You may find your dog's bones and toys hidden in the back corner of a closet, under a pillow on the sofa, or some other out-of-the-way place. It is not a game to your pet. It is survival instinct that his ancestors learned would sustain them when prey was hard to find.
Surviving in the Wild
Before dogs became domesticated as our household pets, they were wild animals who hunted in packs in a manner similar to modern wolves. The advantage of hunting in packs was that they could send scouts out in many different directions to find prey, and when they cornered their prey, their sheer numbers could often bring down a much bigger animal. The problem of bringing down a buffalo, moose or other large animal though was that even a large pack might not be able to eat all of the nutrients available in the prey. And they did not want to share their hard work with birds and other scavengers.
Hoarding Surplus Food
When there was too much food, or even when the pack had cleaned the prey down to the bones, the wild dogs had enough evolutionary development to know that they had to save some of the surplus food for times when prey was harder to find. But where could a dog hide food to keep it safe from scavengers or even other members of his pack?
The claws and paws of dogs are well suited to digging, and over thousands of years they learned that burying the spoils of their hunt (both the meat and the bones) would reduce the possibilities of other animals taking their food away. Even though bones do not have a great deal of nutrition, the meat clinging to them and the marrow in them when the dogs cracked them open was often enough to sustain them through lean periods. Not only did burying make their bones harder for others to find, but it masked the smell and kept them out of the air and sunlight, which would speed spoilage.
The Genetic Holdover
Modern domesticated dogs, when they are fed sufficiently, are less likely to revert to their ancient genetic behavior and hoard their food and other resources. Some breeds, however, are a bit more prone to hoarding than others. If you feed him too much or if mealtimes are not consistent, your dog may start to plan for the future and hide some food for when he is hungry and the food bowl is empty. Sometimes dogs may hide things and never go back to them, because the behavior to prepare for lean times is still strong in them, but the lean times never come. Plastic bones and toys, though not necessary for survival, can also trigger the hoarding impulse. Some dogs will also hoard nesting materials, which is why they sometimes steal and hide clothing or towels to line their beds.
By Mark Salzwedel
About the Author
Mark Salzwedel, writing professionally since 1992, is a hypnotherapist, masseur and game designer in New York. He studied seven languages and worked in publishing, childbirth education, film/TV and foreign policy. Since receiving a Bachelor of Arts in English from Macalester College in 1984, Salzwedel has studied biology, astrophysics and world religions.