets snapped). Some people report sucess from arranging a pile of tin cans or pie plates that will fall with a crash when jostled; frankly I doubt that most Bouvs would be very impressed. Finally for those dogs who have already had sucess with counter surfing or can raiding, there are electric booby traps. "Scat Mat" and similar devices give a very mild zing of shock.

For the hard core offender -- and especially for that running free in the neighborhood dog (or raccoon ?)who raids your outdoor trash cans twice a week -- there is "hot wiring" with a fence charger. For metal cans , some insulation material must be placed between the can and the ground, eg an old tire or a couple of plastic milk/water gallon jugs will do this very well, and then the hot line from the charer goes directly to the can. For outdoor plastic cans, it's not nescessary to insulate them from the ground, but instead cover the upper 3/4 of the can's body and the lid with chicken wire and atach the hot line to the chicken wire. For indoor cans , the problem is to have the floor be conducting, eg chicken wire or tin foil or sheet metal , attached to the ground line from the fence charger. I've never had to do an indoor can booby trap I have used the outdoor method with success on a free roaming dog.

If I seem to be putting a bit too harsh an emphasis on keeping your dog out of the trash cans, it is because I consider trash can raiding to be a potentially life threatening behavior. Sooner or later there will be something in that can that is genuinely dangerous to the dog's health. For indoor or outdoor cans , it could be chicken bones (risk of perforated intestines) or some other bone chunk that could cause an obstruction. I've read of a dog who died because it had swallowed the seed from a mango , causing an obstruction that was not recognized in time for surgery to sve the dog's life. Tin foil with meat drippings baked onto it and crumped up would be another possible lethal obstruction. In outdoor cans there is the added possibility of a jug of discarded antifreeze or other toxic substance.

Moral is : PREVENT your dog from having oppertunity to learn to regard the kitchen counter, kitchen trash can, and outdoor trash cans, as being sources of food to be raided. If prevention fails, be prepared to TRAIN the dog through whatever means nescessary to regard this temptation as one worth resisting.

Dogs normally consider that food close to another dog's or human's "paws and jaws" area is owned by that dog or person. It's only a bold dog who will try to snatch food from this "ownership area". Thus it's possible to teach your dog that food on a table is just as much YOUR as if it were in your hand, even if you leave the room for a few minutes (But don't try this with anything excessively tempting.)

added section : "sidewalk surfing"

use a well-fitted "basket muzzle" to prevent "sidewalk surfing"

By "sidewalk surfing" I mean any situation in which there are or might be objects or food on the ground which the dog might pick up and eat which could be harmful to the dog. In urban areas, the sidewalks can be full of food that is spoiled (can cause digestive upset, diarehha, etc) or that contains chicken bones (can splinter and cause intestinal perforation resulting in peritonitis, potentially fatal) or otherwise undesirable. In rural areas, farmworkers may leave bits of food behind. But for rural areas, the greater concern is rodents that might have been poisoned with bait that can have second-hand kill. Most of these baits are anti-coagulents, but some are zinc based which is even more dangerous. Dead birds are probably also not good snacks for your dog. Horse poop and cattle poop won't harm your dog, though you will probably want to avoid letting the dog kiss your face for a while afterwards.

You may think that if your dog is on leash, especially with a halter, that you can see the item soon enough to steer your dog away from it. Well lots of times you can, but not always. The dog's nose may detect the edible item long before you see it. The dog may lunge to grab the goodie so strongly that you can't prevent the grab.

Years ago my very precious Chris , who liked to eat wild walnuts found on our (off-leash) walks near Putah Creek, had the bad luck to pick up a moldy one. Walnut mold has a toxin that has neurological symptoms very similar to those of strychnine poisoning. Fortunately I noticed the very first beginnings of a reaction and I rushed him into the vet as an emergency intake. It took four of us to hold him still enough for the vet to pour Vallium into him intravenously. After being sedated for most of the day, Chris recovered. I then bought a basket muzzle to use whenever we were at the creek. Interestingly this proved unnescesary, as Chris forever lost interest in walnuts --- illustrating natural selection genetically evolved hard-wired ability to learn to avoid any food that on first intake makes one feel very sick.

(Note : technically sidewalk surfing is not "stealing" since food on the ground is not really owned by anyone. It's either been accidentally dropped or deliberately discarded. But to the dog it's simply food that is easily available. And since you usually cannot know that this food is safe for the dog to eat, you have to assume it could be dangerous, therefore something to be prevented.)

party pilfering

We are now back to that famous picture (and YouTube videos) of Bailey Warren helping himself to a burrito.

Parties are a time when there is lots of food likely to be easily reached by a dog. Also some of your guests may willingly give food to the dog, and dogs are expert at judging which guests are worth soliciting for such gifts. Yes, you can tell your guests "don't feed the dog !!!!", even adding that this dog has some food allergies and is on a special diet. Whether the guests obey your orders is something else, especially if intoxicants are part of the party.

(And see the remarks above about barbeque parties.)

Ideally do not include foods that are dangerous to dogs on the menu. That means no chocolate (and don't bother inviting me to your party), unless the chocolate in single bite sizes is brought around on serving trays by waiters. It also means no grapes or raisins and no macadamia nuts. Consult vet books for the full list of human edible foods that can be dangerous for dogs.

A basket muzzle is probably not a method that would appeal to you for keeping your guest-friendly dog from helping himself to food that guests leave unguarded in positions too easily reached by the dog. Yes, you could do it, but it really prevents your guests from wanting to pet the dog. However if you know that a guest might try to remove such "stolen" food from the dog's mouth and that the dog might bite to defend the food, then you really must either muzzle the dog or exclude the dog from the party, eg by putting the dog in a crate or closed bedroom. (I favor the exclusion method in this case.)

Perhaps the most reasonable solution is to have some period of your party, probably the early period, food-less, and let that be the period when the dog mingles with guests. Or perhaps the food-less period would come after the meal, after food has been removed.

I am not a party maven. My own entertaining is pretty simple and all my friends and guests are dog-savvy. So you probably have to figure out the party methods for yourself that will work for your particular situation and guest list.. Figure out a way so that you, your guests, and your dog "Bailey" can all have "a wonderful life", or at least a wonderful party.

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