Have you noticed your dog chewing on a toy one moment, and the next moment, he starts nosing at loose clothing to cover it? What your dog is doing is actually ‘burying’ his treasure. Dogs have always played outside, where they are surrounded by nature, including soil, dry grass and twigs, which they can use to bury things. In modern times, however, dogs live indoors, where they substitute for nature by finding items that they can use to ‘bury’ things. These substitutes include loose covers, rags or clothes.
While there is little scientific research to explain why dogs cover things, several theories have been advanced by veterinarians, dog lovers and dog experts, to explain away this behavior. If your dog has been driving you crazy by hiding your car keys, or by covering food during feeding time, read below to find out why.
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The Root of the Behavior
One theory for this dog behavior goes back to the evolution of dogs. For generations, dogs roamed the wild, stalking their prey and hunting in packs. After eating their kill, dogs would hide the leftover carcass to cover its scent and keep predators away. Burying leftovers was also about storage. Hunting was energy consuming and instinct taught dogs to hide food instead of hunting every time they needed to eat. Veterinarian and author, Myrna Milani, says this behavior is called ‘caching’.
Now, we live in modern times when dogs no longer need to hunt, so why all this craze with burying food and other things? Dog expert Cesar Milan attributes this to three things. First, dogs, even when domesticated, still run on instinct. It’s in their nature to bury food. Just because they are well supplied with food doesn’t mean they have lost their instinct to take care of their future feeding needs. Second, if you are feeding very big portions to your dogs, they will bury what they cannot eat, especially if they found the food enjoyable. This also applies to toys, especially if a dog has many toys. Third, your dog could be bored and is looking for a new mode of stimulation. Your dog could resort to covering things to get your attention.
Another school of thought also attributes this behavior to a dog’s personality traits. Timid, quiet dogs that scare easy and can be easily dominated by other dogs are more likely to cover things than a more confident and outgoing dog. Often, when a dog covers things, it is a sign that he is healthy and still has good instincts. This is not just restricted to food. When your dog covers his toys, this still points at the protective instinct that causes all dogs to hide their treasure.
Encouraging the Behavior
If your dog covers his food, this does not mean he is sick or disinterested in eating. It is instead a confirmation that your canine still has strong wild-dog instincts. He is behaving as any healthy dog would in the wild. It should also confirm that he has the energy to move around, be playful and to mark his territory. When animals are sick, they don’t do any of these things. They tend to lie around and will lack the energy to cover their food.
While you might be inconvenienced when your dog hides things, this should not be a reason to discourage this behavior as doing so will only be training your dog to ignore his instincts. You will also be taking away his way of communicating with you.
Instead, “listen” to what your dog is trying to tell you. Observe and note down the items being hidden and when your dog tends to hide them, then infer a meaning to this behavior. For example, if your dog hides the remote in the evenings just when you are getting ready to unwind, this could mean that he has been waiting for you to come home and play fetch in the backyard. It is a clear sign that your canine is looking for some activity.
Other Solutions and Considerations
There are some scenarios where covering things can be a cause for concern. Veterinarian Myrna Milani says that dogs ‘cache’ if they don’t feel safe in their space. She explains that dogs will only eat when they feel their territory is safe. Failure to provide a safe environment for feeding could cause your dog to starve. This situation can be remedied by providing a feeding area that will give your dog a sense of security during meal times. From a health perspective, hidden food items if not found, will stain your furniture and clothes, or worse, they could mold, attract vermin and pose a health risk to you. It’s also worth considering whether your dog’s personality and size are behind this tendency to cover things.
With appropriate behavioral training, your dog can learn to relax, boost confidence, feel safe and realize there is no need to cover things. Using positive reinforcement to teach other dogs in the household how to respect boundaries will also go a long way in helping a timid dog to relax.
Given the number of strange behaviors that dogs exhibit, you would think they’d come with a manual. But they don’t. The only thing you can do is relax and let your dog guide you. The thing to remember is that though humanity has ‘moved away from nature,’ dogs haven’t. They are still driven by the same instincts that drove them in the wild decades or millennia ago. So there is nothing to worry about if your dog is covering things. He is just being a dog.