Coprophagia is the fancy word for poop eating. Another word for it is “yuck,” and when dog owners tell me they have this problem they also mention the words “disgusting” and “unacceptable.” A dog may eat his own feces or that of other dogs, cats, or other creatures. It may start when a dog is a puppy or when he’s much older. In young dogs, the habit is often outgrown; if it comes on suddenly, particularly in an older dog, consult your veterinarian. There is a slight chance it could be related to a nutritional deficiency, parasite problem, or other condition, in which case there are usually other signs present (such as diarrhea). You’ll want to be extra sure your dog is vaccinated against canine viruses and does not suffer from intestinal parasites if he eats the poop of other dogs or animals. This will also help protect you and your kids from contracting any zoonotic diseases (those that can be transmitted from non-human animals to humans).
Veterinarians and behaviorists do not know why some dogs engage in coprophagia. But it’s neither a surprising nor uncommon behavior, given dogs’ history as scavengers. Maybe it just tastes good to some dogs (when you think about it, dogs do plenty of normal things we humans find gross). And some dogs may thrive on the attention the behavior gets them from their owners.
Regardless of the reasons, if you have this problem, you’ll want to intervene promptly since it’s a rewarding behavior to the dog. And the more a behavior is rewarded, the more it will increase in frequency and intensity.
Taste deterrents such as Forbid or Deter seem to have a limited success rate. I’ve never heard of them working, but perhaps that’s because I only get calls about the dogs for whom the products didn’t have any effect.
The first step is to clean up your yard. If there are just a few piles, a pooper scooper will do, as will the ol’ plastic bag used like a glove trick. If you have quite a bit of dog feces in your yard, you may want to consider hiring a professional company to clean things up so you can start fresh. (One company called Doo No More claims to be “#1 in the #2 business.”)
The next step is to escort your dog, on leash, outside to do her business when it is time for her to poop. If you’re not sure when that time is, keep a written log for a few days so you can see trends in what her bowel habits are. If her schedule is very haphazard, it likely means she is fed on too flexible a schedule. Feed your dog, pick up the bowl or food puzzle after 10 minutes, and don’t offer another meal until the next scheduled meal time. This will help your dog eat regularly, and therefore eliminate more regularly.
After your dog poops, the very moment she’s finished (don’t wait for her to turn her head toward her rear end or toward the pile), say “yes!” and offer her a delicious treat that you’ve had ready in your hand. Take a couple of steps away from the pile, rewarding her with another treat or two. Then, keeping the leash short to prevent her diving for the poop, clean it up and dispose of it. Then do a little bit more training with treats, maybe a down or a few tricks. That way, after she poops, her focus will be on you, the training, and the tasty morsels you have. You’ll be substituting a new habit for the old one. It will also give her something mentally stimulating to do (some dogs may eat feces out of boredom). After about 2 weeks, your dog should regularly turn her attention to you after defecating and you won’t need to keep her on the leash each time. Use the treats and occupy her mind for another couple of weeks. Continue indefinitely to clean up after your dog eliminates and keep your yard free of feces.
Finally, consider teaching your dog a cue to “leave it.” If you work up to a high degree of responsiveness to this cue, you can even apply it to food on the coffee table or floor, or to a pile of poop on the ground (works nicely for other icky things found on walks like gum, fast food wrappers, or smelly things your dog may want to roll in or consume). “Leave it” (or excellent responsiveness to being called to you) is a must if your dog eats feces she encounters when off-leash, such as on a walk, hike or visit to a dog park. Until she is very good at that, if you really want her to stop eating stool, you’ll need to keep her on a line when walking, or condition her to being happy about wearing a basket-style muzzle so she won’t inadvertently reward herself.
Breath mint, anyone?