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Part of the responsibility of a good dog owner is to make sure they have the healthiest diet possible. So many of us spend big bucks and a lot of time making sure our canine best friend has the perfect food that they enjoy and keeps them healthy.
It can be especially tedious if you have a dog with a sensitive stomach and have to figure out the perfect protein if they have trouble digesting something like chicken.
And once you find the perfect kibble for your dog, they still insist on doing weird things like rolling in it or pretending to bury it.
So why does your dog pretend to bury food with their nose?
Dogs pretend to bury food with their nose because of instinct. Their wolf ancestors would often bury leftover food to save it for later and to keep it safe from scavengers. The modern dog often plays with this instinct to hoard food, seek attention, or when they are not feeling well.
The core reason your dog pretends to bury food with their nose is usually instinct. The behavior of pretending to push fake dirt over their meals with their nose comes from their wolf ancestors but expresses itself in modern pet dogs for multiple reasons.
Let’s take a look at when it is a cute quirk, and when it becomes a problem; either behaviorally or health-related.
Reason 1. It Is An Instinctual Behavior
Our domesticated house dogs certainly enjoy luxurious life compared to their wolf ancestors. They have soft beds, live in temperature-controlled houses, and have specially-made gear to make sure they stay dry and warm during walks in the rain and snow.
However, despite thousands of years of domestication, they still share some instinctual traits inherited from wolves. This includes denning, or digging holes and laying in them.
Wolves also liked to bury, or cache, leftover food for later. In the wild, wolves sometimes cache up to 15 pounds of meat to prevent scavengers from stealing their hard-earned food. The final step to burying their food is to use their nose to cover their food stash with dirt.
Nowadays, most dogs do not have to worry about hiding their food from competitors, but they still might have inherited the wolf instinct of hiding their food.
Dogs that do not have the opportunity to actually bury food will pretend to bury it with their nose by pushing fake dirt over their kibble or maybe try to bury it under blankets, their bed, or even furniture.
Reason 2. Because Of Their Breed
Some breeds are more likely to have inherited their wolf need to cache food than others. Hunting breeds, especially hunting breeds that dig for prey like terriers and hounds, were designed to dig and bury things.
If you own one of these breeds, they are more likely to pretend to bury food. Dogs who relentlessly like to dig for prey have a nickname: “Earthdog.”
Genetics play a huge role in dog behavior and dogs often need an outlet. For example, if you do not have sheep for your herding dog, they might start to herd other things instinctively like the furniture of your children.
The same goes for hunting dogs or Earthdogs that were bred to dig burrows to find prey. Here is a list of common breeds that might start pretending to bury food with their nose because of boredom and instinct.
- Jack Russell Terrier
- Rat Terrier
- Scottish Terrier
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
- Brittany Spaniels
If you have one of these breeds, and they obsessively like to pretend to bury food with their nose, they might need more training and mental stimulation, or good toys for dogs that like to dig or pretend to bury food.
Activities like AKC Earthdog Sports or Barn Hunt are also fun options to play to these dogs’ instincts.
Here is a Dachshund, an Earthdog breed, competing in Barn Hunt!
Reason 3. Your Dog Is A Picky Eater
Pretending to bury food with their nose might be a sign that your dog is a picky eater. Instead of eating their food, they are choosing to play with it.
Some dogs are naturally picky eaters because of food sensitivities or aversion to certain foods or textures. High-energy dogs with a strong work ethic might be too busy working to eat, making them pretend to bury food with their nose to save for later.
Owners of picky breeds might find that if they give their dog too many choices, their dog will try to manipulate them into giving them their favorite food.
If they cannot correctly hide their food to save for later or trick you into giving them something different, your picky dog might have to resort to pretending to bury food with their nose.
Reason 4. Your Dog Is Trying To Hoard Food
Some dogs are greedy for food so you never observe them pretending to bury food with their nose, but if you have a dog that is picky or eats sparingly, they might try to pretend to bury food with their nose.
Domesticated dogs who are living in loving homes should not have any reason to hoard their food, but dogs still have the ancestral instinct to save their food for later.
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with your dog hoarding food by pretending to bury it, be careful it does not turn into resource guarding.
According to Victoria Stilwell’s Positively Blog: “resource guarding is when a dog controls food, objects, people and locations that are important to him by defensive body language overt aggression display.”
Your dog protecting food they are trying to hoard and pretend to bury with their nose could become a major problem, especially if they are aggressive towards people or other dogs in the household.
If your dog is starting to resource guard, you can make them feel safer by feeding them separately in their crate or a different room. That way they do not feel as protective over the food they are pretending to bury with their nose.
Zak George also has some great advice for dog owners who are dealing with resource guarding.
Reason 5. Your Dog Is Anxious
Changes in eating habits are a common sign of anxiety or stress in dogs. Dogs suffering from anxiety might lose their appetite, which could cause them to try to hoard food by pretending to bury it with their nose.
While this behavior is not unique to rescue dogs, it is prevalent in rescue dogs that have suffered from hunger or had limited access to food; especially paired with anxiety. If they have had issues getting food in the past, their anxiety could cause them to try to cache it for later.
I can speak from experience that patience is the key. My rescue border collie came to me as a severely malnourished puppy and instead of eating, she would pretend to bury her food, pushing her food around her bed as if piling fake dirt on top of it.
With the help of a consistent meal plan and routine, she now eats every bit of food I give her with no issues.
Reasons your dog might be anxious could include fear, change of routine, aging, or separation anxiety.
You might want to reach out to a professional trainer or your veterinarian if you notice your dog is pretending to bury their food with their nose on top of some of these other anxiety symptoms:
- Accidents in the house
- Excessive howling or barking
- Compulsive behavior
Please keep in mind, pretending to bury food could also be considered a compulsive behavior, especially if they pretend to bury other things other than food.
Reason 6. Your Dog Has No Appetite
If your dog has little to no appetite it could be for reasons other than being picky or anxious. The same wolf instincts that might cause them to scavenge and eat everything might instead make them pretend to bury it with their nose to save it for later if they are full.
If they are overfed or receive a lot of people’s food and training snacks, they might not be interested in eating. Some dogs are better at intuitive eating than others, meaning they are simply good at recognizing they are full and will act like they have no appetite.
Genetics often play a role in whether or not a dog is picky and has little appetite: for example fast, high-drive working dogs like Border Collies and Greyhounds forget to eat or small breeds like Toy Poodles and the Maltese seem like they have no appetite because their stomachs are so small and they do not need much food.
However, factors like age, health, being spayed or neutered, and exercise regiment can also affect your dog’s appetite.
If you think your dog is pretending to bury food with their nose because they have no appetite, it might be helpful to count the calories they are getting throughout the day in regular meals, snacks, and treats.
Are they getting the right amount for their age, breed, size, energy level, and exercise level, or are you accidentally overfeeding them and they are trying to save the meal for later by pretending to bury it?
Reason 7. Your Dog Is Attention Seeking
Dogs slip into instinctual habits all the time when they are bored and want to play. In the wild, wolves will play by chasing, stalking, roughhousing, and digging not only to get each other’s attention but to practice their hunting skills.
Of course, most dogs do not need to hunt for food, and those that do hunt are working with their human handlers.
However, dogs still retain these instincts when they are trying to get your attention. Some dogs might push you with their nose to engage you, others might playfully pretend to bury food with their nose to entice you to play with them.
Dogs pick up patterns very easily and learn what makes you happy, which is why positive reinforcement is such a great way to train our dogs.
When they learn their behavior makes you happy, they will keep doing that behavior when they want your attention.
So if they learn that pretending to bury food with their nose gets your attention, they will be conditioned to repeat that behavior when they are bored.
Reason 8. Your Dog Does Not Feel Well
Just because our dogs know what is and isn’t food does not mean that they always make good choices about what they eat.
Certain foods can make our dogs ill, and if you have the habit of giving your dog people food that is not good for them like lunch meat, your dog might pretend to bury food with their nose to save it for when their stomach feels better.
Other people’s food that can be toxic for your dog include:
- Onions and garlic
- Salty foods
- Yeast dough
- Cooked bones
Your dog might not feel well and be pretending to bury food with his nose for reasons other than an upset stomach from eating the wrong things. Things to look out for include:
- Illness (cancer, liver or kidney problems, gastrointestinal issues, infection, pain)
- Dental Disease
- Travel induced stress
- Something is wrong with the food (i.e. they are allergic to it or it has gone bad)
Always see your veterinarian when your dog is sick and not eating.
Reason 9. Your Dog Is Having Eyesight Issues
If you have an aging dog who seems to suddenly start pretending to bury food with their nose, they might actually be pushing it around and having trouble eating because their eyesight is failing.
While the anatomy of a dog’s and human’s eyes have some differences, they do share a lot of similarities. Like people, dogs can suffer cataracts and glaucoma, usually age-related.
At mealtimes, you might notice unusual behavior, like it looks like they are pretending to bury food with their nose or are flipping their food bowl. They probably are not trying to play, but are having trouble seeing their meal.
Other symptoms to look out for if you are concerned your dog is suffering vision loss include:
- New anxiety and clinginess
- Bumping into walls and furniture
- Cannot make eye contact
- Trouble getting on and off furniture or vehicles
Should I Be Worried?
Your dog displaying natural play behavior like pretending to bury food with their nose is usually not anything to be worried about. Likely pretending to bury food is opportunistic, if they were outside they would probably use real dirt.
Of course, it becomes a problem if your dog starts to eat old food that they have “saved for later,” starts resource guarding, or pretends to bury food because of anxiety. If you are worried about your dog’s behavior, seek out a trainer or behaviorist who can help you with a training plan.
Always go see your veterinarian if you are worried your dog is sick. A lack of appetite is especially concerning if it is a new behavior.
The things we do to make sure our dogs eat their food can seem exhausting: Buying fancy bowls, learning their preferred feeding schedule, finding the perfect food, and of course, they still want to play with their food by pretending to bury it with their nose.
Our dogs usually pretend to bury food with their nose because of a caching instinct inherited from their wolf ancestors, not to drive you crazy. Wolves have to store extra food for later, and our dogs sometimes think they need to do the same thing, especially if they have no appetite or are bored.
However, do not hesitate to get help if your dog’s behavior turns into resource guarding, becomes compulsive, or you think it is a health problem. As good dog owners, we have a special bond with our dogs that helps us realize if a behavior is a random eccentricity or a serious problem.