Ask The Dog Trainer

Ask The Dog Trainer: Why Does My Puppy Get Into The Garbage?

ask the dog trainer

Ask The Dog Trainer: Why Does My Puppy Get Into The Garbage?

ask the dog trainer

Your dog training questions are answered by a Certified Professional Dog Trainer at FetchFind  where you can fetch the latest information from the world’s leading pet experts and find something that inspires you.

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By Bill Mayeroff of FetchFind


Our question today comes from Dan. His family expanded with the adoption of an eight-month-old puppy. He says they’re head over heels for her. But she has some habits – digging in trash cans, getting into open cabinets, digging in shrubs – that he thinks developed when she was a stray. He’d like help teaching his pup that she’s in her forever home now and she doesn’t need to scrounge for her next meal as she once did.


Dan, let me first say it sounds like you have a great heart. Congratulations on adopting your puppy and giving her a stable, loving home and family. Your pup is lucky to have you, as I’m sure you feel you’re lucky to have her.

That said, I don’t think the habits you describe indicate she’s worried where her next meal is coming from or that she’s acting like a stray. They could, but what you’re describing sounds, at least to me, like normal dog behavior. Dogs use their noses and mouths to explore the world. It’s how they take in a lot of information. Their noses are 10,000 times more powerful than human noses, which means they can smell things we didn’t know were there. They’re also natural scavengers. The desire for scavenging for food can’t be eliminated, only managed. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been in a loving home; their brains will always tell them to scavenge for food.

You say you only adopted your puppy three weeks ago. Remember she’s in a very new environment. Her world has suddenly changed very radically, for the better, to be sure, but it’s still a big adjustment. She’s learning about your home. She’s learning about the environment around it. She’s taking all the information she gets through her nose and using it to paint a picture of her new world.

Why Does My Puppy Get Into The Garbage?

You also don’t say what kind of dog she is. But depending on her breed, she could be predisposed to behaviors like digging in shrubs. Take my terrier mix, for example. Terriers are ratters. That is, they were originally bred to hunt and kill rats and vermin. As such, my dog loves sniffing and digging in bushes or sniffing in trash cans. It’s what he does well. Remember what I said about dogs’ noses being so powerful? Think about this: If we can occasionally smell stuff in left in a trash can, imagine how many things in trash cans dogs can smell with their noses. Trash cans are treasure troves of olfactory information and dogs want to take it all in.

Ok, I’ve just given you a lot of information here and I hope it makes sense. But let’s get to the meat of your question. You wanted to know how to keep your dog from digging in trash cans and getting into cabinets, as well as how to keep her from following her nose everywhere while she’s walking on a leash. That, my friend, is something with which I believe I can help.

In the short term, I have one word for you: MANAGEMENT.

To keep her from sniffing in cabinets, don’t let her near them. Make sure they’re always closed and even locked if need be. Same goes for the trash can. Get a locking bin for your trash. Or keep it out of her reach. Digging in the trash and sniffing in cabinets are self-reinforcing behaviors. That means the behaviors themselves are reward enough to make her keep doing them. So don’t let her do them.

On walks, things are a little more difficult.

Your puppy needs to learn to focus on you, rather than the world around her, when she’s on the leash. This is where finding a trainer in your area would really be a great thing for your puppy. Contact us at for help finding a certified dog trainer near you. A trainer would be able to watch your puppy in action and nail down the best way to keep her focused on leash. There are, in fact, whole classes dedicated to leash-walking skills.

That said, I can give you a couple focus exercises to start with. Focus exercises are great because they teach your dog to focus on what you tell them to focus on, rather than doing what your puppy does and following her nose from side to side.ask the dog trainer

“Watch me” is a great one to start with. The “watch me” command is simply telling your puppy to focus on your face rather than anything else. Start by getting a treat in both of your hands. Put one treat behind your back and the other right in front of her nose and slowly bring it up to your nose. She will follow it with her eyes. When she breaks her focus on the treat and looks at your face (not necessarily in your eyes, because in dog world, eye contact can be threatening), say “yes” or “good” and give her the treat from behind your back. Don’t use the command “watch me” at first. You can start adding the verbal cue when she can reliably be counted on to break her focus from the treat about 80 percent of the time.

Why the two treats, rather than just giving her the treat you put in front of her nose? Because you want her to learn that she does not get the thing she was focusing on. Rather, she only gets a treat when she STOPS focusing on it.

“Touch” is another one you’ll want to work on. It’s one of my favorite focus exercises for leash walking. The behavior you’re looking for is simple – you hold out your hand, puppy touches her nose to it. Some people use an open palm. Others choose to have their dogs touch their closed fist or a finger or two. It’s up to you. But in any case, the behavior is simply nose touching hand.

To do this, you take a treat in one hand and put your other hand in front of your puppy’s nose. Not too far away at first; maybe a couple inches. Maybe even less, though make sure you’re giving the dog a chance to bring her nose to your hand, rather than you bringing your hand to her nose. Being a curious creature, your puppy may reach out to your hand with her head. When her nose makes contact, say “yes” or “good” and give her the treat from your other hand. As she gets better at this, you can gradually add distance, but don’t try to add too much distance too quickly.

As with “watch me,” don’t add the verbal cue until she’s doing it without the cue about 80 percent of the time. She needs to understand the behavior first.

Why are these great for leash walking? Because they give her something to do instead of trying to sniff everything around her and they give you a way to get her focus back on you when you see her starting to get too into her surroundings.

You can also work with your puppy to teach her what’s called “loose leash walking.” Having a loose leash means your dog isn’t pulling the leash taut. There’s slack because she’s walking close to you. And your “touch” and “watch me” behaviors can really help with loose leash walking. If she starts getting too far ahead of you, you can tell her to “touch” or “watch me” and she’ll re-orient to you.

But what you can also do to help her with her loose leash walking is teach her that she doesn’t get to walk when the leash is taut. Start walking and if she pulls, plant your feet firmly. She’s going to pull at first, but just stand there. Don’t move. Don’t pull her back to you. Just stand still. She’ll eventually look back at you and when she does, give her a treat. You want to reward her for checking in with you. If she’s too far ahead, you can call her back to you or ask for a “touch” to bring her back. Once she’s back and the leash is loose, the walk can continue.

Alternatively, you can just switch directions when she pulls. When she gets too far ahead, you turn around, forcing her to come back to you. Don’t yank her. Just switch directions and walk. The idea behind this is that she never knows what direction you’re going to walk in, so she constantly has to be focused on you.

Side note: You didn’t say in your question what kind of equipment you’re using on walks. But if you’re not already using one, I’d suggest a harness that clips in front, rather than attaching her leash to either a flat collar or back-clip harness. A front-clip harness (there are several different brands out there) is designed to reduce pulling by putting pressure on a dog’s chest when they try to pull, which forces their body to turn back toward you.

I’ve given you a lot of things to think about here. Last thing: let me reiterate what I said earlier about getting a trainer. I’m describing a lot of techniques, but a trainer standing in front of you can actually demonstrate them.

Don’t forget: The things your puppy is doing – the sniffing in bushes, the digging in trash, the looking in open cabinets – are normal behaviors. I know they can be frustrating, but stay positive. With time and effort, they can be managed. Good luck and enjoy your wonderful new furry family member.

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