Depending on where one lives, the risk of your best friend being “poisoned” is either boring or alternatively generates a considerable amount of debate. After all, to the pampered pooch in Bond Street London, or the sled dog on the banks of lake Baikal, Siberia, the probability of death due to the premeditated act of food poisoning by humans is extremely remote.   Not so in South Africa!!  The subject has recently become a major talking point and has certainly focused the mind!!

There seems to be a rise in the number of cases of dog poisoning and in fact one hears of “dog poison” being made readily available via the informal sector on various street corners in Gauteng. It is clear that the objective behind the poisoning of domestic dogs is to make it easier for the potential housebreaker. A well trained watch dog is worth it’s weight in gold, particularly if it is “inside the house” whilst the family sleeps. But, criminals know how hard it is to “neutralise” such a barrier so they have developed a strategy to do so when it is most vulnerable, outside the house and, in all probability, unsupervised or unsupported. Routinely kennelled animals such as police dogs are not normally exposed to such a risk but our pets are.

Unless a pet is in the presence and under the immediate control of the owner 24 hrs per day, seven days a week, there is little the average person can do to address the basic route cause of this trend. It is undoubtedly linked to broader economic issues, such as the state of the economy and unemployment. Crime is certainly on the increase, and has been for some time, but even you or I would “steal” to ensure our family survives!  It is not a question of mere morality!  So let us address the issue of survival.  There is in fact little room for sentimentality or, to put it bluntly, anthropomorphasism.  It is a simple question.  Who will survive, the criminal or your dog!!

How can we expect a dog, however well trained, to ignore an appetising morsel casually tossed over the fence to it?  What sort of dog do we own?  A pet, a watchdog, an obedience or breed champion? All of these and many more will not consistently refuse to eat an attractive titbit that they happen to come across during the course of the day! Therein lies the problem.

Abstention training or training a dog not to do something, which it normally does, is usually a fairly simple process. Create the appropriate situation and correct the animal at the exact point in time that it does the dirty deed!!  Repeat the exercise as often as necessary, unless it becomes obvious that the dog does not understand the message, in which case, redesign the process and try again.

When dealing with certain areas such as the desire to mate or eat, both very strong basic instincts, things are not quite so simple.  No dog, without specific specialised training, could expedite a formal obedience C Scent Test exercise successfully on ground contaminated a few minutes earlier by a bitch in full heat!!  No doubt it can be done, but it would not be easy and one suspects that normal “routine correction” tactics would be ineffective. It would also be interesting to see such a scent test where the “decoys” deliberately eat a boerewors roll with their hands, two minutes before scenting their decoy cloths! Who knows what would happen?  Perhaps all of us who compete in obedience tests should all train for this!!

Whilst teaching a dog to consistently ignore food it just happens to find may pose a major obstacle, conditioning an animal to refuse food offered by hand is another matter entirely.  In the latter scenario the dog can be trained to respond in a specific way, such as barking, whenever a person physically offers food by hand or throws it down on the ground as happens in certain practical police/security dog tests.  This type of “food refusal” from the hand of another can be taught with considerable ease in comparison to, let’s call it “poison proofing,” where one trains a dog to eat only in a given set of circumstances and, in all others, to ignore any food of any kind, especially in the absence of the handler.

This may be even truer on home ground where a dog is not only confident but also very likely to “investigate” anything unusual in it’s territory.

So what’s the answer, especially for domestic dogs that tend to be extremely vulnerable if left outdoors unattended for lengthy periods?

As it is most unlikely that any criminal will approach a dog in an attempt to feed it by hand, one senses that the most likely scenario is that food is thrown over the fence and/or left on the ground for the dog to ‘discover’ and pick up.  As it is equally unlikely that the food will be thrown on the ground in the presence of the owner, we can immediately deduce that the objective will simply be to condition the dog not just to refuse to take food found on the ground but to continue to do so for a considerable period after the food has been discovered.  It is this last part that makes training particularly onerous.

This brings us back to the very first point I made. It is easy for most of us to develop a training programme to condition a dog to accomplish a host of extremely complex tasks, but to teach a dog not to do something which is based on a strong natural instinctive drive is a much bigger challenge.  This usually involves a strong intervention of the kind that is likely to create a clear bad association with the act we want the dog to cease to do.  When one considers that the specific act to which we are referring, that of eating food found on the ground, is an act likely to result in the death of the dog, one must weigh up the merits of any intervention that is most likely to make a significant and lasting impression. Do we pussyfoot or do we sort the problem out?

There is no doubt whatsoever that a patient and diligent owner with lots of spare time, whose dog responds well to a bad sound, can, given time, condition a dog not to touch food left on the ground, anywhere on the property.  This is simply done by watching the dog from various concealed positions, preferably when the animal is likely to be most hungry and then giving the appropriate correction at the time the dog makes his move.  Naturally this will have to be done with dozens of different types of attractive foods and the owner will have to be prepared to watch and wait for many hours.  After increasing periods of time where the dog has successfully ignored food on the ground, despite the fact that the animal was hungry, the dog can then be rewarded with a routine “meal in a bowl” The question of course is how reliable is this type of training and is the mere displeasure of the owner sufficient to influence the dog’s behaviour at some time in the future when the owner is not around?

Naturally the sooner one starts the food/bowl only association the better. Teaching a dog to eat only from a bowl is never a waste of time.

A less time consuming “alternative” and some may say, a more drastic but infinitely more effective intervention would be to design some form of ground food trap.  Trap means the creation of any form (other than incurring the wrath of the owner) of an unpleasant experience for the dog the moment it touches the food, usually using some form of technology.

The secret here of course is not to be cruel.  Who will claim that if we   “gave our dog a mild” tingle, or lets be brave and say even a “bit of a shock” in order to dissuade it from eating food on the ground, that this was cruelty. If all pets around us in the same street had suffered an agonising death by poisoning, and our dogs were the sole survivors!!!?   Who would accuse us then of being cruel?

I do not advocate the use of an “electric” abstention training (e) collar in this context, as this should only be used extremely sparingly by trained professionals as and when all else fails, although to such professionals, this may be an option, provided the dog wears a dummy collar when abstention training is not taking place.  There already exists other equipment, which can be designed or acquired from reputable sources, whereby an electrical impulse or charge is delivered, with just enough power to give a dog a mild shock. Such devices make use of capacitors, energisers and other technical equipment, which have been incorporated into the design. There are even certain types of collars that, when worn by a dog that approaches too close to a prohibited object, or barks, activates a mild but unpleasant tingling sensation to the animal.

For the purposes of poison proofing, what is probably likely to be most effective is a carefully designed safe system of attractive food, baited with an appropriate electrical charge, that is sufficient to imprint on the dog’s mind that food on the ground should be avoided.  Sometimes in a small area, “battery power” is sufficient, but to get the best results one would need to seek the advice of a fully qualified electrician.

This is not always easy for every dog owner, so the temptation must be avoided to experiment oneself.  It is vital that the charge is strictly controlled so that there is no chance of harm to the dog. It is equally important that such training is done when the dog is likely to be hungry and that as large a variety of appetising food combinations are tried.

Laying such traps once or twice only, will seldom prove sufficient and it would be wise therefore to set up several “traps” at the same time around the property, as often as is necessary to satisfy the owner that there is no chance that the dog will touch the food. Initially, if all goes according to plan NO dog will make the same mistake more than twice during the same training exercise! You can take that to the bank!! 

One would also need to give continuation training, on a diminishing scale over time, in order to be 100% confident that the dog remains fully conditioned to refusing food found or presented on the ground. For example, after initial training, twice per week for two weeks, twice per month for two months, once per month for three months, once every three months for a year, twice per year and then once per year.  It would also be wise, even after the owner is confident, that “un-baited” food is placed on the ground from time to time, and the dog is watched for confirmation. But it is stressed, that only a reputable and approved service provider should be entrusted with such training.

Friends and family would also need to be warned, never to throw tit bits on the ground for the family pet, but rather to give it either by hand or put it in the dogs designated bowl. Contrary popular opinion, a “designated bowl”, preferably a long lasting, good quality stainless steel bowl, is always a better proposition than conditioning a dog to accept food from only one designated person! What happens if the owner dies or is on holiday, or the dog is placed in kennels, or the dog changes owners? 

It goes without saying, that a poorly fed or hungry dog will always be more vulnerable. Thus your animals must always be properly cared for.  Also, whether or not your dog has been subjected to “poison proofing” it would be wise to carry out regular routine inspections of your “property” to see if you can detect signs of “food” on the ground which should not be there.

In summary, there is no issue that requires more comprehensive planning and diligent implementation, than poison proofing for your dog. There is also, in South Africa at least, particularly in Gauteng, potentially no more important training exercise.  If you want to save Fido’s life, give it a great deal of thought.

John Robert Cox