Since I’ve pledged to report every pothole on our puppy-raising journey, I have to bring up the unsavory subject of Darby’s breath. That sweet milky scent we inhaled with delight just a year ago has been replaced by an odor that sometimes borders on the putrid. Steve has responded by increasing her tooth-brushing sessions to three or four times a week but to no apparent avail. We were mystified, however, when we returned from our travels after Christmas to find Darby’s breath as sweet as if she’d just undergone a deep dental cleaning under anesthesia. Since then Steve has been nagging me to call her puppy-sitter and find out what had caused the improvement. “Maybe she was using some special toothpaste!” he pointed out. So the other day, I phoned LeAnn and asked.
After a slight but awkward pause, she gently probed: “Is she a poop eater?”
The coin dropped.
I have actually never seen Darby snacking on any doggy excrement. Steve had glimpsed some suspicious activity once or twice. But we’d been in denial. Further discussion with LeAnn ended that. (Eventually she acknowledged she’d caught Darby in the act.)
It’s not like Steve and I have never heard of this revolting behavior. Our first black lab, Pearl, introduced us to it. She wasn’t a CCI puppy, though, and our first one of those – Tucker – was far too well-bred to be a coprophage (or so we thought.) But his successor, Yuli, was just as well-bred and developed a positive passion for poop-eating. Her successor, Brando, seemed just as angelic as Tucker – but Steve claimed to have seen some transgressions a few times toward the end of Brando’s time with us.
Deciding that shame and denial weren’t working too well for us, I’ve been seeking authoritative advice in the last day or two. The CCI Puppy Raiser Manual isn’t helpful. Under “Mouth Odors” in the Health section, it declares, “Some puppies will eat objectionable material, such as cat feces. This obviously can cause foul breath.” CAT feces?!? What about DOG feces, which is a lot more accessible in my yard? The manual apparently considers this to be unmentionable, coyly advising only “If you have problems such as this [emphasis mine] that are difficult to control, consult your Puppy Program Office.”
But why would I do that when Google offers me some 728,000 hits under the search term “dog coprophagia”? Among them I’ve found reassurance that Darby’s (and Pearl’s and Yuli’s and Brando’s) dark secret is pretty widespread. (“ Dogs are…notorious coprophages,” declares Cecil Adams, “doing it mainly to gross out their owners.”) In an article in the Bangkok Times posted just a few days ago, I found the assertion that “studies say bitches are more likely to develop faeces eating habit than the male counterpart…” This makes some sense to me, given the way dog mamas instinctively clean up their newborn puppies.
I’ve learned that entire websites are devoted to this topic (e.g. www.dogpoopdiet.com), and that my dogs have never done anything as bizarrely disgusting as that reported on one SPCA page, which asserts that “some dogs even follow others around, waiting until they defecate so that they can eat the feces right away. Dogs have also been reported to twist their bodies around so that they can eat their own feces as they are defecating.” Wow.
I’ve taken most comfort from the 2900-word essay on this topic by a guy named Barry McDonald who claims to “have the distinction of posting more about “poop” on-line than anyone else on the web.” (Wow, again.) I have no idea who he is, but his discussion is encyclopedic and his tone is calm. Most comforting to me is his assertion that the behavior is “most commonly seen in pups between 4-9 months of age, who will most often outgrow the behavior without intervention.”
So Steve and I have resolved to follow some of McDonald’s advice. We’re going to try to clean up all the droppings daily, instead of a couple of times a week. If we ever catch Darby snacking, we’re not going to yell at her. Most importantly, we’re not going to let her see us clean up, as McDonald says, “pick-up efforts may be reinforcing to your dog. This is simple to understand: Your dog is ‘picking up poop,’ and now it sees you doing the same! What is it likely to conclude? Probably that you approve of, enjoy, and recommend this behavior! If the dog has an instinct telling it to ‘keep the yard clean,’ you are reinforcing it!”
We’ll also keep brushing her teeth and sniffing her breath. And hoping.