A Dog Who Likes to Chew Diapers
My daughter's seven-year-old golden has begun going into the garbage to get soiled diapers, or chewing underpants when everyone is gone. He has the run of the house and always has. This is new behavior. Do you have any suggestions for us?
Sometimes dogs develop new, undesirable habits at an older age, simply because they've been given the opportunity to discover them. As disgusting as it may seem to a human being, diapers and soiled underclothes are often considered a delicacy for dogs of any age!
There are some key things that you must understand in order to rectify the problem quickly.
Dogs will always repeat behavior that is rewarding - the act of chewing on the diapers and underwear is rewarding to him or he wouldn't keep choosing to do it.
Rewards are not always provided by us - they can also be innate, as is the case with chewing on a smelly diaper. Never mind the fact that we think it's disgusting. The dog is clearly enjoying it and will do it again and again if given the chance. So, by not actively preventing this behavior (by crating him when they're gone, keeping doors closed, using baby gates to prevent access to the garbage cans, buying tall garbage cans with step-release latches, etc.) they are actually training the dog to continue doing it while they are away.
There is a very small window of opportunity during which a dog will make an association between his behavior and that behaviors consequence - the time frame is 1/2 to 2 seconds. In this case, the dog is being rewarded immediately as he engages in the behavior, so trying to punish the behavior of getting into the trash and chewing the diapers well after the fact is impossible and will not fix the problem. Instead it will create a new one...worry in the dog when his human(s) arrive home. Due to the unpredictable nature of the person coming home (sometimes they punish when they come home and sometimes they don't) the dog learns to act in a submissive manner (ears pinned back, cowering, going off into an unoccupied room to avoid contact, etc.) in an attempt ward off the aggressor. This is what many people mistake as the dog "looking guilty" or "knowing he's done wrong". The only thing the dog knows in such a situation is that his human's arrival home means bad news for him.
The simplest solution is to deny him access to the garbage can, and bedrooms (or wherever else he is stealing underwear). If he can't chew on these things you will always come home to a good dog! This can be done by either closing off rooms, putting these items out of his reach, or crating him. In his case, as he has always had run of the house, we would recommend simply denying access to the rooms where the soiled diapers can be found.
Keep us posted and thanks for writing.
Lisa Patrona, Dip. CBST, CPDT-KA, ACDBC, AABP-CDT
and Devene Godau, CPDT-KA