If you notice your adult pooch suckling on a stuffed animal, blanket, or some other object, he might have been weaned too early from his mother. Weaning your pup too early can lead to behavioral problems later in life like nursing on inanimate objects. While not usually harmful to your pup, you can discourage this odd behavior if it becomes bothersome or compulsive.
In an ideal situation, puppies need to nurse from their mothers until she begins to wean them off of her milk, usually between 6 and 8 weeks of age. During this time, they learn lots of important social behaviors from her and their litter mates. As mom naturally weans them, they will gradually accept not being able to nurse at will. If a little puppy loses his mother at a younger age or is suddenly taken away from her, he won't develop proper social behaviors and may resort to suckling a mother-like substitute. Stuffed animals feel similar to mom and provide them with the comfort they are missing. This behavior may continue into his adult life, especially if he's under stress and looking for a way to soothe his nerves.
Dangers of Object Nursing
While watching your pooch nurse his favorite stuffed animal might seem strange, if it doesn't hurt him or become compulsive, let him indulge this behavior occasionally, but don't encourage it. You also want to keep those toys that are nursed washed and clean regularly. Unfortunately, object nursing can sometimes transition into a compulsion or even result in pica. Pups who begin ingesting nonfood items, such as pieces of a stuffed animal while nursing it, might develop intestinal blockages that can even become fatal, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Some pooches even begin nursing on their own legs, a behavior known as flank sucking. Dogs who repeatedly do this to their legs can quickly develop open sores in the area and require veterinary attention.
Discouraging the Behavior
Some dogs will stop their inappropriate nursing behaviors if you take away the object they are nursing, such as a particular stuffed animal; others may simply find a substitute. Try removing any stuffed dog or children's toys from your pup's play area. You may also need to take away any blankets or other fabric items, like pillows or clothing, if his behavior simply shifts to those similar items. Replace these items with plastic or rubber chew toys and puzzle toys filled with delicious doggie treats to redirect his behavior to more acceptable objects. Spend time with your pooch regularly so he doesn't develop anxiety from being left alone. Exercise him daily and encourage the behavior you want, namely no inappropriate suckling, with treats and praise.
Strange nursing behaviors later in life are more common in some dog breeds than others. Doberman pinschers and dachshunds seem to have more of a propensity for either flank sucking or nursing inappropriate objects like stuffed animals, according to the Pet Docs. Consult your vet if you see that this behavior is becoming compulsive or harmful to your pup; a prescription psychological medication might relieve this problem. Spray any potential targets for inappropriate nursing with a bitter taste deterrent to train your pooch that these items taste yucky, and he may begin avoiding them. Never allow your pup to nurse on a stuffed animal that has small parts like buttons or loose string that he can swallow; stick to toys designed especially for dogs.
By Susan Paretts
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Destructive Chewing
Dog Behaviour: Object Sucking in Dogs -- An Unexplained Phenomenon
The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman's 7 Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend; Nicholas H. Dodman
The Pet Docs: Common Questions and Answers
Canine Nanny Services: Understanding Dog Behavior
petMD: Pica: The Funny Little Word for a Potentially Serious Pet Behavior Problem
The Humane Society of the United States: Pica: Why Pets Sometimes Eat Strange Objects
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Pica (Eating Things That Aren't Food)
About the Author
Based in Las Vegas, Susan Paretts has been writing since 1998. She writes about many subjects including pets, crafts, television, shopping and going green. Her articles, short stories and reviews have appeared in "The Southern California Anthology" and on Epinions. Paretts holds a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California.