Garbage digging, trash raiding, or dumpster diving — whatever you call it, it’s both annoying and dangerous. If you’re lucky, you’ll clean up the mess and your dog will just have a mild case of diarrhea from his dietary indiscretions, but the consequences of this behavior are potentially much more serious, even fatal, if your dog is poisoned or gets an obstruction or perforation of his digestive system.
Manage the Trash, Manage the Dog
Trash raiding really goes right to the very root of what a dog is, an opportunistic scavenger. Your dog doesn’t know scavenging is wrong. In fact, to him, he’s doing exactly what a smart dog should do when he stumbles across some food- — eat it — even if he’s not particularly hungry. Even if there’s not much to eat in the trash, there’s usually something of interest, at least to a dog, to be thoroughly investigated, if not chewed, shredded, or eaten, even if it’s not technically edible. If you come home one night and think there’s been a snowstorm in the house, think again; it’s probably just some shredded tissues from the trash.
The best time to teach your dog to stay out of the trash is when he’s a puppy and before he’s successful the first time. Set up the booby traps described later on all the trashcans in the house before your dog manages to gobble up some goody he stole from the rubbish bin, and be the sympathetic savior when he causes his first correction.
To prevent an occasional indiscretion from turning into an obnoxious if not deadly habit, you need to be proactive about managing both the trash and the dog until you’re sure he won’t get into it, or you’re sure that the trash is securely out of his reach. Either the trash has to be secured in a dog-proof trashcan, or the trash has to be inside a cabinet (possibly with childproof latches), or maybe even locked in another room or outside if you have an especially astute problem solver.
Of course, if you’re there, you can use your leave it command if you notice your dog eyeing the trash, as well as keep him crated or out of rooms containing trash cans when you’re not around. Having some of your management enforcement tools, like shaker bottles or squirt guns handy is really helpful, so you can provide an unwanted consequence if he just can’t keep himself from helping himself to the garbage when you’re with him.
The Sky Is Falling!
Along with managing your dog and your environment, you need to take the reinforcement out of garbage-can raiding. To deter your dog from trying again in the future, you’ll have to connect some big negative consequences with the act. The negative consequence has to outweigh the possibility of reward if you want it to have an impact on the frequency of the behavior. You don’t want your dog’s behavior to be dependent on your presence (i.e., you want him to stay out of the trash whether you’re there to correct him or not), so your best bet is to devise a booby trap for your trash can. Depending on your dog’s personality and his individual sensitivities, you have several options.
One booby-trap option is to make something light but noisy fall on and around your dog if she tries to take something out of the trash. Start by preparing your bait. Cook a piece of bacon on a paper towel, or a small chunk of hot dog in waxed paper in the microwave. Eat the bacon, or use the hot dog for training treats. The paper is the bait, and the dog can smell it. The next step is to prepare your trap, out of view of your dog, please.
Gather 6–12 shaker bottles or aluminum cans, and tie them about 12–18 inches apart. Put them on a counter, preferably out of view, over the trashcan. Trail the string to the trashcan, and tie the bait, the paper used to cook the goodies, to the end. There should be just enough slack so the string is lying unnoticed on top of the trash. Now all you have to do is wait to hear the racket so you can “save” your poor dog and redirect her to something else. Set up similar traps around any trash can she’s even thought about visiting, using different kinds of bait, so she doesn’t start to think bacon and hot dogs are the source of evil!
If such measures aren’t having a significant effect on her behavior in a short time, like three or four repetitions, it’s time to try something else. You can set up a booby trap that will dump water on your dog for grabbing bait out of trash as an alternative to the Chicken-Little treatment. In addition, Scat Mats, which deliver a mild, static-type shock when the pet steps on them, or indoor electric fences work for many dogs, although these are more management devices than training — which is perfectly acceptable. There are some dogs who are so obsessed with food that no correction is strong enough to overcome it. In this case, management is your best option.