The Old Trainer: Bad habit can be overcome with preparation, plenty of training

Dear Old Trainer: My neighbor has a little female Chihuahua, Ratzzy, who has the habit of eating cat poop. She is going to take the dog to the pound if she doesn’t stop. I can’t bear to think of that. Is there any way to stop this little girl from her nasty habit before it is too late?

– Alice, Merced

Dear Alice: Yes. You break the habit the way you break any bad habit, by preparation and training. What Ratzzy is doing is annoying, but common. So common, science has given it a name – coprophagia. It is not abnormal, just undesirable.

Dogs do it as a survival device. There is nutritional value in animal feces – that’s why it makes good fertilizer – and in a crisis could help a dog survive.

Dogs are predators, but also scavengers, and eat anything they come across. If it doesn’t agree with them they just throw it up. This evolutionary advantage was inherited from their wolf ancestors and is one of the reasons wolves have resided at the top of the food chain for millions of years.

When Ratzzy does it, she is just following the code in her DNA. The mystery is why she does it when most modern dogs do not. The behavior is rarely caused by a physical or mental illness, but you may want to take her to the vet just to make sure.

There are several steps that will help you to break this habit and teach Ratzzy it is not allowed. Cat food contains more protein and fat than dog food, so the feces does too, making it attractive to dogs. The first step is to clean up all poop so she no longer has access to it.

Since the evolutionary basis of the habit is seeking nutrition, that is the first place you start. Switch to a premium brand of kibble. You can’t get high-level kibble in supermarkets, so go to a pet food store and find a brand that lists whole meat – not meat byproducts – as the first ingredient. Cook a pot of brown rice once a week. Give Ratzzy equal parts of the kibble, brown rice and quality canned dog food.

Teach Ratzzy what “no” and “leave” means. If she is properly trained, she will leave all feces alone when you give those commands. If she is not trained, start with the basic sit-stay-come training sequence (I emailed it to you) and work on it several times a day, every day, until she obeys in an instant.

Eating cat poop is just a habit. You break it as you do any bad habit – interrupt the thought process the instant it starts to form in the dog’s mind and replace it with the habit of obeying orders from the leader of the pack. All dogs sniff poop, it is part of their wolf DNA. Allow Ratzzy to sniff it, then touch her on the neck to break her train of thought and give her the “leave” command.

Make sure Ratzzy has plenty of toys, daily training, and enough daily exercise to burn off excess energy. Daily exercise and training solves a lot of problems.