dog eating ice cream
Dogs can get into a lot worse than ice cream out on the trail. (Photo: ChristinLola/iStock/Getty)

How to Train Your Backcountry Dog That Eats Everything

Dogs explore the world with their mouths. That can be dangerous on the trail.


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A dusty path meanders down a 9,000-foot Colorado peak near my cabin that’s situated just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. My two dogs and I follow it through boulders, streams, and a river to get our sunshine fix a couple times a week. It’s one of the most remote trails in the area—I’ve only ever seen one other hiker here—so I often let the pups off leash.

Last fall, we were out on our usual hike when the dogs parked themselves at one spot on the trail. Their bodies were poised and focused, and their noses were glued to the ground. I turned around the bend and then I saw it: a spinal column attached to two legs with hooves on the ends. It was probably a deer that had been taken by one of our local mountain lions. And my dogs were picking away at the decaying bones. At the same moment I commanded them to “drop it,” my Rottweiler, Rocket, gulped and swallowed a big chunk of something. The hair on my arms stood up.

I’ve seen Rocket swallow a brownie, a bag of habanero jerky, tin foil, and half a rib bone before. But I couldn’t believe I had been careless enough to let her repeat that behavior in the wild around dead things. I worried that this deer carcass would be the snack that finally killed her.

Rocket was ultimately fine—she didn’t even show signs of an upset stomach that day—but I took this incident as a learning opportunity to create better strategies to protect her in the future. Over the next few months, we created a routine of practicing recall by using treats as positive reinforcement for Rocket and Bowser, my other dog. We practiced the “drop it” command, showing them that a quick response time would pay off with their favorite marrow-filled morsels. After we mastered recall in the back yard, we began practicing these tricks in more distracting places like the trail.

On my journey to become a better dog mom, I also reached out to Lisa McCarthy, a veterinarian and owner of Midtown Veterinary Medical Center in Fort Collins, Colorado. McCarthy has been practicing for 34 years and met many dogs with indiscriminate palates.

How to Train Your Dog if It Eats Random Things Outside

Keep Your Dog On a Leash

Eating random things in the wild poses the risk of a health emergency for your dog, says McCarthy: “At best, you’re going to take the risk of very bad gastroenteritis (garbage gut) from eating stuff that’s rotten. At the very worst, you can end up with a hideous disease that wildlife carries. Who wants to eat rotten meat? And they could end up with gastrointestinal blockages that require surgery.”

I am aware that Rocket’s obsession with food could easily morph into an expensive vet bill or death. And I want to make sure that we never end up in that situation.

McCarthy says managing the dogs’ freedom is key to their own safety. “Dogs really should not be off leash. We all know that,” she says. “They’re more likely to get injured, hurt, in a scrap with wildlife, or lost, or eat something they shouldn’t when they’re off leash.”

Train Your Dog to Listen to You

While leashing your pet is the first line of defense against bad backcountry habits, there are more things dog owners can do—namely, proper training.

“The most important tasks for them to master are ‘come’ and ‘leave it’,” says McCarthy, adding: “You want to be able to take their attention away from anything that is not you and come to you. ‘Come’ is the life saving command.”

My dog Rocket is actually very responsive to commands like “come” and “leave it” when we are at home, but we haven’t practiced these extensively in other environments. The power of scent makes it more difficult for her to focus on me while we’re outside, which makes her much slower to respond to my commands in the backcountry.

McCarthy reminded me that training exists on a scale. Once a dog masters life-saving commands at home, you should practice them in a more distracting environment, like a quiet park. Once your dog excels at training in that environment, you can increase the level of difficulty by taking them to a busier park, or a trail that’s full of exciting wildlife smells.

Some Dogs Will Eat Anything. Here’s Why.

I also wondered if Rocket’s addiction to everything that’s edible (and some things that aren’t) could be indicative of a health issue. Was she experiencing a nutritional deficiency of sorts? Did she have some kind of a disorder? Was there something larger at play in her behaviors?

McCarthy says probably not. “Dogs [are obsessive eaters] because they explore the world with their mouths. They can’t pick things up in their hands like we do. You see it especially in puppies, and that’s how they’re learning,” says McCarthy, adding: “Of course their sense of smell is 1,000 times better than ours. They can clearly pick up on things that are there that have nutritional value or seem tasty even when it seems gross. The classic example is eating poop.”

Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?

The first time I saw Rocket eat poop, my jaw dropped. How disgusting. It seemed like a health hazard for both of us, and I figured there must be something missing from her diet for her to do such a thing. But no, says McCarthy: “This is actually normal canine behavior. Wolves do it and coyotes do it and all canine species do it. Nobody really knows why but my personal theory is going back to that sense of smell. Things make it through the system that aren’t fully digested and the dog can probably smell it and recognize it as food.”

Fortunately, Rocket usually responds to the “leave it” command when I catch her sniffing poop. So I don’t have to smell her post-fecal-consumption breath very often. But I do worry about parasites, which are often transferred from pet to pet through feces. Knowing this, I generally keep her away from dog parks. Environmental management plus training go together to reduce the odds that she’ll eat something deadly.

Bottom Line: Careful Planning and Constant Reinforcement Go a Long Way

A final piece of advice I got from McCarthy is to plan for the worst and know how to act if and when your dog does consume something dangerous. “You should know where the closest emergency clinics are when you’re out and about,” she says, “and have a regular vet on speed dial.”

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Lead Photo: ChristinLola/iStock/Getty

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