My two-year-old basset hound mix, Major, explores the world with his mouth. He doesn’t always eat everything he picks up, but this process is essentially a way to determine if he can eat things. I imagine his mind working like this: There’s a thing on the floor! It must be food. Once the thing is in his mouth, his brain can fork in one of two directions: Definitely not food!!!! Nope. Or IT’S FOOD! I’ll eat it all!! Ironically, Major’s mind wanders down the former path when vegetables fall on the floor while cooking. The second pathway is much more common. (We’re working on it!)
So when Major first encountered an open litter box — my cat has a top-loading one at home — a split second decision had to be made. He decided that the cat’s poop and all the litter in the box was absolutely food. It took about 10 seconds for him to eat nearly ¾ of the box’s contents. He immediately threw up, and then ate his seconds before I could pull him away. Eating cat poop is gross, but eating a box full of kitty litter is dangerous. The stuff is designed to absorb liquids, and it’ll continue to do that in a dog’s stomach, which could likely cause a blockage. These are so obviously bad decisions to me, but clearly not to Major.
You would think the trauma of what happened after — the visit to the vet who forced him to throw up what was described to me as the biggest pile of ingested kitty litter the staff had even seen — would deter a dog from visiting the cat’s snack try. After all, when I got salmonella from airplane food, I swore off airplane food for at least the next couple flights I took.
“With pets — animals — it’s all a question of motivation,” Florida-based veterinary behaviorist Dr. Krista Sirois told Tenderly. “Their desire or ability to think in terms of long-term consequences is different than what we use.”
Humans have the ability to connect scenarios. For example, salmonella. I didn’t get sick until hours after I’d gotten off the airplane, but was still able to make the connection between the airplane food and my sickness. But for dogs to learn about the consequences of their decisions, they need to have some feedback immediately.
“There are dogs I have seen that have had six socks cut out of their stomachs, because they’ll continue to do the same thing over and over,” Dr. Sirois said. “You get into something today and maybe you need surgery three days later because something got stuck. That connection just isn’t made.”
Humans have this tendency to anthropomorphize the dogs they live with — that is, to think of them as if they were humans. When Major makes a decision to eat a bucket full of litter or his pal at the dog park rips up and swallows half of a tennis ball, they’re not making a good decision or a bad decision. They’re just making a decision. It’s a different sort of interaction with decision-making than, say, if I ate an entire pie knowing that I’d have a belly ache later. This is a bad decision I might choose to do anyway. Dogs just aren’t thinking that way; we’re just projecting our emotions and reactions onto them.
It’s not that dogs aren’t smart — they certainly are. They’re always learning, even when we aren’t trying to teach them anything. “We know that dogs are sensitive to the attention of humans,” Dr. Juliane Bräuer of the Dog Lab at the Max Planck Institute said. “They can distinguish whether a human is looking at them or not. You teach them not to do certain things, but they can learn that they have to obey only when you’re looking at them.”
Dogs are driven by their most immediate impulses; for some, that’s the motivation to please humans or to eat all the snacks. A dog that’s as motivated by food, like Major, might not stop for a second to decide if something is food; they’ll just try it. It’s instinctual. Kaelin Munkelwitz, a San Diego-based dog trainer and author of The Puppy Training Handbook: How To Raise the Dog of Your Dreams, likened it to the feeling a human might experience when they’re walking down a dark pathway — maybe you suspect someone’s behind you and whip your head around to check before you’ve even got a moment to process the scenario.
“When genetics drive these things, it’s so quick that they don’t even think about it,” Munkelwitz told Tenderly. “In training, we slow down the genetic instinct to [teach dogs] self control.”
Major’s proclivity for exploring the world with his mouth instead of his eyes is his own natural instinct. He hasn’t yet (and likely won’t!) make the connection between eating kitty litter and going to vet and having the doctors poke and prod at his long body. But Munkelwitz said it’s absolutely possible for dogs to unlearn these behaviors with positive reinforcement training. This sort of training work is helpful in slowing down a dog’s brain and redirecting that instinctual behavior to a learned one.
The key in making that connection is an immediate response. A treat for doing the thing the human asks — most importantly, getting that treat immediately — is motivation. Throwing up at the vet hours after eating kitty litter sucks, but it’s not a deterrent for trying again; the connection is too late.
“Dogs are smart,” Dr. Sirois said. “They can notice patterns. But in terms of deciding whether what they’re doing is good or bad, that’s really from a human perspective.”
And I do know this to be true, too. After the Kitty Litter Incident, I’ve purchased a litter box for my cat (whose name is Puppy) that is impossible for Major to access. I’m not exactly willing to test to see if he’s understood the consequences of that particular action, and my instinct is no.
But I do know that Major’s understanding patterns, or at least, that’s how I’m perceiving it. Anecdotally, it seems like Major has figured out when I’m answering the phone to chat with someone and when I’m answering the phone because a food delivery driver is here. that’s because, I assume, there’s a pattern. The phone vibrates, I pick it up, and say this: “OK! I’ll be right out.”
He’ll jump up from what he’s doing, usually sleeping, and run right to the door, eagerly awaiting whatever good smells are about to enter the home. This probably says something more about me than it does Major — someone relies a little too much on DoorDash.