Give a dog a bone and …

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By Tracie Korol

Give a dog a bone and after a few cursory licks, he’ll tote it out to the backyard to bury his treasure for another day. He’ll hide his chew in the couch cushions, or maybe try to bury it in the deep pile of the bedroom carpet. Why the compulsion to save it for later?

To understand why domestic dogs bury bones, it helps to look at how wolves hunt in the wild. Small prey — mice, voles or chipmunks — are stalked, chased and pounced upon by wolves hunting solo. The pounce traps the prey with the front paws; it is then seized, bitten and quickly gobbled down. Slightly larger prey, such as rabbits all the way up to an animal the size of a small deer, represent manageable sized food units that can be consumed quickly alone or shared with the hunting pack. An adult wolf is capable of consuming as much as 20 pounds of meat in a single sitting and as much as 44 pounds in 24 hours.

Only with very large prey — big deer, moose or cattle — do wolves have a serious surplus of food. They will immediately consume their fill, usually leaving the carcass but will then take the precaution of saving a few chunks by burying it near the kill, protecting the remains from scavengers, insects and direct sunlight.

The burying action consists of digging a hole with the front feet while holding the meat in the jaws. When the hole is big enough, the wolf will open its jaws, drop the meat and then use its snout to push the dirt over his stash, pressing the dirt down firmly.

Flashing laterally to our over-indulged house pets, we now see what conditions must be present to encourage our Best Friends to bury bones. In the first instance, there must be a surplus of food. All our dogs have a surplus of food these days. A truly hungry dog, like its wolf ancestors, will eat everything it can. Only when there is something left over will he carry it to the garden or the couch.

Commercial dog food is impossible to carry and hold in the jaws while digging a hole. Dogs fed soft food in bowls will never have the opportunity to bury anything. But if they are given large bones, they do, at last, have something to service the genetic matrix of the inner wild canid.

The reason bones are so popular as burying objects is that a large bone, impossible to break up and consume in one sitting, has about it the essential quality of “cannot be eaten now.”  It is the “left-over” quality that trips the “must bury” primal switch even in our tiniest of dog friends.

Some dogs, overfed with commercial foods, can be seen occasionally performing an odd remnant of ritual burying. One dog friend of mine will, with each meal, carry mouthfuls of food onto the living room carpet, to be eaten later. Another dog friend will attempt to bury his entire bowl, with food still in it, in the corner of the kitchen. Usually he can only make “covering up” motions with his nose. He gives up after a while realizing his action has no effect other than scooting his bowl around the room and irritating his owner. These animals are telling their humans that they have too much to eat. Rather than leave the surplus to imaginary scavengers, these dogs go through the motions of saving food for the future.

For recreational chewing, big chunks of raw beef femur or hip bones filled with marrow are best. A good chew provides mental stimulation and is great for your dog’s oral health, the equivalent of a good brushing and flossing. Those wolves in the wild have beautiful teeth and healthy gums because the prey they eat requires a lot of mouth action. If you’re squeamish about bacteria, serve the bone frozen and return it to the freezer at the end of the chew session or when you find it between the pillows of your bed.

Please avoid bones that are treated with preservatives and “natural flavorings” that can be found in bins at pet or big box stores. We don’t know where or how the donors died and we don’t know what they are treated with that prevents them from decomposing without refrigeration.