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"Oh Goodness, Why'd My Dog Erin Just Eat Something So Foul?"

Dogs are known to taste a wide variety of "disgusting" foods and other objects.

"Holy ___, why did my dog just eat something so gross?"

"Why in the world would Myron put that nasty piece of ___ in his mouth?"

"Marie is a total omnivore but seems to know what'll harm her and what won't. I let her try different things, but I watch her closely."

"Clearly, my dog Jake's tastebuds aren't working. Look at what he puts into his mouth!"

"Watch it, Gina just ate something mighty rank, and she'll try to lick you and share it."

"Bernice is in heaven when she eats the foulest of the foul."

These six quotes come from my having spent many hours at various dog parks. And the quotation and question in the title ("Oh goodness, why'd my dog Erin just eat something so foul?") was a scream heard across the dog park at which I was hanging out. Erin's human, Cathy, was incredulous and kept going on and on rather loudly about what Erin had just happily eaten, and as Cathy screamed, Erin was deeply and blissfully lost in a frenetic "zoomie" during which she eagerly was trying to share what she had in her mouth with other dogs and humans, whoever wouldn't run away. Along the way, I also assured Jake's human companion that Jake's tastebuds were working perfectly well, dog style, as were Erin's and the other dogs', even if we may gag as they consume certain things. They simply have different tastes and desires. Trying to think and feel our way through our dog’s daily life from the dog’s perspective is a useful exercise. As our dog’s companion, we can train ourselves to be attentive to our dog’s experiential world, to walk in their paws, and imagine what’s happening in their head and heart.

These above quotes are representative of numerous similar sentiments focusing on the tendency for many dogs to seek out, taste, and possibly consume foods and other objects that truly sicken us. It's helpful to know why dogs do the things they do, and in this post, I consider their sense of taste and cover a number of different topics that center on taste and other matters of dogs' oral proclivities.

Huskyherz, Pixabay free download
Dog licking his face
Source: Huskyherz, Pixabay free download

Dogs are everywhere in our world—in our neighborhoods, in our cars, and in our homes. Yet in some important ways, we often don’t really notice dogs. We see them as ornamentation or our own human drama, not appreciating who dogs really are and what this world is like from their perspective. The key to being able to provide dogs with enhanced freedom is to understand how they sense their world—what the world looks like, smells like, feels like, tastes like, and sounds like to them. Only by understanding how dogs experience the world will we be able to understand the ways in which human environments compromise their welfare and be able to find ways to compensate. To do this, we need to get inside the heads, hearts, and sense organs of our furry friends. That’s the basic message of Jessica Pierce's and my recent book, Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible.

For a long time, scientists ignored dogs and a dog’s sense of taste is far less sensitive than our own. Dogs only have around 1,700 tastebuds, whereas we have about 9,000. Humans can taste all five flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (savory). Dogs (as far as we know) taste only salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. It’s interesting to note how much variation there is in how well and what sorts of things animals can taste. For example, pigs have a more sensitive sense of taste than we do, possessing about 14,000 tastebuds. Chickens have only about 30 tastebuds, while cats have around 470. During their evolution, cats lost the gene that detects sweet flavors.

Taste is an evolutionary adaptation for assessing whether something is edible, although the definition of “edible” clearly varies between dogs and humans. If you’ve ever watched dogs eat, you may wonder whether they taste anything at all as they vacuum down snacks and meals, chomping and spraying food far and wide. Although the table or bowl manners of many dogs are appalling by human standards of etiquette, they certainly enjoy what makes it into their mouths.

Dogs show remarkable individual variability in their tastes for different foods and different nasty stuff. For example, Jessica Pierce's two dogs, Bella and Maya, are nothing alike. Bella has a wide palate and will eat carrots, peas, apples, raspberries, and nearly every other food offered to her. Maya dislikes fruits and vegetables and will carefully pick them out of Jessica’s offerings, even if they’re hidden under thick gravy. My dog Jethro was the consummate omnivore, refusing just about nothing: He ate everything he was offered or that he discovered on the floor, on a counter, or outdoors while on the prowl. One of his nicknames was Leadbelly. On the other hand, my dog Inuk was a disturbingly picky eater who would stick his nose up even when offered a patty of wet dog food laced with ketchup — something Jethro would instantaneously inhale without a snort. Variety is the spice of life. Indeed, dogs may enjoy, as we do, experiencing a variety of taste sensations. Who wants to eat the same stuff every day? That’s boring.

In Unleashing Your Dog, we discuss a number of different topics that center on dogs' sense of taste. These include "Let Them Eat Pasta" where we note that dog advice columns often decry giving dogs “people food,” but there is no scientific evidence that the foods we eat are necessarily bad for dogs — or at least, no worse for them than they sometimes are for us. Indeed, this distinction between "people food" and dog food is more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. Dogs coevolved with humans in part by eating our leftovers and throwaways. Claims that foods such as bread and pasta are bad for dogs don’t have any scientific backing. Setting aside food that is unhealthy for anyone or poisonous, most of the foods we eat seem acceptable for dogs to eat (however, see the list of cautionary foods below).

The truth is, there is still much we don’t know about the ideal canine diet, despite the many claims we hear from dog food manufacturers, veterinarians, and self-proclaimed dog experts. Very few of these claims are backed by scientific research and actual evidence, so it’s best to treat this advice as mostly opinion and anecdote, some of which is clearly intended to sell this or that brand of dog food. Further, what’s most essential is to pay close attention to what your dog likes and dislikes and feed their fancy.

Obviously, dogs don’t read labels, and they will often eat things that are not good for them or that are dangerously poisonous. It’s our responsibility to know what these foods are and to make sure that the foods our dogs eat are safe and healthy. Chocolate is a prime example, since it can be toxic to dogs in large quantities, and some dogs are sensitive even to small pieces that they may find lying around. Never leave a large dark-chocolate cake sitting on the counter if you have a counter-surfing dog! But there are less obvious trouble foods that we need to keep out of reach of our canine companions. If you are going to let your dog experiment and taste broadly — and you should — keep them away from foods and additives that can be harmful to them. These include chocolate, onions, garlic, avocados, nutmeg, grapes and raisins, macadamia nuts, caffeine, alcohol, marijuana, and xylitol, a sugar substitute that can be found in some sugar-free foods and gums. Finally, as we say, remember that unhealthy processed meats and sweets always make an unhealthy diet. A lunch of hot dogs, Ho Hos, and soda isn’t healthy for us, and certainly not for our dogs.

In our book, we also discuss such topics as Tasting to Help Smell: A Dog’s “Second Nose," Eating Gross Stuff: Tasting the Wild, Always Provide Fresh Water, Let the Drool Fly, The Joys of Working for Food, Offer Food in Ways That Suit Your Dog, Help Your Dog Stay Fit and Trim, and Chewing Is Important. In Tasting to Help Smell we write about what some people refer to as a Dog's “second nose,” a structure called the vomeronasal organ (VNO) or Jacobson’s organ that has sensory neurons that detect chemicals and is used to enhance an odor by adding taste. Sometimes a dog’s teeth will chatter after they lick urine or some other strongly scented area, and they may engage in what some call “tonguing,” where the tongue is pressed rapidly and repeatedly against the roof of the mouth to help move chemicals into the VNO and thus help analyze a scent.

Dogs often put their tongues into substances or onto places we might find objectionable or embarrassing in human culture, such as when dogs lick another dog’s pee. However, the tongue serves an important function in enhancing dogs’ sensory experiences, and this is yet another situation where we need to put aside our own cultural hang-ups about what’s “appropriate” and understand our dog’s behavior within the context of canine culture.

Dogs also are well known for eating gross stuff and tasting the wild. A couple of years ago, when Jessica was walking Maya in the desert around Fruita, Colorado, Maya found a series of tasty discoveries: a deer femur, a dried-up cow patty, a mystery morsel disguised as trash, and a who-knows-how-old pork rib left behind by picnickers. Jessica’s maternal instincts were in full swing, and she rushed after Maya, taking away one thing after another. Finally, Jessica’s husband, Chris, said, “Why don’t you just let Maya be a dog?” Point well taken. One of the basic canine instincts is to search out and find food. And a dog’s definition of food is not the same as ours. It extends well beyond grocery-store kibble. Further, the concepts of edible, palatable, and nutritional are not necessarily the same. Whether or not some of the nasty things that dogs decide to put in their mouths have nutritional value, we should let our dogs be dogs and taste the world around them if they wish.

Of course, we may sometimes have to set limits for our own welfare. I remember when my dog Moses, a giant malamute, joyfully feasted on cow patties and ran up to me to proudly share the odor along with some chunks that were spewing from his mouth. Moses was having a ball, but I stopped him because we soon were going to share a car ride back to Boulder, and there would be no escaping the smell. It won’t surprise most people that veterinarians have specific terms for behaviors related to eating gross stuff.

Perhaps, what's most distasteful to us is when dogs eat the excrement of other animals, a behavior known as coprophagia (from the Greek phagein, “to eat,” and copros, “feces”). Maya particularly likes deer and elk poop, garnished with a little prairie dog poop, but goose poop is the pièce de résistance. It’s not entirely clear why dogs eat poop. Veterinarian Ian Billinghurst, in his book, Give Your Dog a Bone, describes poop eating as a natural part of the dogs’ scavenger lifestyle. Dogs, he says, “receive valuable nutrients from material that we humans find totally repugnant. Things like vomit, feces, and decaying flesh.” He goes on to say that feces may be highly valuable foods for dogs because they contain so much bacteria, serving as a kind of natural probiotic and adding extra bacteria to the gut’s microbiome. Although it is a natural behavior, coprophagia can sometimes signal an underlying medical problem, such as gastrointestinal upset or inadequate absorption of nutrients by the gut. It should be discussed with a veterinarian, especially if it is a behavior that develops suddenly, if it is taken to an extreme, or if a dog clearly isn’t feeling well after a meal of poop. Since we don’t really know why dogs eat poop, this is an area ripe for more research, but we understand why credible scientists, especially those worried about receiving tenure, might choose other areas of inquiry.

Clearly, we shouldn’t let our dogs eat anything and everything. We always need to pay attention to what dogs put in their mouths because sometimes they don’t have good sense of what they should swallow. For example, the pork rib Maya found in Fruita was a bad idea, since cooked bones can splinter and cause damage to a dog’s stomach or intestines. Veterinarians disagree about the safety of raw bones. Although some say that raw bones are a healthy way to satisfy a dog’s desire to chew, some worry about possible damage to the teeth and about E. coli and other harmful bacteria that can be present on raw bones or in raw meat-based foods.

The descriptive subtitles for other topics about which we write are self-evident. These include: Always Provide Fresh Water, Let the Drool Fly (unless it's excessive at which time a visit to veterinarian might be the best thing to do), The Joys of Working for Food (many dogs and other animals enjoy the challenge and enriching experience of working for food rather than always having a "free lunch"), Offer Food in Ways That Suit Your Dog, Help Your Dog Stay Fit and Trim (it’s estimated that more than half of all dogs in the United States and the United Kingdom are overweight), and Chewing Is Important (excess chewing can indicate a medical problem for which veterinary advice is needed). The “amount to feed” guidelines given by dog food manufacturers are generally bloated. Their goal, after all, is to sell more food.

Here are a few more words on some of these topics. It's important to know that drooling is something all dogs do, and it’s a waste of energy to get aggravated by it. Know what a “normal” level of drool is for your dog, and if your dog drools excessively, make an appointment with a veterinarian. Otherwise, accept and love your dog and their drool. Concerning having dogs work for food, it's known that some positive stress, or what researchers call “eustress” (such as being asked to work for food), can be enriching, but it’s important to know when good stress becomes harmful stress. We also note that what you feed your dog matters, but the ways in which food is offered are also important in developing and maintaining strong and enduring social bonds between you and your dog. There’s no simple rule about how dogs should be fed, and each dog needs to be treated as a unique individual. One of the things we can do, as human caretakers of our canine friends, is to pay attention to the vehicle that’s used to give them food. It’s important to think about your dog’s shape, size, physical capabilities, and eating style in relation to the shape, size, placement, and height of the food bowl. What might work best to make eating pleasurable and easy for your dog? A few examples of frustrating situations for a dog might include a very hungry dog trying to eat kibble from a slick flat plate because the kibbles keep moving out of reach of their tongue; a basset hound who always comes away from dinner with half of the meal stuck to their ears; or a pug who must struggle to reach their nose down to the bottom of a very deep dish. For older dogs, a raised bowl can make eating more comfortable. Elevated food bowls are good for very large dogs — think about having to bend down to below your knees to eat your food — and shallow bowls are nice for puppies and short-nosed dogs.

Concerning water, some researchers have even suggested that water is a sixth taste. Although not all scientists agree, some have argued that dogs do, indeed, have taste receptors for water. These receptors are located on the tip of the tongue, which dogs curl to lap water. This area of tastebuds on the tongue appears to be extra sensitive after a dog has eaten salty or sugary food. Dog psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren suggests that the ability to taste water “evolved as a way for the body to keep internal fluids in balance after the animal has eaten things that will either result in more urine being passed or will require more water to adequately process."

People also wonder if dogs can smell water. Anecdotal evidence from dog owners suggests that maybe they can, and this citizen science can help generate more formal research into the sensory world of dogs. For example, in early January 2017, I was sitting outside of a coffee shop in Boulder when I made friends with a handsome bloodhound who happened to be walking by. After receiving permission from Tommy’s human, I rubbed Tommy’s shoulders as they talked about Tommy’s lovely disposition, his beautiful long ears, and his amazing nose. Then Tommy started pulling toward a water bowl he couldn’t have possibly seen. Tommy’s human casually remarked, “He can smell water.” I was astounded, as I had never thought about this possibility.

As Jessica and I emphasize throughout Unleashing Your Dog, is to let your dog be a dog and give them as much freedom as possible, as often as possible, and with as much patience and goodwill as possible. As you do this, pay close attention to your dog’s unique personality and idiosyncrasies. Each dog is truly a distinct individual; they eat gross and nasty stuff for different reasons and may, indeed, savor these items for different reasons.

We need to remember that dogs don't agree with what we find to be icky, nasty, gross, rank, disgusting, and foul. Becoming "fluent in dog" and "dog literate" will help us understand what they want and need, and when we do, it's a win-win for all.

Stand by for further discussions of the sensory worlds of dogs. While we know a lot, there still is much to learn so that we can offer our canine companions the very best lives possible. What seems odd or disgusting to us—when dogs eat "the foulest of the foul" or roll in "the worst of the worst"—often is perfectly acceptable and sought-out dog-appropriate behavior. (See "Dogs Should Be 'Unleashed' to Sniff to Their Noses' Content.") Their tastebuds are doing just what they're supposed to do.

Some of the above is excerpted from Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. I thank Jessica Pierce for her collaboration on this and other projects.

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