Dear Lisa: We have two 9-month-old Yorkshire Terriers. They are wonderful, energetic little bundles of fun but the little female will look for and consume their feces. I pick up their stools around the yard but inadvertently I miss some. Is there any supplement I can give her in her food that will prevent this? Or what would you suggest? It's a yucky habit and it can't be good for her! Please help. --Pooped Out in Peoria
The habit of eating feces -- on purpose and not by accident -- is called coprophagia. This abnormal ingestive behavior is gross only because your puppy does it in front of you. In fact, this behavior is quite common in puppies, isn't harmful and is usually outgrown. However, it's better if you become proactive and not risk that she won't out grow it, by intervening while she is still an impressionable puppy.
First of all, consult your veterinarian to see if there is any medical reason why your puppy engages in stool eating. Experts agree there is no known single cause for it and eliminating a medical condition will let you move on to looking at the behavioral aspects of it.
Possible Behavioral Factors
Most coprophagic pups do it as a learned behavior. Sometimes pups begin it as a form of "copy behavior" from their mother in the whelping box. Lactating mothers lick and clean up after small puppies to remove the smell that attracts predators in the wild.
Attention-seeking behavior may also be a cause for your pup's snacking. If, for example, you are away for long hours and the pup feels the need for additional attention, she may grab a tidbit knowing you will scold her for doing so. Don't fall prey to reinforcing this negative behavior each time she tries to grab a snack. Even negative attention is better than no attention at all.
The only way to stop it is to teach her a new behavior. You may have seen products to cure this problem or heard of the old wives' tales of putting meat tenderizer or MSG on the dog's food to make the taste of the feces worse (worse than what?). Anyway, speaking as an experienced owner of a coprophagic bitch, I can say none of these remedies worked for her. They may for a time, but once dogs get used to the new taste, the old habit returns.
The best way to avoid consumption is to pick up feces immediately after your dogs' elimination. If you are diligent with this clean-up act for several weeks and start a new behavior model for the puppy to follow, the problem should correct itself. For example, have her poop on leash, pull her away from the object of her desire and reward immediately with an acceptable treat and then a little playtime. She will begin to associate elimination with a new behavior and hopefully, she won't resort to the old behavior when you return her to the off-leash, unsupervised privacy such matters dictate.
If you have a question, send it to Lisa at AskLisa@AKC.org and she may select it for a future column. Due to the high volume of questions she cannot offer individual responses.