Dogs are natural scavengers – and they’re quite good at it. While it’s common for dogs to dig in the trash, that doesn’t mean that you just have to “deal with it” for your dog’s lifetime.
In today’s “Ask a Behavior Consultant,” we tackle how to solve this messy problem.
Our reader writes,
I recently took in a stray extremely thin boxer mix that was found digging in
garbage. He is very well mannered while supervised, but when you aren’t watching his is up on counter tearing into any packaged food he can find.
– Sincerely, Hungry Boxer
I know firsthand how frustrating this problem can be – I wrote all about my troubles with Barley’s counter-surfing ways in a blog post titled, “I’m Not Mad, I’m Disappointed.”
While digging in the trash and stealing food from counters isn’t the exact same problem, dogs often do both.
Stealing food and getting into the trash often have the same root problem: dogs who are given an opportunity, dogs who are bored, and/or dogs who don’t know better.
Let’s walk through how to stop your dog from digging in the garbage, step by step.
Step 1: Remove the Opportunity
One of the most important ways to stop your dog from digging in the trash is to stop letting it happen.
This seems self-evident. It also can feel like a cop out.
But we put child locks on chemical cabinets when we have children, use leashes to keep our dogs from running into traffic, and don’t keep tempting foods in the fridge while we’re dieting.
Here are a few ideas for how to do this for you trash-digging canine:
- Purchase a trash can with a lid.
- Put the trash under the counter with a child lock.
- Put a note on your door reminding you to clear the counters before you leave.
- Put the dog in a crate, in an exercise pen, or behind a baby gate.
- Block the kitchen with a baby gate.
- Put your trash inside the bathroom and close the door.
It’s SO important to figure out how to lock food and trash away so your dog won’t get at it.
That’s because every time your dog gets into the trash or steals from the counters, he’s basically won the lottery!
When was the last time YOU fed him a whole chicken thigh or let him lick the yogurt container?
Plus he had the fun of shredding and scavenging, something his ancestors did to survive for generations.
That’s why solving trash-digging can be so hard.
For some households (like mine) this might be the majority of your solution for trash-digging. We just don’t let it happen. This is called management.
Step 2: Set Up a Doggie Easter Egg Hunt
This is the real winner for many dogs who dig in the trash. It’s often not enough to just try to keep the counters clean – we all know that one day, you’ll forget.
But if we can break your dog’s habit of checking the trash every time he’s alone, we’re more likely to get away with leaving things out occasionally.
Here’s how I stopped my dog from digging in the trash with a Doggie Easter Egg Hunt:
- Prepare some stuffed Kongs using these delicious Kong-stuffing recipes. Freeze them.
- The next day, before you leave for work or the grocery store or whatever, put your dog inside the bathroom for a moment.
- Prep a few bully sticks, the frozen Kongs, and your dog’s daily breakfast kibble inside a few puzzle toys.
- Hide these “Doggie Easter Eggs” around the house. Start out with making it easy – just scatter the toys and treats around the living room. Later, you can start hiding them.
- Double-check that the garbage and counters are dog-proof.
- Let your dog out and let him enjoy his Easter Egg Hunt
This approach teaches your dog to look for food low instead of high. It keeps him busy and satisfies his natural desire to scavenge – which is incredibly important!
Pairing this with management (and sometimes a bit more exercise) will do the trick for dogs that dig in the trash.
What if He Slips Up and Gets Into the Trash?
Many people focus on this aspect of teaching a dog to not dig in the trash: what to do after the mishap.
Unfortunately, this approach leads owners to try to catch their dogs being bad and correct the dog. This is difficult, since most dogs don’t dig in the trash while you’re watching.
As another downside to this approach, trying to punish your dog for digging in the trash sets you up for fallout.
Your dog might learn that you’re scary or that you coming home from work means he’s about to get swatted. Punishment has fallout – and trying to correct your dog involves punishment.
Rather than focusing on showing your dog how bad he was, try to set up the environment so that:
- He doesn’t have the opportunity to dig in the trash.
- He’s got something better to do than dig in the trash, anyway.
Things like zap mats, throwing cans of pennies at your dog, yelling, scolding, and spanking can all teach your dog that you’re scary.
Punishing your dog for digging in the trash might feel good – and it’ll probably scare your dog. But it’s unlikely to change his FUTURE behavior.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, as a private dog trainer, and with working detection K9s. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.