I got a request this week for help from a woman with three dogs: a Rottweiler, a female Malinois, and a beagle. The behavioral problem was that the Malinois had developed a fixation with eating the Rotti’s feces. I asked a number of questions about the past history, the type of training, exercise levels, etc., and there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary that could be causing this behavior. My suspicion was (and is) that the dog’s prey drive wasn’t getting enough of a workout. The owner had done some drive training, but in my view, it wasn’t precise enough for this dog (or maybe for this breed). Also, part of my suspicion is that the dog was acting out to reflect something she felt was lacking in her relationship with the owner. The owner had also been given the suggestion of using an electronic collar, but was hesitant about it.
Conflict Training, 101The way I see it all canine behavior—whether learned or instinctive, normal or abnormal—is done in an attempt to reduce or release some kind of internal tension. When you think about it, even breathing is a matter of tension and release. When too much tension builds up inside a dog’s system, that’s when we tend to see abnormal behaviors.
The normal way for a dog to reduce tension is through some activity related to the prey drive. From the wolf model, we can see that wolves are an anomaly in the natural world. They’re one of only three types of mammals that routinely hunt animals that are larger and more dangerous than themselves: canines, homo sapiens & orcas All three originally hunted large prey by working cooperatively, though humans later developed weapons, so we no longer need to hunt in groups.
The bottom line is that a wolf’s social instincts are based on their need to hunt large prey. For instance, wolves who settle near a garbage dump don’t really form packs. They have looser social arrangements. It also turns out that coyotes—whom it was thought for years did not form packs—actually do, but only when they need to hunt large prey.
(I’m getting to the point, trust me.)
Bison, elk, moose, etc. have horns and hooves. It’s very dangerous for an individual wolf to hunt one of these large animals, so they also evolved strategies like scavenging, hunting small prey, and will even at times eat vegetation. The survival instinct sort of dictates that they not put themselves in harm’s way by hunting large prey unless they are absolutely driven to do it.
This is where Nature becomes a clever taskmaster. If she wants wolves to hunt large prey she has to design a strong enough motivation for them to leave the safety of the den and foray into the path of those hooves and horns. And the basic underlying mechanism for motivating wolves to hunt large prey is a build-up internal tension or stress. When the pack gets hungry enough, the prey drive starts to kick in. Once it’s strong enough to override the need for safety, the wolves are driven to hunt. That’s not entirely accurate, though, because it doesn’t reflect the wolf’s actual experience or point of view. What these animals are really driven to do is to simply get rid of their tension. Think of the way a male dog goes after a female in heat. If you look at it from this angle you can see that he’s not interested in mating per se, he’s really only interested in getting rid of the overwhelming levels of tension and stress he’s feeling. The higher the stress levels, the more driven he is to complete his “task.”
Another factor for wolves in particular (and dogs to a lesser extent) is that at every step in the predatory sequence—the search, the eye stalk, the chase, the grab bite and kill bite—a wolf's body produces endorphins, providing internal rewards for each behavior phase of the sequence.
So in nature (and no matter how domesticated they are, dogs are still a part of nature), the ultimate release of stress comes through acting on the prey drive with no (or very few) inhibitions. And the primary reason stress builds up in the first place is because the animals are inhibited about acting on the prey drive because doing so is dangerous.
So when I hear of a dog like your Malinois, whose behavior is outside the normal range (and coprophragia is normal in puppies, but not in a two-year old), I automatically see it as being related in some way to a blocked flow—an inhibition—of the dog’s prey drive.
So how do we fix it?
I don’t like to use punishment in cases like this, because in order for it to successfully override an instinctive, compulsive, or habitual behavior, it has to be so strong and so severe, that you run the risk of making the dog shut down in other ways. True, an electric shock can accomplish that goal, and may do so safely in some cases. But even if it were to work, there’s a downside to it, which is that the nervous system runs on electricity, and one of the last things you want to do is download more electric energy into a dog whose nervous system may already be overloaded.
In general terms what I might do in this type of situation is put the dog in conflict between something that she wants to do vs. obeying my command. In Natural Dog Training we call this “conflict training.” You don’t necessarily have to use the Rotti’s poop to do it, as long as it’s some activity that your Malinois has the same or a similar level of attraction to. Once she’s developed an ability or skill-set to give up one attachment in favor of obeying you, others will start to naturally fall into place.
Something similar that comes to mind, which illustrates this approach, is a compulsive behavior my own dog had years ago of digging in sand boxes. He particularly liked to “bury” his favorite toy—an empty soda or Poland Spring water bottle—in the sand. Conflict training is basically what I sued to cure him of his compulsive digging. (Now that I think about it, he used to love to eat wino shit in Central Park, too; but after I did the sandbox exercise with him, it was much easier to call him away from that unappetizing habit; and calling him away—followed by a game of chase—cured him of his coprophragia, so it might very well work for you!)
Here’s what I did:
I put him on a long leash, in a down stay near a sand box and put a soda bottle close to him, but off to the side a little, at an indirect angle to him. Then I walked away, backwards, facing him directly the whole time, holding the end of the leash. Then when I got to the end of the leash, I called him to me: “Okay, Freddie, come!” If he went for the bottle instead of running to me, I ran over and without saying anything used the leash to put him back into his original position, using short, fairly hard pops on the collar*, acting as if we were both in a dangerous situation the whole time. Then, once he and the bottle were back in the original position, I reminded him, “Stay!” and did it all again. *(You have to be careful that the pops don’t cause him to lose focus on you; they should actually motivate him to work harder with you.)
Once we got to the point that he ran straight back to me on command, instead of going for the bottle, I rewarded him with another bottle I had hidden in my training vest, though I didn’t just give it to him: I made him chase me around first for about 15 secs., then I threw it for him to chase on his own. (I had put a small amount of water inside so I could throw it farther than if it had been empty.) It also helped that his other favorite activity was de“cap”itating those bottles. So even though he had an impulse to take the bottle back to the sand box and bury it, all I had to do was say, “Take the cap off!” and he would settle down with the bottle and take the cap off with his teeth.
He was a Dalmatian, so it took a while before he “got” the “point” of the game. And I had to do it with him holding the stay at various places around and even inside the sandbox so he could cross-contextualize it. Once he got it, he actually “locked-in” to me. And I only had to re-acquaint him with the exercise once the next day after that first session. He never showed any interest in digging again. (And as I mentioned before, it was instrumental in stopping him from eating human feces in the park.)
Going back to what I said up top, my point is that digging is actually one way a dog has of sublimating his prey drive, meaning he’s expressing it in some way that doesn’t involve chasing and biting a prey object. Freddie had inhibitions about chasing and biting in play. Now your dog doesn’t seem to have the same inhibitions that Freddie did, but my suspicion is that she must have some issues, because scavenging and eating feces are also ways a dog has of circumventing and only partially satisfying their prey drive. In my scenario, once Freddie’s inhibitions were resolved he no longer had a need to dig in sandboxes or eat feces.
Another approach I’d take with your dog is I would hand feed her all her meals outdoors, using what’s called the “pushing exercise.” I’ve posted a link just below. One thing I didn’t describe in the sandbox exercise was the fact that I had taught Freddie to jump up on me on command, and that was part of the “chase me” game I played with him when he obeyed the recall. Jumping up basically causes a dog to plug a lot of her energy into you. It overcomes some of those natural inhibitions dogs have about seeing us as “prey” in the same way they see a Frisbee or another dog they like to play with as something to chase. The pushing exercise accomplishes the same goal as jumping up but without some of the drawbacks. So print out the article found in the link below and follow the instructions carefully. It will increase your dog’s levels of social attraction to you, which will increase the reliability of her recall, and might even reduce some of her need to eat feces in the first place.
“The Pushing Exercise” (pdf)
Doing the “eyes” exercise (below) may also help. You may have already taught it to her as “watch me,” but I think this version has a wrinkle or two that makes it stronger. Basically dogs alternately see us—or I should say they feel, us on a knee-jerk level—as either prey and predator. The more prey-like we become, the more interested in obeying us they are. However, to some extent, the more predator-like we are the more that increases their obedience skills too. The difference is that in the first case the dogs obey us willingly, because it makes them feel good, it makes them feel connected to us in the strongest way possible. But the more predator-like we are, the more their obedience is based on fear. (This is why dominance training works; it’s also why dominance trainers think dogs see them as the “pack leader,” when they actually sees the trainer the way a wolf sees a moose who suddenly turns and brandishes his antlers.)
“The Eyes Have It”
If I were you, I’d wait a few weeks of doing these two exercises before attempting the conflict training. Remember, I had already done the jumping up with Freddie.
One thing that will give you a clue as to how this is going to help is that after you do the pushing exercise, you may find that your doggie plays tug- of-war with a lot more energy and focus; she’ll probably bite and pull a lot harder than she did before. You can also integrate the pushing dynamic into your games of tug, which will up the ante considerably. And always remember, the key to reducing tension in the canine species comes primarily through chasing and biting.
Sorry for the lengthy reply. I hope this helps!
"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"