By Colin Tennant
Principal of the Cambridgeshire of Dog Behaviour & Training
STEALING FOOD / Scavenging
This year during my visits to private clients in London
I have been receiving many complaints from dog owners who
are fed up with their dogs' disgusting habits of pilfering
from kitchen bins. Their words not mine. There is one lady
with a Westie that snaps up any thing it finds rotting in
the midday sun in Hyde Park. She is at her wit’s end
as to how to prevent her dog from happily licking up every
duck pooh near the Serpentine lake.
I listen endlessly to owners' frustrations concerning their
pets. One man said to me, “He", a Labrador, "eats
pigeon droppings and other putrid leftovers and then has
the cheek to try and lick my face; how horrible." The
dog is, of course, being normal and so is the man, but until
owners understand the reasons why their pets act the way
they do, this sort of upset and misunderstanding will continue.
In this article I will shed some light on why dogs steal
food and offer methods to prevent this happening inside
and outside the home. However I must first state that dogs
in fact cannot steal (connotation on steal) food.
Dogs are true scavengers by nature; they wander over vast
areas in the wild and any carrion is an excellent alternative
to hunting for food and is easier to deal with. Wild Dogs
have been so widely spread throughout the world because
of their success as predators and their virtual omnivorous
eating habits. To a wild dog and in the mind of many pet
dogs, discarded food or animal droppings can mean the difference
between life and death. Of course in one of my previous
articles on dogs' senses I explained that dogs have fewer
taste buds in their mouth compared to us and rotten food
does not taste as bad as we perceive; moreover they don’t
have to deal with the problem that it might be toxic or
dangerous. Dogs are not bothered by human perceptions or
imagination and we just have to accept all that.
However, allowing dogs to vacuum up waste food in the park
is as unpleasant as it is dangerous since they can get severe
food poisoning. So, teaching your dog to obey your obedience
commands is very important as a preventative measure. Many
dogs have a natural desire to gobble up cow, horse and sheep
dung or, in fact, the dung of any herbivorous animal. Some
go one step further and roll in the stuff just for good
measure and to help mask their own smell. Herbivorous dung
has many nutrients partly digested which dogs can utilise,
so waste not want not is the dog's motto.
Again many dogs in the wild occasionally ingest parasitic
organisms through dung and may well eventually die or become
ill but that is a part of the survival process and the risk
is acceptable to wild dogs. Domestic dogs do not need to
take the risk as we provide their food which is nutritionally
balanced. That is bad news for dogs with strong instincts
to scavenge because they have to deal with their fussy owners.
Dogs of course don't actually steal food, well, not in the
human sense anyway. Stealing, as many of you know, is not
in the dogs vocabulary. They merely eat what they find as
their wild cousins do. The fact that we disapprove is totally
irrelevant to a dog, and probably quite incomprehensible.
If I were a dog and learning by association I would probably
learn that every time I got a tasty, rotten bit of burger
my owner would freak out and try to get it for himself?
otherwise why would he chase me, grab me, and then have
the cheek to try and prise it out of my mouth if he didn’t
want it for himself. Of course I would make a run for it
and as I have two extra legs, the resulting victory is a
Food is the strongest driving force for animals in the
natural world. Of course most dogs are happy to munch on
what their owner provides on a regular basis and to occasionally
supplement it with what they hunt (find). This is frequently
provided by negligent humans who unwittingly leave Mr Kipling
cakes, sandwiches, biscuits and other delights on suitable
low tables which abound in the dogs territory. Wow! The
dog turns another corner and dinner is served, maybe accompanied
by a scream of protest as its owner sees his food being
stolen. Each success reinforces the dog's need to seek further
and hunting is compellingly natural.
Another reason why some dogs learn to steal food is more
out of boredom than from hunger. Dogs which have been left
for long periods of time with little stimulation begin to
entertain themselves as we would if stuck in a room for
too long on our own. Their acute sense of smell encourages
them to explore and the lovely aromas escaping from the
kitchen pedal bin are irresistible. So the dog not only
gets a food reward having tipped the bin over but also enjoys
the rummaging and investigative behaviour and thereby derives
pleasure. Dogs can learn good or bad habits so it is up
to owners to teach what they want and in this case secure
all bins indoors and outdoors as a preventative measure.
What we need to address is that dogs cannot know our rules
concerning food and that they need to be taught that “No”
means “No” not maybe. I personally teach puppies
or adult dogs the word “No” early on and then
on a lead and collar steer them around the house Using the
lead I tell the dog “No” if it ventures near
any food. The food is always placed in a container that
allows it to be seen and smelt but if the dog makes a grab
for it the container prevents the dog getting a reward.
That is critical, as one food reward may be remembered for
ever. I have found that few dogs stare at people who never
offer food by hand, and these same dogs do not sit there
salivating like dripping taps to the annoyance of owners.
My own dogs are generally obedience trained and therefore
teaching them not to steal is made easier. It helps also
if you don’t hand feed dogs, and the dog never sees
food being taken from a plate and directly offered to him.
Giving your dog a little of what you are eating as a way
of saying “let's share but don’t take”
is simply a clear signal to a dog that, like the lottery,
there is always a chance of a reward thereby increasing
the likelihood of his helping himself. I am not saying that
dogs cannot be taught to only take food that is offered
by command, but that dogs which already have a stealing
problem need fewer grey areas of confusion and more clarity
My approach to this matter is generally one of prevention.
Many people try putting mustard or some substance with a
similarly unpleasant taste on food to discourage their dogs
stealing. This is usually a waste of time for most dogs
can smell the horrible potion and steer well clear of it
after the first bite or smell. Others, incredibly, swallow
the lot whole and look for seconds, but when they find untainted
food they very quickly go back to their old ways. Dogs are
not stupid, they may lack our developed reasoning powers
but they do have a memory and learn quickly.
Dogs learn the habit of taking food either from tables
or kitchen surfaces because of careless owners. As food
is one of the strongest rewards for a dog, there is an instinctive
desire to repeat the reward. The habit of taking food which
was not meant for him quickly becomes embedded.
The best prevention is never to leave food unattended;
lock every tempting morsel away. This will eliminate the
reward and stop the behaviour being constantly reinforced
by successful theft forays.
It is best, especially with a dog already conditioned to
stealing, to set the dog up regularly so that you control
the situation and are not caught off guard. Allowing the
dog to dictate training times is a recipe for failure. You
must be in control at all times.
Active methods - Water pistols
When or if you are caught off guard and your dog steals
food in your presence you can use the following idea to
discourage him. Keep a water pistol, or fairy liquid bottle
filled with water, handy. As your dog is about to steal
food or as he is in the act of stealing food, jet water
at his face and command 'No' simultaneously. Alternatively
make a large bunch of old blunt keys which can be thrown
near your dog's rear. The noise of the keys clanging will
put off all but hardened thieves.
All of these devices act by distracting or giving the dog
an unrewarding experience. It then comes to associate taking
or stealing food with an unpleasant experience.
Mikki Disc’s thrown have a similar affect. However
because of their limit of distance when thrown, its best
to pre-condition the dog to fear the Disc’s in the
home when it try’s to take food you have deliberately
placed on the floor. Once taught the sound of the disc’s
being rattled in your hand, is often enough to distract
or stop the dog from scavenging food outside the home. Instructions
on how to use them come with the Disc’s.
This method is what I describe as a natural learning method
and often has the most chance of teaching a dog what is
a bad deal and what is a good deal in life. If you wish
to dissuade your dog from stealing food when you are in
another room then "set him up". Tie several tin
trays together with string and secure the other end of the
string to a piece of food like a tough piece of meat. Place
them all on a kitchen top and when your dog grabs the meat
it should pull off the trays causing the most almighty clatter.
Alternatively you can use a number of empty bean cans (
No sharp edges).
Most dogs find this unpleasant and if carried out with
enough variation and in different rooms, they soon learn
not to take food unless it is in their bowl.
Mikki Discs is a device that works physiologically like
the key method mentioned earlier. They are safe, work well,
and instructions are on the pack.
Aboi Master Plus a citronella based electronic spray, also
works when used with skill and preferably instruction from
a dog trainer. It works at a distance of about 40 yards
which is handy for most dogs which scavenge.
In extreme case where dogs constantly take food, especially
from the street or park and illness is a probable outcome
I use a Mikki Muzzle which means that once the dog has got
used to wearing the muzzle he can roam freely but never
scavenge anything found. Over time, he receives fewer and
fewer rewards and one day, in conjunction with a good standard
of obedience, he may learn not to eat what he finds.
The muzzle can be used in the home for the more persistent
or large strong dog that is difficult to manage. Muzzles
should not be left on dogs for more than two hours and preferably
Bitter Apple, a repugnant liquid, can be sprayed on or
around bins and will dissuade some dogs from investigative
In conclusion, if you do own a dog which gobbles up all
that it shouldn’t I hope that as its determined owner
you will now be fully armed with new ideas and methods which
put control back into the hands of you the provider.
Interesting web sites: