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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 founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.
My neighbor has a big dog and she can get into everything standing on hind legs she can reach 7ft whats the best doggy proofing you can do he’s tried put it up high and trash can with lid keeps people food away she dose it the minute he leaves to go to work
Have you tried putting the trash behind a closed door, like inside a closet?
Hello, I have eight month and six month old greyador puppies that love getting into the trash, scattering it EVERYWHERE, and peeing on it. They jump over dog gates. When we put the trash outside other animals like stray cats or raccoons get into it. What do I do?!
Also, when we put the dogs downstairs, they end up getting into WHATEVER they can. They’ll even chew on doors.
Hi Violet, I wonder if they need more exercise as well as some practice with confinement and more appropriate chew toys. It sounds like they’re trying desperately to find some fun games to play, and they unfortunately keep choosing your trash!
Hi. I e got a 1 year old pitbull who will not stop getting into the trash!! We tried lids but I’ve also got an 18, almost 11 and 5 yr old boys. That was a failed attempt, and with everything going on each day I always forget to put the trashes up, plus weve got 8 small and large trash cans. Shes sneaky and does it while we’re sleeping too. Please help I’m going insane.
We have had success in the past with clients who moved their trash into a sliding cupboard with a child lock, like this: https://fixthisbuildthat.com/diy-pull-out-trash-can-kitchen-cabinet-plans/
I’m at a loss with my dog. I have a 3 year old border collie mix and she always gets into the trash when we aren’t home. She’s even started getting into things that are on the counters as well. This hasn’t been a problem till this last year. I don’t want to punish her for it because she already knows that it’s wrong when I catch her and she puts herself in time out. We give her regular exercise and she has plenty of toys to play with. Any ideas?
Hi Lindsay – have you tried the suggestions outlined in the article or simply locking the trash away and clearing the counters?
And what is an actual training strategy? I really want to kick this is the butt once and for all and not just by taking the problem away. I’ve been managing the environment now for two years while working massively on Itsyerchoice. Tonight was the first night my roommate had a fit, physically punishing and scaring the dog with the garbage. Comparing my dog to his dog and “well this worked on him and we haven’t had a problem since”…. I’ve been trying to set up environmental exercises as the formal sessions have been going well but this is still a work in progress. (IYC in hand, on floor, adding movement to the food, recalling past food, dropping food from different positions, etc) He has not had a massive reinforcement history with the garbage but I feel like this issue will never go away. Never a full take down but with his height (27inches) he’s always sniffing and trying to steal off the top. As of now I’m only filling the garbage up to the point where he can’t reach in it. It seems to only be a problem in my new home. He gets enough exercise, mental stimulation and training sessions throughout the day. I’ve tried ignoring (without the opportunity for reinforcement of course) as I was noticing behavior chains forming… This seemed to help but if the garbage was any fuller or if we were out of sight I’m sure nothing will have changed. I Just don’t know what to do and it is causing so much tension in the household. The more it goes on, the more I am getting emotional.
Hi Tanner, honestly all dogs are different. Some will never try to get into the trash, others (like mine) require full child locks and blocks to stay out. That’s by far the simplest and most elegant solution, rather than flying off the handle with punishment (which often won’t help the problem when you’re not around).