Henry Goldstein of Vail, Colorado, is confused. “I know that pulling the house apart while the owner is away is a sign of separation anxiety,” he says. “However, my dog, Nikko, is always fine while we are away but has started going into my trash bin and pulling everything out while we are home. He sneaks into my wife’s study and does his thing. This is a brand new behavior. Nikko is already five years old and has never done anything like it. What’s going on?”
Dr. Goldstein, this is a good one. And we bet you’ll be able to solve it with some sleuthing. You just have to “think dog.”
First, go medical. Is it possible that Nikko’s appetite has increased? Perhaps not, since you mention only the waste bin in your wife’s office rather than the kitchen garbage can, where it is more likely that food refuse will go. But if there’s any chance that hunger might be driving your dog’s new behavior, it’s worth considering that he may be feeling ravenous as a result of a newly developed condition.
“When my own dog became polyphagic [having an excessive desire to eat],” says Tufts animal behaviorist Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, “it turned out she had Cushing’s disease. A dog with that condition can feel extremely hungry and may become a major-league trash hound or counter surfer. My dog even started eating dead, flattened squirrels outside. Keep in mind,” Dr, Borns-Weil says, “blowing your nose and putting the tissue in the trash — that’s food for some dogs, like a nice treat. ‘Oh, I want to lick that. It smells good.'”
If the reason for the new behavior isn’t medical, Dr. Borns-Weil comments, Nikko’s going through the trash could be a crime of opportunity. “Is the latch broken?” she asks. Do you not keep the trash can inside the cabinet under the desk anymore? If access has gotten easier, the inclination to go foraging has a better chance to be expressed.
And it only takes one interesting “find” to get a habit started. A dog will find a discovery in a trash can stimulating as well as interesting and think, ‘Wow, this is really fun. I’m going to keep trying this.’ The activity becomes self-rewarding.
If anxiety is driving the new behavior
Sometimes a dog gets into a new, unappreciated habit because of changes in the household that make him more anxious, changes that his owners might not immediately perceive as important to him.
Has life become more boring, perhaps because someone in the household is working longer hours or perhaps has been ill and hasn’t had the time or energy to give to Nikko? Boredom can certainly lead to anxiety, as can a dog’s noticing that he is getting less attention than usual. By going through the trash, Nikko might be trying to comfort himself as well as mix things up a bit.
He might even simply be trying to get more attention. If Dad is busy working or Mom is doing more things that don’t involve the dog, he may enjoy turning his parents into squeaky toys that emit sounds at him when he fools with the garbage can. Even negative attention might be preferred to a lack of attention.
Solutions to the problem
If Nikko has not developed a medical condition that would increase his appetite, and if the garbage has become no more accessible to him than it has always been, his owners can quell the behavior with a four-pronged approach.
1. Batten down the hatches. Use trash cans with lids or place the open cans in cabinets.
2. Ignore the bad behavior. If Nikko does spill the contents of the trash can, just pick them up and put them where they should be without paying Nikko any attention. That doesn’t mean giving him the cold shoulder. It means going about the business of cleaning up as if Nikko had nothing to do with it, without emotion.
3. Engage Nikko by interacting with him more in fun ways and by enriching his environment. Take him for more walks. Engage in more spontaneous play — “Hey, Nikko. Fetch!” Run around the house playing “Chase” with him. And leave more toys around, including perhaps some food puzzles that will make eating more of an activity than just chomping down what’s in the bowl.
4. When Nikko does things you want, like bringing back the ball after you throw it, sitting, staying, following other commands, and simply being a good guy, praise him to the hilt. He will learn that acting collaboratively in the household gets him the attention he seeks.
Good luck with redirecting Nikko’s new penchant for trash hunting. We feel confident things will work out. When they do, please let us know what the problem turned out to be and how you solved it. We will share your solution with your fellow Your Dog community. Guaranteed, if you’re going through it, someone else is, too.