Little Chutney, an adorable six-month-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, at twelve weeks of age became very ill. What was probably kennel cough quickly developed into pneumonia and he ended up in veterinary hospital and was on various drugs for a couple of months. He nearly died. Normal puppyhood was suspended.
He is now catching up.
Understandably his owners are inclined to mollycoddle him and panic, particularly when he picks something up like a twig or a piece of paper. They had initially wrongly believed his illness had been due to inhaling something, and their understandable reaction to his running off with a twig for example – chasing him, enticing him, bribing him then maybe forcing the item off him – is now actually making his ‘scavenging’ for things like twigs, leaves and bits of paper and eating rubbish a lot worse.
The chase that ensues will be stimulating and maybe even a little scary and he is responding with the beginnings of resource guarding behaviour.
I’ve not myself come across a dog that has suffered though swallowing a small piece of paper or tissue though there may be isolated cases, unless the dog has a serious pica disorder. Usually if a tiny twig is swallowed it’s chewed up first and passes through – though certainly could harm if swallowed whole. If chewing twigs, paper and non-poisonous leaves regularly killed puppies, there would be a lot of dead puppies.
Chutney’s owners will need to relax if he’s to change because the longer he rehearses the ‘scavenge/chase/retrieve the item’ cycle the more entrenched it becomes. Management is the first thing. Already they are taking him outside to toilet on lead. They could introduce him to a tiny basket muzzle for the garden – he can drink and pant but not pick things up. They probably have already checked their garden for any poisonous plants or leaves.
Indoors they should no longer give him free run. For now he should be in the same room as themselves or shut in his crate where he is perfectly happy, with something to do. Anything obviously worrying should be lifted (as it is already).
The next and most difficult thing for this lovely couple is to make an assessment as to whether the object could really harm Chutney and if not to ignore it. If it’s a tissue, so be it. He may well intensify his efforts when he no longer gets the predicted result so they could try walking out on him and shutting the door briefly rather than reacting.
Because he is still a puppy and at last feeling well enough to make up for lost time, they should give him plenty of things that he can chew and not just commercial items. He can have milk cartons, toilet roll tubes and plastic water bottles with kibble in, for instance. If they are not left down they will have some novelty value.
The last challenge is how to get things off him that may be dangerous. The more he knows they want the item, the more valuable it becomes to him and the more likely he is to swallow it to make sure that they don’t get it! Scattering food on the floor works well – it may need to be strong-smelling – so that he drops the item to get the food giving time to lift the item with no fuss.
Running off with things needs to be replaced with exchanging them. I do this from the start with my own dogs. When puppy has a toy in his mouth I say Give and feed him in return. I will admire the toy and then give it back to him. My dogs love giving me things! The secret, when taking something away, is to offer the dog something of higher value to him until ‘Give’ is firmly established.
If one of my dogs has something that I want in his or her mouth, they will always drop the item into my hand when I ask for it and I always, without fail, say thank you with a piece of kibble I have in my pocket (though I understand not everybody is like me, carrying dog food around all the time!).
They can set him up with a game that has several items in order of value to him, then offer the lowest and exchange for the next one up and so on, allowing him to keep the last, most valuable one – probably a food item. Tug of war is a great game for playing Take’ and ‘Give’. ‘Leave it’ is useful too when you happen to see the dog about to pick something up.
The other challenge with Chutney is that he may ignore them when they call him.
Eventually and with some hard work on his recall and ‘Give’, when Chutney has something inappropriate in his mouth they will be able to call him to them. He will come straight away and give it up willingly, being rewarded for doing so.