Why do dogs do stuff? (we don’t like!)

Why do dogs do dog stuff?

By Susanne Shelton (Austerlitz German Shepherd Dogs)
Originally posted in Pandemic Puppy Raising Support Group (Facebook)
Reprinted with permission of the author.

I wish that everything in life was black and white. I like black and white questions and black and white answers. Nice, easy, tidy answers to things. But alas, there aren’t a ton of easy answers and honestly most people don’t need help with things that have easy answers.

So today’s subject is puppy mouthing and ingestion of non food items. I just really wish this was super easy but it’s not.

I also want to suggest that dog owners need to consider things less as “right” or “wrong” and more as a cost to benefit analysis. Because in fact, most things are truly a cost to benefit analysis.

I also want to remind our members that dogs do dog stuff and preventing dogs from accessing their natural behaviors and having outlets for their instinctive behaviors goes against the welfare interest of our dogs and can foster a wide variety of unhealthy and undesirable behaviors later. The more dogs are housed in urban and suburban environments, the more they are confined, bubble wrapped, and their natural instincts and needs stifled the more long term and chronic behavior problems we are seeing overall. Cute and baby like breeds, have the same needs as natural looking breeds, so that little pug, or micro doodle, or etc has all the same needs as my German Shepherd.

While there is much conversation around breeders producing easier pets, there needs to be much more conversation around puppy and dog owners meeting their dogs needs, inducing “doggie” needs.

Dogs do not have hands, their primary tool is their mouth. Dogs use their mouth to meet most of their most basic survival needs and while we often don’t notice it, there isn’t a set of skills more vital to survival for a dog than it’s mouth skills.
This means that puppies are driven by instinct to focus a lot of time and energy on developing mouth skills. THIS is one reason that puppies seem obsessed with putting items in their mouth.

If you are ever around 4 to 6 week old puppies, starting to go outside on the earth for the first times, you will see puppies who seem obsessed with putting things in their mouth, they will grab mouthfuls of dirt, leaves, sticks, bugs, everything. If puppies are allowed to do this they grow out of this phase before they leave the breeder between 8 and 12 weeks, and the later they go home the less compulsive they usually are about this. Assuming of course they have an outlet for picking stuff up.
Once in the new home puppies will generally continue with a less mindless and more mindful and targeted type of mouthing, where they show thought and interest in the things they pick up, chewing up and shredding sticks, tearing up leaves, throwing stones around, etc. And all of that is normal behavior.

If we try to prevent our puppies from accessing their normal instinct to use their mouth we can (sometimes) actually increase the puppies interest to an obsession as the developmental need is not being met. We can also accidentally trigger our puppy’s “competition for resources” instinct and this is super strong in puppies and juvenile dogs. Puppies are hard wired by nature to try to out compete other puppies for resources, this is a survival instinct because up to modern times most puppies born died, often from diseases and parasites we can now control via modern medicine, but just as often because of lack of resources. While our well cared for modern puppies do not have to compete for resources these instincts, built over tens of thousands of years, are still present and ready.

So what to do? First, remember that Cost to Benefit analysis? Now is when that becomes relevant. When we prevent our dogs from “doing dog stuff” for any reason (preventing dangerous ingestions, our own human sensibilities that eating worms, and bugs, and etc is gross) that is to benefit us or the dog BUT, there is a cost that must be paid. The cost is preventing the puppy from having an outlet for its instincts and blocking a developmental phase. That cost may be paid as obsessive mindless rapid ingestion of anything it can get its mouth on, it may be seen as frustration, or fear, or a hard mouth….we don’t know how the dog will manifest when its primary needs are blocked.
Whenever possible, and safe, we need to let our puppies do dog stuff and yes, this includes putting things in their mouth. The benefit of this is the instinctive drive to do this is met, and the skills are learned, and the developmental phase is passed through in a normal fashion. This is the best way to see a rapid end to this phase, is to let the puppy learn what it needs to learn.

However, there is never a benefit without a cost, and here is where we have to think about things carefully. When the cost is high enough it will outweigh the benefit. So, if my puppy ingests antifreeze, or glass, or a pack of gum with xylitol and dies, or I can’t afford the treatment so the puppy must be euthanized, then the cost is too high. We can all agree on that! Some things we KNOW are dangerous and we MUST prevent ingestion or mouthing at all costs.

But when the cost is very low, the benefit outweighs the cost, so if my puppy picks up a worm, or a pebble, or a stick, I’m going to do a real quick cost/benefit analysis in my mind. Is that thing likely to hurt my puppy? If not, like the above mentioned items, I’m going to ignore the behavior and let the puppy explore it’s prize.

I actually encourage my puppies to engage with organic type things at home, where I know they don’t have pesticide on them, and I might offer to trade a puppy for food (because we teach the “trade up” concept early) and then give the item right back, but usually I let them dig and eat and play with grass, leaves, bugs, worms, and etc freely without my involvement at all. This means my puppies are less driven to do this stuff when we are away from home.

Indoors, we prevent puppies from accessing dangerous things at all through management. When my daughter was little and had lots of toys we used baby gates and playpens, as we do now with fussy bits of electronics. Indoors we provide outlets for these behaviors by providing things for the puppy to explore with their mouth, such as food based enrichment, boxes/paper to shred, and we let them tear up and shred their toys too. Again, there is a cost/benefit analysis that we do.

Things get much more complicated for dogs in urban and suburban environments because they are often in areas that are not under the control of the owner. So, it becomes more likely that truly dangerous things might be ingested, such as mouse bait in an apartment complex, or glass, or antifreeze. Again, each owner must do a cost benefit analysis for the area’s they choose to expose their puppy to. Because this is different from home to home.

When it comes to “low cost” items, items that are mostly and usually safe, it’s unwise to prevent puppies from exploring them. If your puppy picks up a worm, or chunk of soil, from your yard consider letting the puppy keep it (assuming you don’t put down poisons).

When the cost is very high, access really should be prevented. When that fails, as prevention can, then we can and should use a trained behavior such as Trade Up, or even Drop it or Leave It.

When the cost is in the middle, you will have to make a judgement of the cost to benefit in that moment and act accordingly and in the best interest of your puppy.
Just remember this, when we place ourselves between a dog and an outlet for a primary need, we become an impediment and not a partner. We trigger that age old subconscious instinct to compete for resources to avoid death. This is why dogs start to snatch and run, or snatch and guard, or snatch and mindlessly swallow. We have accidentally made a problem for ourselves that will persist long beyond the normal puppy mouthing stage.

So, yes, we need to teach our puppies to trade up, drop, leave, and etc but if we are not clever in HOW we teach these skills and HOW we use them in real life, we will find that these behaviors don’t work very well, or make the problem worse, or make bigger longer lasting problems for ourselves.

If we teach, or use, these skills in a manner that leaves our dog UNHAPPY they have complied, this training will fall apart or backfire. If we teach these skills using pressure from the handler, punishment, or intimidation, they will fail later. If we yell, if we over- use this training, if we think Leave It or Drop It is a substitute for good management, it will eventually fail.

If we teach, and use, these skills in a manner that leaves our dog HAPPY they have complied, this training will strengthen over time and we will have reliable training. If we use management as our first line of defence, if we abundantly meet our dogs “doggie” needs, if we use these skills judiciously, our work will stick.

As always, the biggest predictor of long term success of training is the underlying emotions we, either deliberate or accidentally, attach to the skill as we are teaching and using it.

If we are relying on compliance, we are more likely to see failure, if we are relying on cooperation, we will most likely see success.

All relationships involve compromise, one of those is that when it is safe, puppies need to be allowed to get dirty and play in the dirt, they should eat worms and bugs, and toss pebbles around. Our job isn’t to prevent ALL such natural behaviors but instead to do a cost to benefit analysis and act accordingly.

Happy Training!