How Many Rocks Can a Dog Eat?

by Jeff K. on January 6, 2010

This blog post is the first in a continuing series while I work with a rescued Springer Spaniel in resolving a very frustrating oral behavior.

Rigs the DogI’d like to introduce you to Wrigley. “Rigs” as my daughters have nicknamed him is a 2 ½ year old energetic “field” Springer Spaniel. He was adopted by us earlier this year through ESRA (English Springer Rescue America). Rigs was a voluntary surrender because of hardships experienced by the original family. He is a beautiful young man with impressive lineage. Rigs is not our first Springer and I have to admit I am partial to the breed. His mannerisms are typical of a Springer; he’s great with my girls, loves to be with humans, stays close when off-lead, and is not short in the affection category.

One would also assume that because his past was apparently free from abuse, neglect, or other hardships that he would have made a quick, simple, transition into our family. The first two weeks went as well as could be expected. Being a smart dog, Rigs explored his boundaries and pushed them as far as we would allow. He quickly learned the rules of the house and generally complied.

One evening while I was watching TV, I heard a snapping noise coming from Rigs who had taken a spot on the floor at my feet. I was surprised to see that it was being created from him biting his nails. I told him to stop (which he did), let him outside to do his business, crated him when he was done, and went to bed. This activity continued every evening within minutes of the previous night.

We took Rigs on a weekend Northwood’s camping trip. That first evening, while sitting around the campfire, I heard a familiar but somewhat different sound in the vicinity of Rigs. I thought he was nail biting. It was in fact something different. Rigs was chewing on a ROCK! I immediately pried open his mouth and commanded Rigs to “drop it”. The stone fell from his mouth. I moved the location of his tie-out away from the area. To my surprise, within minutes Rigs was digging up the dirt in the new area and retrieving and chewing on rocks almost as fast as I could take them away from him.

Upon returning home, the rock searching and chewing did not stop. In fact, the activity accelerated and became more driven. Rigs not only targeted natural stones within the yard, but he took a particular interest in the red decorative lava rock which fills the flower beds around the house. It finally progressed to the stage where the command “drop it” solicited a response from Rigs to swallow the stone. A recent vet visit and x-ray revealed he had swallowed a total of three, which fortunately passed naturally over the week.

The oral activity then moved to inside the house. He began to peg his nose to the floor, and any small item that he would intersect would go immediately into his mouth. This could include; lint, a paper scrap, a poly-pocket, or a penny. A survey of our yard would yield an inventory of nondescript colorful bits of paper, plastic, string, and other items I have yet to identify their origin, mixed in with the dog bombs. Although we have done the best we can to “Rigs-proof” our home, retrieving something from his mouth is still an occurrence that happens daily.

This behavior is truly the most confusing and stressful I’ve had to break down and deal with as an owner of an adopted animal. As I work through this challenge with Rigs, I will keep you informed on the steps taken and ideas considered to correct this behavior.

Related Posts:

Dog Separation Anxiety Conquered!
Got a Stressed Dog? Try These Tips!
Dog Behavior Problems

Jeff currently heads our Video Studio. In 1998, he also started our in-house Photo Studio. Jeff was one of a handful of North American photographers chosen to beta-test digital photography in the late 1980s and was integral in the early development of that technology. Jeff has always been a multiple pet owner, and is particularly partial to rescued Springer Spaniels.

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Jenny Ruth Yasi January 6, 2010 at 8:26 am

Hi Jeff,
It’s pretty normal for dogs to mouth things — swallowing them is not so normal. I like the rule “ALWAYS trade, NEVER steal from your dog.” This means, I never just take something away from the dog, or cue a dog to “drop it” without paying them for the object. Recently, my dog and I walked past a hunk of dropped pizza on a sidewalk. I cued “drop it!” and she dropped it instantly and looked at me expectantly. I had some pupperoni in my pocket, fortunately, so I “paid” her for the pizza. Amazing how she accepts one little bite of treat in exchange for a whole big hunk of pizza, but she was happy enough.

If she’d thought that I was just going to take the pizza away from her, she would have wolfed it down. But we have practiced this game lots, trading for toys and food and all sorts of things, so she knew that “drop it” is a rewarding game, it’s something that is fun for her to do, it isn’t a punishment, it isn’t a drag or a loss.

Waterdogs like mine and yours are natural retrievers. You can put that behavior to best use by teaching your dog to trust you. He will bring things to you and drop things on cue when he believes that you can be trusted, you aren’t just stealing his stuff, but that you are rewarding him for handing things over.

Chewing is a stress reliever. I give my dogs lots of appropriate things to chew, because dogs need to gnaw. They can’t smoke or have a beer or take an aspirin. So, they need to chew. The best thing I’ve found to chew is big raw beef bones. Some dogs swallow things like cow hooves, so I like big bones. Most waterdogs have soft temperments, and they don’t do as well with commands (do it or else) as they do with cues (do it because these are the rules of the game!). I love waterdogs, they are so much fun, but they really do have soft temperments, and so it’s important to learn about signs of stress, and how to train in ways that the dog can really understand, and that reduce learning stress.

Jeff K January 6, 2010 at 10:23 am

Thanks for your suggestions Jenny! I have been implementing the trade approach as part of Rigs’ training especially as a distraction when he begins to chew his nails and it works quite well. Your response has given some visitors to our facebook site a good direction to go in with their dog(s) also.

Sheryl March 26, 2010 at 11:08 am

Hi Jeff,

I was doing a search about rock eating and found your post. Have you had any success curbing this behavior? I ask because I have a dog that is also eating rocks and if she can get to them, strips of cloth that she will rip off towels, sheets, or anything else she can get to. She recently had to have surgery when a strip of cloth and 3 big rocks got stuck in her intestines. And interestingly, 3 of a litter of her puppies (now almost 2 yrs old) also eat rocks though not with the compulsive intensity that she does. This doesn’t appear to be associated with hunger as they all seem to especially like to do it after a meal – rocks for dessert! They all seem to like Nylabones so I am thinking it might be worth investing in a bunch of these and just have them around as alternatives to rocks or to trade as discussed above. I’ve also seen posts regarding use of a spray bottle to distract them from eating rocks, however I have 14 dogs – we’re dog sledders – and I live on a crumbling granite mountainside so it would be difficult to follow around the culprits spraying them each time they pick up a rock. At this point I am keeping her confined quite a bit of the time which is not a solution I am happy with. Any insights you have would be appreciated!

Jeff K March 26, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Sheryl, the observations you’ve made about not being tied to hunger is very similar to Rigs. In fact, I don’t let him go outside immediately after eating because it seems to intensify the problem. I actually let him out before feeding. Rigs and I have begun to get this under control through training (such as the “trade” method suggested above) and medication. I have two follow-ups to this post on the blog, is the conclusion. The post in between documented his behavior over 5 days. Since the final post, I did have to increase the dosage I was giving him; the Veterinarian gave me a range to start with so I began with the lowest in the range and have moved Rigs to the middle of the range he recommended. This is the first dog I’ve had to implement medication as part of dealing with a nuisance behavior; I was reluctant, but it has worked wonderfully! It now has him to a point where I can implement conventional training methods to change the behavior.

Cheryl Deasington April 17, 2010 at 11:51 am

also have a year old female Shepherd eating rocks in great quantity, noticed it first in winter and thought she was getting them by accident when eating snow, which she much preferred to the full water bowl avalable to her, she is increasing the rock eating now and unfortunatley my backyard if about half limestone gravel, she has lots of grass areas as well.Lots of chew toys out at alltimes. I leave her out while at work, as leaving her crated for 9-10 hrs a day seems cruel, but am looking at that as my only alternative right now.Any suggestios please…

Jeff K April 19, 2010 at 9:04 am

Please take a look at the other two posts I made (this was the first of a three-post series as Rigs and I worked through his issue). I can tell you that it has been 3 months since this first post, and the resolution option I chose in the third post has helped Rigs dramatically. Also understand that I am not an advocate of medication “fixes” (as Rigs is now on) as a first option. I was also surprised to hear how many of my friends and co-workers had similar rock-eating stories in particular with young dogs (1 1/2 years or less) that fortunately grew out of the habit. In any case while it is going on, it can have serious reprocussions for the health of the dog. My veterinarian was central to the process of determining what was going on, and the eventual decision to put Rigs on an anti-anxiety medication. I would consult your family veterinarian, bringing a journal of activity with you, and ask if an anti-anxiety medication would be a good option. In the case of Rigs, it was absolutely the right choice. Good luck.

Cheryl Deasington April 26, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Jeff, thanks for the info,I believe it is boredom and possibly some stress, I recently had 3 days off in a row, we did a lot of walking and several fetch games throught the day and for 3 days no rocks in droppings, back to work one day and guess what they are back.I do play fetch several times a day when I am working, but cannot get to large walk area every day because of hours I work.I am going to try for an agility class and see if that helps first before meds. thanks again for the info.

Jeff K April 27, 2010 at 8:06 am

You hit one of the most common reasons for compulsive behavior. The good news is you figured out what she is needing, the challenge is for you to give that to her. Agility may just be good medicine for both of you. I believe Melissa Read has some articles related to her dog Mocca and their agility experiences on our blog site. Check it out. Good luck and great job!

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