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Whether it is a puppy suddenly big enough to reach the garbage can or a middle-aged dog who starts tearing through the kitchen trash, it is incredibly frustrating to deal with your dog getting into the trash all of a sudden. Coming home from a long day at work to trash all over your house, and potentially worrying about your dog eating something that can make it sick, is troublesome.
So why do some dogs suddenly decide to get into the trash?
Most of the time it’s simply driven by instinct and opportunity. Other explanations could be that your dog might be hungrier from long walks or getting older. They could be bored and are finding ways to entertain themselves. There could be a medical reason your dog is getting into the trash.
Dogs that are getting into the trash all of a sudden are also likely conditioning themselves that it is okay to get into the trash in the future. If their owner is not home to redirect or change the behavior, the dog is getting an automatic reward.
So your dog has rewarded themself by getting into the trash; but what drove them to get into the trash all of a sudden?
We looked at the quick answer, but let’s take a closer look at each possible explanation and help you figure out what makes the most sense for your dog.
Reason 1: Crime Of Opportunity and Instinct
Most dogs get into the garbage because they smell something good, and some breeds are more food motivated than others. Labradors, for example, are known for their ravenous hunger. In my dog trainer circle, we call them “walking stomachs” and they are often known for getting into the trash. Besides being a food hound, other reasons a dog might get into the trash all of a sudden include increased appetite, perhaps due to age, medication, illness, or more exercise.
Increased appetite triggers that instinct to scavenge, and the trash is a great place to scavenge!
While some breeds are notoriously picky, generally, dogs will scavenge instinctively, and if they have access to smelly trash, are likely to take advantage of it. It is theorized that wolves scavenging food scraps and trash around early human settlements were some of the early ancestors of the domesticated dog. So even if they get fed regular meals, dogs that are bored, under-exercised, have a medical issue, or are anxious might teach themselves how to get into the trash all of a sudden because of instinct alone.
While some dogs are inherently picky and might never try to get into the garbage, it only takes one time for your dog to smell the chicken scraps you threw away to learn that they can get into the trash, and now it becomes a habit. Your puppy might suddenly learn that it is big enough to get into the trashcan; maybe the latch to the trashcan broke, or your dog has simply learned how to tip over the trashcan.
All of these indicate a so-called “crime of opportunity.” Your dog is getting into the trash all of a sudden because they learned they can get away with it. If you are not home to catch the behavior of getting into the trash all of a sudden, it is harder to change the behavior. Your dog is rewarding itself by getting into the garbage, which is an entertaining habit and a tasty treat for them.
Reason 2: Attention Seeking Behavior
It is frustrating to come home to garbage strewn all over your kitchen floor, but sometimes a dog will start to get into the garbage all of a sudden when their owner is home.
Most people’s reaction to seeing their dog get into the trash will be frustration, and stern talking-to or even yelling at their dog. A bored dog or lonely dog wants interactions with their owner, and even negative attention is attention to the dog. A dog that learns that getting into the trash results in you paying attention to them, even if it is not positive attention, might continue getting into the garbage so you keep interacting with them.
A dog who is seeking attention might also bark at you like the dog in this video. If their owner continues to ignore them, perhaps they might try getting into the trash.
Reason 3: Boredom
Are you working longer hours, brought home a new baby, or has the weather gotten colder and your dog is not going on his usual long walks? This stress combined with boredom might cause him to explore new outlets and habits which might not be the most healthy way for a dog to manage their stress. A bored dog is very good at finding naughty ways to entertain themselves. They might start chewing up furniture, scratch up doors and walls, and start getting into the trash all of a sudden.
Let’s face it, if a dog is bored and suddenly discovers that they can get into the trash, they probably enjoyed eating and tearing apart the trash. It takes one time for them to reward themself with dinner scraps or an almost empty yogurt container they find in the garbage to make the behavior a habit. If you are not there to stop the behavior, they will likely keep getting into the trash until you figure out the best way to manage it.
Reason 4: Medical
Getting into the garbage all of a sudden can be a sign of increased appetite, which could suggest poor nutrition or more exercise than usual. However, it could also be a symptom of a medical concern. Increased appetite is a symptom of several well-known canine ailments, including:
- Cushing’s Disease
- Gastrointestinal disorders
If you notice other symptoms such as vomiting, irregular bowel movements, or rapid weight fluctuation, it is time to make an appointment with your veterinarian!
Certain medications will also cause increased appetite and might make them get into the trash all of a sudden. Owners who have dogs being treated with medications like prednisone and phenobarbital have to be aware of leaving food out and making sure the garbage is put away. These dogs have an incredibly hard time stopping themselves from eating.
Reason 5: Stress And Separation Anxiety
If your dog is getting in the trash all of a sudden and you have ruled out attention-seeking behavior, medical issues, boredom, and increased hunger, they might be anxious. Is your dog just getting into the kitchen trash all of a sudden, or is it your office garbage that only has paper and no actual food? That sounds more like a stress-induced destructive behavior, a symptom of separation anxiety.
Destructiveness is also a major symptom of separation anxiety. If you notice other symptoms of separation anxiety like excessive barking and accidents in the house, you might want to meet with a certified trainer or talk to your veterinarian about medication to help manage the behavior.
Ways To Keep Your Dog Out Of The Trash
It is generally accepted that dogs do not feel emotions like shame or guilt in the same way humans feel these emotions. If you come home to garbage strewn all over the floor, your dog might look guilty by cowering, tucking their tail, or showing you their belly. However, they are probably reacting to your signs of anger and frustration.
These dogs who got into the trash look guilty, but they are reacting to their owner’s feelings of frustration:
The best way to change a dog’s behavior is to catch them in the act and redirect, or better yet, train a different behavior to replace the unwanted behavior.So if your dog is getting into the trash all of a sudden and you are not home to train a different behavior, how do you stop them from getting into the trash?
You have to manage the behavior and take away the reward, or hide the trashcan!
Management is going to be the best way to stop your dog’s new habit of garbage eating, especially if you cannot be at home to change the behavior. By removing access to the trash in the first place, you will prevent them from teaching themselves new bad behaviors and keep your house clean and trash-free.
- Invest in a covered, pedal-operated trashcan.
- Lock your trashcan in a cupboard, pantry, closet, or garage.
- Use a baby gate or exercise pen to block access to the trashcan.
- Put your trashcan on the counter (works if your dog cannot get on the counter!)
- Crate train your dog.
By moving the trashcan to somewhere your dog cannot reach it, you will not have to deal with your dog getting into the trash all of a sudden.
If your dog is getting into the trash all of a sudden because they are bored, anxious, or seeking your attention, it is possible you need to spend more time with your dog. More exercise will help tire them out physically. A dog that is physically worn out is less likely to get into the trash all of a sudden and more likely to relax. If you are working longer hours, try several shorter walks instead of one long one. Take them for a walk around the block in the morning, then to the park after work.
Even dogs that are notoriously lazy need exercise, but if you have a young dog or high-energy breed, they might have excess energy that is leading them to get into the trash. A nice walk or game of fetch will wear them out so they do not have the energy to figure out they can get into the trash all of a sudden.
If your dog is getting into the trash all of a sudden because they are bored or attention-seeking, they might need more training. Working on obedience training and mental games like hide-and-seek or playing tug with them will give these dogs not only the mental stimulation they need to keep from getting bored, but they will also enjoy the healthy, positive attention you are giving them.
Teaching your dog good leave-it also helps them learn impulse control. Good impulse control might help prevent them from getting into the trash all of a sudden. Kikopup has a great tutorial on how to get started on training leave-it.
Should You Be Worried If Your Dog Gets Into The Trash?
It is important to prevent your dog from getting into the trash all of a sudden. There are likely scraps that could be toxic to dogs in your garbage.
Certain food waste including chocolate, onions, and raisins can damage your dog’s organs. Rancid and moldy food can cause gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea and vomiting. There could be items in your garbage that can cause intestinal damage like cooked bones, or things like diapers can cause intestinal blockages. If your dog got into the trash and they are showing symptoms of illness, it is important to reach out to your veterinarian right away.
I know the consequences of a dog getting into the trash all of a sudden sound very scary, but luckily, preventing your dog from getting into the trash is usually easy. Management is the key. Invest in a dog-proof covered garbage can, tuck it in a cabinet, or lock it in a closet. While exercise and mental stimulation are certainly helpful to keep your dog from getting bored and seeking out the trash, preventative measures are the key to keeping your dog out of the trash.