It is feeding time and your dog is wagging his tail in anticipation of his delicious meal. But it seems that this is where the excitement ends because as soon as you serve him his food, instead of eating it, he does something that any human would consider rather peculiar: He upsets his plate and scatters his food on the floor. He then starts nosing at the scattered food to bring it together into a pile. According to scientists and researchers, when dogs do this, they are 'burying' their food. Only this is not obvious to you because the floor in your house is not made of loose soil. The motivation behind this burying, a behavior that is common in dogs of all breeds and gender, is explained in more detail below.
The Root of the Behavior
Making piles of food, also known as burying, is behavior that has been observed in all canines, including wolves and foxes. Burying, according to Dr. Desmond Morris, a zoologist, is behavior that is driven by the instinct to preserve food for later consumption. Preserving food was also necessary because scavengers would eat any leftovers left in the open and the canines would have to hunt again to find their next meal. This natural tendency also explains why dogs bury their bones in the backyard. Raymond Coppinger and Mark Feinstein also agree with this theory, saying that dogs create a ‘cache’ to be consumed in future.
While burying in the wild and in the house appear to be two different activities, they are the same. In his book titled "Dog Watching," Dr. Morris observed that when wolves engage in burying food, they typically use their front feet, all the while holding their catch with their jaws. They drop the meat in the dug-out cavity and rather than use their feet to bury the food, they push earth over their cache with their snout. They then press down with the snout before wandering off. In contrast, domestic dogs in the house perform the burying motion by pushing their food around the floor but soon realize they don’t have a fresh mound of soil to cover it, so they give up and leave the piles uncovered on the floor.
It is also possible that dog breeds that became domesticated were scavengers or less dominant members of wild wolf packs. In his publication, "The Evolutionary Basis for the Feeding Behavior of Domestic Dogs and Cats," John W. S. Bradshaw says that in the wild, wolves fed in hierarchies. The alpha and other dominant pack members would feed first and then walk away, leaving the leftovers to the lesser dogs, who were more likely to bury their food. With the advent of organized agricultural activities, canines started scavenging around human dwellings and over time became domesticated. It can be argued that these canines were the lesser wolf pack members who, out of necessity, sought out human establishments where it was easier to find food. These same dogs though evolved and completely domesticated, still bury their food.
Encouraging the Behavior
Since caching is about ensuring food security for the future, it is possible for your dog to become very protective over his cache. He could resort to aggression especially when other pets approach his piles of food. Caching should be discouraged in such cases as it might fuel dogfights or cause your dog to bite you or other people in your house. If you have many dogs and one of them is less dominant, getting every dog their bowl instead of feeding them communally might help to resolve the situation and make each dog feel secure about his food. Where a dog has developed aggression, it is important to proceed with caution before cleaning up the piles of food.
Managing this behavior is also vital where dogs begin to exhibit guarding behavior. Guarding can quickly escalate into aggression and prove dangerous to other dogs and kids in your house. To prevent this escalation, feed your dog in smaller portions regularly as this will give him the assurance that he will receive food at certain times during the day. Avoid feeding your dog or giving him treats in between meals as this will make him full and increase chances that he will want to store his next meal portion.
Lastly, while caching is driven by natural instinct, it can be quite a nuisance because it results in food wastage not to mention the cleaning up involved after every meal time. If your dog makes piles of foods in rooms you frequent less often, this might result in pest infestation, bad odors, and mold.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Sometimes, dogs move their food from their feeding bowls to the floor but then proceed to eat it. This behavior should not be confused with dogs piling food as it actually has to do with your dog’s feeding utensils or the environment. Dog experts observe that dogs opt to eat off the floor if they do not like their feeding bowl, especially if that bowl is metallic. If your dog seems to be moving his food out of his metallic bowl, change out the bowl with a plastic one. The sound of his tags clanking on his feeding bowl may also be disturbing, so remove his tag during feeding time.
So, there you have it. Dogs making piles of food is just another trait to remind you that your dog evolved from wild ancestors. Your dog does not know that being in a comfortable warm home means that he will never starve so he will keep doing what his genes tell him to do.
By a Golden Retriever lover Maryanne Gaitho
Published: 03/09/2018, edited: 01/30/2020