For most of us, it’s hard to understand why dogs would eat things like rocks, socks or other non-food items. Yet many dogs do. The technical term is pica. For some, it can result in a hefty vet bill when something dangerous is ingested and needs to be surgically removed.
In evaluating the behavior, we look at what is being eaten and under what circumstances. If the dog is eating rocks or dirt, it is possible the dog is looking to fulfill a nutritional deficiency. A visit to your vet might be worthwhile as well as evaluating your food choices.
If your dog is eating non-food items, look at how the behavior developed and when it’s happening. For example, a dog might start out by finding and playing with or chewing socks, pillows, and anything else around home that looks fun. For some dogs, it is merely an attempt to explore their world – which dogs do primarily through their noses and their mouths. Looking to have some fun or alleviate boredom is a common issue. Some dogs express this through chewing. Some dogs will chew lots of things but not ingest. Others will ingest the items they chew.
In other cases, the dogs end up swallowing items in an attempt to maintain possession if people are constantly taking things away. The attempt to maintain control can display itself in a game of keep away or tug of war. In other dogs, resource guarding will develop and a dog might growl, snap or even bite. And for some dogs, they will swallow the item to prevent someone from taking it away.
One client has a dog who was swallowing socks. While it most likely started out as something fun to play with and chew, she began swallowing them in an effort to keep them from being taken away. The original behavior probably started due to a bit of boredom, but it turned into a resource guarding issue being expressed by swallowing the item.
Another client has a dog who is eating rocks. In our discussion, we determined the rock eating appears to be due primarily to boredom. The dog is looking for something to do, and most likely started out playing with the rocks, but now eats them. In this case, I think resource guarding also plays a part. This dog also has some food aggression issues, so resource guarding rocks is certainly a possibility.
In the case of both clients mentioned above, the approach is similar. First, prevention. Don’t allow the dogs to practice the unwanted (and dangerous) behavior while we’re working to change it.
Next, we work very hard on teaching a reliable “drop it” and “leave it”. Anytime I am working with a client on “drop it” or “leave it” I want to make sure we are making it fun and rewarding for the dog, but it is particularly important in these cases. If there is an element of possessiveness, we need to be careful about perpetuating this perception that we are always taking things away and never giving anything back. Providing worthwhile rewards in exchange for leaving or dropping the items they have is essential. Sounding like you are having fun and playing a game, not scolding or punishing the dog, is also necessary.
In addition, we work at replacing these behaviors with more constructive behaviors. If the dogs are getting enough physical exercise and mental stimulation in more constructive ways, they will begin to forget about eating non-food items. Some of these issues are easily resolved, while others will take quite a bit of work. But working to resolve these issues could save the lives of these dogs, so it’s well worth putting in the effort.