Ethology and veterinary practice: Rock hounds
Thursday, May 03, 2018
If you practice veterinary medicine long enough, chances are you’ll encounter at least one rock-eating dog. But you probably won’t ask yourself why dogs eat rocks in the first place unless ethology interests you. If not, you’ll focus on the surgery and the animal’s recovery.
Many of you probably also caution clients to keep their rock hounds away from rocks, and perhaps even imply or openly state that their rock-eating dogs are mentally challenged.
However, if you wonder why a specific dog eats rocks or take a more ecological view of medical problems in general, then your view of these animals as mentally deficient may change like mine did.
To take an ethological approach to rock hounds, remember that all behaviors — including the worst ones — represent what the animal must do to achieve the maximum amount of physiological and behavioral stability using the least amount of energy available in that environment at that time.
Eating rocks, let alone trying to digest them, takes a lot of energy. What could be going on in a dog’s environment that would make doing so the most energy-efficient way to establish physical and mental stability?
Answering that question may require little more than reviewing the dog’s history from previous visits. If you discover client complaints about the dog chewing objects that belonged to some person in the household with whom the dog had a strong emotional connection for some reason, pay attention to your recommendations at these times.
For example, puppy-chewing may be dismissed as teething. But if the client assumes that, even though her beloved Spiro is now almost 2, he still must be teething because he’s still chewing things that that carry her scent, something else is going on here.
Two common practitioner recommendations in these situations involve putting all such tantalizing objects someplace where the inappropriately chewing dog can’t get to them, or crating or otherwise confining the dog. If either works, problem solved.
If they don’t and the dog starts leaping on counters or opening drawers or closets to locate human belongings or destroys the crate, it’s easy to become involved in a human-canine war of attrition.
Ultimately this may end with the dog confined outdoors unless some reliable family member is home to monitor the dog’s behavior. In such ways, rock-eating dogs are made, not born.
In these cases where dogs essentially use certain objects that carry human scents as pacifiers, removing these objects does nothing to comfort the dog. Similarly, doing this does nothing to resolve the stress (which sometimes includes hypermotility of the gut) that occurs in dogs in owner-protective mode when their people leave home for some reason.
If those people communicate their anxiety when they depart or return, this can increase the negative behavioral effect on the dog in the owners’ absence. And because the anxious human-canine emotional contagion that accompanies and reinforces these human-canine bonds hasn’t been addressed, these animals will find some other way to achieve what little available stability they can in that environment. If all the environment offers is rocks, so be it.
Thanks to my clients, recently I’ve become aware that another group of rock hounds exist who use rocks for stress-relief that doesn’t involve eating the rocks.
It began with a highly intelligent, naturally more subordinate German shepherd dog I’ll call Greta whose owner inadvertently elevated her to a protective position. Unfortunately for Greta, she was one of those GSDs who took stress on the gut.
Consequently, the consistency of her stool on any given day was as apt to reflect her emotional state as her diet. At the same time though, Greta was sufficiently insecure in her protective position that urine wouldn’t provide the quality and duration of a territorial mark that she needed to feel marginally secure.
Although I have yet to find any data on this, my gut — if you’ll pardon the pun — feeling is that soft stool visually and in terms of its pheromone component would communicate the weakness rather than the physical and behavioral fitness of the animal producing it.
Perhaps this awareness on Greta’s part resulted in her different protective strategies. Initially, she only used her formed stool to mark the chain-link fence line that separate her yard and the woods.
However, this came to an end when her owner unwittingly picked up that stool and winged it over the fence into the woods. This upset the dog a great deal which, in turn, upset her owner.
From the canine perspective, though, it seems it would be bad enough for any vulnerable dog to lose a reliable scent and visual mark that could last for quite a while in early spring when lots of wildlife and free-roaming domestic animals were on the move. To have that signal of one’s pugnacity to protect that sacred patch of yard and home heaved into the very woods harboring the threats the dog hoped to warn off must have been devasting.
But apparently in dog brains as in human ones, desperate times may call for desperate measures. In Greta’s case, this meant replacing formed stool marks along the fence with rocks.
However, these weren’t just any rocks; these were carefully chosen and pre-treated rocks. Greta chose rocks big enough to act as obvious visual marks, but small enough for her to lick and handle with her paws (presumably enough to get her scent on them) and carry to the fence line.
Alas, then her owner unwittingly foiled this canine strategy by removing all the rocks from the yard too. While all this was going on along with other physical and emotional changes within the household, the dog’s destructive chewing indoors increased as did the owner’s stress level.
Greta’s rock-related behavior so fascinated me that I mentioned it to one of the techs at the clinic where I see clients. She replied with one of those openers I’ve come to associate with behavioral and bond aha moments, “Funny you should mention that...”
She went on to describe how her dog, also a GSD, would dig up and hold and mouth rocks — but only when her grandchildren went on camping trips with her and her husband.
Thinking I might be on to something, I brought the subject up with another client I knew had had lots of dog experience over the years. Her dog with aggression had never displayed any rock-related behavior.
However, she had another dog — a dachshund — who would collect rocks on the shore of the pond on their property and pile them up to form a small cairn. This dog also only displayed the rock-related behavior when the grandchildren visited and, in this case, played near or in the pond.
In these situations, it appears that, unlike the rock-eating dogs with whom practitioners may be most familiar, some dogs opt for other rock-related displays when certain stressful situations occur.
Exactly what they hope to accomplish via these I cannot say. But I can say that, more likely than not, doing so represents the most energy-efficient way for them to achieve maximum stability in that environment.
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