Dogs are opportunists. You’ll have seen your dog hanging around when people are eating, and even if they don’t beg, they’re quick to hoover up any titbit that falls to the floor. As for the rubbish bin, it seems to fascinate your pet dog deeply – even if he has enough food. Why’s that?
To understand the answer says dog trainer Adrienne Farricelli, we have to look at the evolutionary history of the dog – and at some of its nearest living relatives.
Hunting or Scavenging – which does your dog do?
Wolves are hunting animals, but like some other hunters including lions and hyenas, they’re also opportunists. If food is going begging, they’ll eat it up. If it has been dead for a few days and has an ‘interesting’ smell, all the better.
But what about your dog? Evolutionary historians believe that we encouraged dogs not to hunt. And in the early days of domestication, we probably killed any dogs who were a bit too fond of killing the animals we wanted as prey ourselves.
But we did create waste. The landfill has its prehistoric roots in the ancient middens that archaeologists dig up from time to time. The ancestors of the domestic dog could sniff around these rubbish heaps with impunity. We didn’t care if they scavenged off our waste – but we didn’t want them hunting our prey or domestic animals.
When dogs tagged along for the hunt, they may help to find, flush or even bring down prey, but their reward was scraps. Other dog ancestors were bred to protect our domestic animals form predators and keep them in herds. Slowly but surely, we bred the hunter out of our dogs.
But dogs still hunt – at least a bit. A few breed still display the whole gamut of hunting behaviours, but most of them don’t. They may have a few hunting habits as the pointer does, but for the most part, scavenging is their thing.
What does this mean to your pet dog?
From his perspective, thousands of years of evolution have prepared him for sniffing out food remains and feeding himself from what he finds. But now we put down a bowl of food, he wolfs it down and is left with nothing much to do.
We often talk about people and their frustrated instincts. But our ‘big brains’ are supposed to help us to master them. How many times have you wished you could rip out someone’s throat only to respond with comparative politeness?
Dogs aren’t humans. Yes, they can be taught certain behaviours, but when it comes to instinct their ‘brakes’ aren’t quite as strong as ours. Thanks to the way we look after our pets, we frustrate their foraging instinct and it finds outlets in other, related behaviours that we don’t necessarily like. And once we aren’t at home, our dogs forage away or resort to other activities that are born of boredom.
How can we promote non-disruptive foraging?
The most important thing to remember is not to overdo the feeding. Being overweight is bad for your dog. Work out how much he or she should eat in a day, and divide up the portions.
Give your dog a little snack in the morning, just to get the day off to a good start. Now divide the rest of his food up and use it for foraging games.
The Foobler game
The problem with dogs is that their noses are really sensitive organs. You can scatter trails of food in the garden, but they’ll be found and vacuumed up within minutes. That’s not going to provide much entertainment for your dog, especially if you’re out for a few hours.
The Foobler has six food or treat compartments hidden inside a ball shaped toy. Your dog doesn’t decide when the food is going to emerge, you do. You set a timer to go off at certain intervals and when the time comes, a bell rings and the food is released.
From your dog’s perspective, he’s working at foraging as he shunts the ball around the yard. ‘Ring’ goes the bell, and out pops the food: “Ah,” thinks your dog “I got that right at last! I must be a clever girl / boy!”
And In this way, your dog forages happily all day, immersed in his favourite activity. By the time you get home, your dog is tried but satisfied. Your dustbin is intact (unless you left something really yummy in there) and your garden furniture is un-chewed. Best of all, everybody is happy!
Peter and the Team at Foobler