Let’s talk about poo! I didn’t think as a dog trainer that I would be saying that sentence, however, coprophagia is a something that I come across often when working with dogs and their clients. The idea of dogs wolfing (ha!) down either their own poo, another dogs or another species, while completely gross for us humans, is a rather normal part of being a dog. I see a lot of speculation on the internet that a dog eating poo must be lacking nutrients in their diet. And while poo eating can be abnormal in certain circumstances, it’s generally part of normal behaviour.
A recent study reported that in their pool of 1475 dogs, 16% were considered regular diners of doggy do-do with about 25% of dog having eaten poo once before. But while it is a natural part of dog behaviour, there can be issues arising from it, such as transmissible parasites to humans, collie’s eating poo from horses that have been wormed can be fatal and it’s just…gross. So how do we try limit this behaviour if it starts to become a problem? First, we need to look at the whys and from there we can work out how to help.
It has been suggested that dogs like eating poo of other animals to gain something nutritionally from it. Poo from herbivores rely on bacteria to digest their food that it a source of protein for dogs as well as aiding in the immune system. Herbivore diets are also full of herbs and grains and their feaces of partially digested food is a source of nutrition. This could be an evolutionary leftover from dogs ancestors who would need to seek these nutrients out rather than have it as a complete diet in a bowl.
Maybe they enjoy it. We don’t have the same way of interpreting smell and taste as a dog. Some poo might just be rather tasty and once a dog has had a taste, they want to repeat the behaviour.
A dog’s breed has been found to mark out if a dog is going to eat poo or not. Terriers, hounds and Shetland Sheepdogs were all noted to be prolific poo-eaters in the study. Dogs were also more likely to chow down on crap if; they were considered greedy by the owner or lived with other dogs. The same study also found no correlation between age or diet and coprophagia.
It could be a learned behaviour that the dog continues to reinforce when they eat more, or if an owner tries to stop them, they inadvertently make poo valuable and a game. A dog can develop the habit for several reasons. Inadequate amount of food in puppyhood – a common thing seen in dogs from puppy mills. If they are inappropriately punished for eliminating in the wrong place, a dog will try to avoid future punishments by eating the evidence. It can develop from a place of boredom, or something they have learned from their mother or another dog.
Some dogs ingest poo as a result of OCD and it becomes an uncontrollable compulsion.
The first thing I want to consider is if it is worth it to go through the process of having to stop it all together. If is just an occasional thing then in the long run, letting it continue will be the least stressful course of action. For any dog who ingests poo, it is important to keep up to date with their worming and medication to prevent heart worm and deal with nematodes. Screen your dog at least every 6 months for parasite load.
How can we stop it?
Manage it. Make sure you are keeping on top of picking poo up as soon as your dog have toileted. The study showed that about 80% of their sample only ate poo less than 2 days old. If your dog is one to whip around the minute they are done, use a food scatter to distract them.
Don’t punish your dog for toileting accidents.
Ensure your dog is on a well-balanced diet and healthy gut biome by adding probiotics to their diet. Look out for growth spurts and if your dog is hungry.
Reinforce ‘leave it’ training with your dog, train redirection to stop them going back to the poo they find and build engagement training, so your dog wants to hang out around you rather than dive off out of sight.
Get a vet check that is thorough and looks at parasites, bloods, and organ function to rule out any medical reasons.
Muzzle train your dog and choose a muzzle with a scavenger guard so they cannot eat poo with it on.
Make sure your dog is appropriately mentally stimulated and fulfilled.
Improve your observation skills to better be able to spot ant poo that needs to be avoided or the dog called away before you get to it. You can select to walk your dog in less frequented areas, of places that dogs need to be walked on a lead.