Ask the Dogfather: Poo-poo platters


Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the Dogfather counsels the owners of a poop-eater.

Dear Dogfather,

My dog problem is so embarrassing that I beg you not to use my name. Here it is: my two small dogs eat their own poop. They are rescues. The vet estimates they are about seven years old. He also told me that this is very common. But that is small comfort to me. Is it too late to correct this embarrassing behavior?


Embarrassed and Anonymous

Dear E&A,

As regards, is it too late, the short answer is, no. The oldest dog I started training with was a 14-year-old bearded collie who was making beautiful progress, until he died of a heart attack between lessons. The saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is literally incorrect. I do a lot of “trick” training and believe me when I tell you that an adult dog is going to get what you’re asking of him a lot faster than a distracted-egg-for-brain puppy. The saying should be, “It’s harder to break long established habits in an older dog than in a young dog.”

The habit of eating poop is called coprophagia, and it’s not terribly uncommon, especially the eating of other species’ feces. Most dog owners on our Island have seen their dogs  occasionally nibbling on goose poop. It’s a little less common for them to eat their own species’ feces, but as my wife says when dogs do disgusting things, “It’s the dog in them!”

There are products on the market that claim to stop the poop eating when added to your dog’s food. I have never seen any of them work. But there is a solution that I’ve employed many times, with total success. Training a dog is based on timing. Dogs basically live in the moment, so as the behavior is happening, they need to know that the behavior is acceptable, or not acceptable.

With the coprophagic dog the interaction has to be strictly between the dog and the turd. Best solution is an electronic collar. From the dog’s perspective the human has nothing to do with it. It’s turd vs. dog. Period. You can be sitting in the house observing the dog through the window. As soon as the dog licks or picks up the sausage you simply push a button on your hand-held remote and the dog gets a noise, or vibration, or startling mild shock. If the dog experiences something unpleasant every time he picks up a turd (unless he’s a masochist) the behavior will be extinguished quickly. In my experience, the stim (shock) needs very few applications for the message to be received by the dog. Please be advised, I never suggest that someone gets an E collar and use it without working with a trainer using it first. The decision whether to use tone, vibration or stim, or the intensity of the stim, depends, and should be made by a professional.

Also, picking up the poop every day is strongly advisable. If the dogs spend hours in a yard surrounded by tootsie rolls you don’t need to spend your day with a remote in your hand gazing at dung. Leave one big one that is clearly visible to you and zap when necessary.

Best of luck,

The Dogfather