One of my dogs may be an addict, a toad addict. In June, my daughter and I read an article by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, “Our Animal Natures,” in the New York Times Sunday Review. In her discussion of how some addictive behaviors are survival mechanisms, she mentions the story of a cocker spaniel that was addicted to mouthing toads, a story that was on All Things Considered in October, 2006. We thought it was funny. Dogs addicted to toads. And here I am today, forced to face the possibility that my pointers, especially the male, like to lick toads.
In the evenings when my husband and I want to watch TV or read a book, Dude goes to the back door and whines. “Ignore him,” advises my husband. “He just wants the toads.” And this is the problem. Does he need to urinate or did he just remember that the toads are there? When I can no longer take the whining, I let him out. Princess usually decides that she also needs to go. Both dash through the door, fly off the deck and begin to hunt, noses down, ears forward. Once the lights go on and the dogs emerge, the toads freeze, becoming small brown lumps, motionless on the lawn. The dogs do not seem to smell the toads, but instead run a sweeping pattern in an effort to locate the toads and make them move. They circle around large leaves and poke between stones. Once a toad breaks from its frozen position, the dogs chase it, trying to pick it up like a tennis ball. The result is frothy mouths.
The other dogs ignore the toads. Peanut doesn’t like to leave the deck after dark (but he did come to investigate when I played the songs of American toads on my laptop trying to figure out what type we had). The beagle is only interested in what he can smell. It’s not that these dogs don’t hunt, but they have a different work ethic. The German Short-haired Pointers are high energy, relentless hunters. Minus their favorite prey, upland game birds, they find substitutes. Squirrels and rabbits are fun to chase. We haven’t seen any rabbits in Connecticut, but some runs are more adventuresome than others when squirrels and chipmunks cross our path. Lizards were favorite prey in Southern Cal. Shrews and chipmunks are the new challenges.
Hunting is the real addiction. Screaming “leave it” from the deck does stop Dude. Princess is too focused on the chase to listen. This isn’t the first time Dude has become addicted to chasing something. Back in California, he would whine to go out at night so he could run along the fence, checking for roof rats and raccoons. There I could leave him in the backyard and go back to my show; here I need to watch him. But in California, he would remember the critters in the yard at two in the morning and wake me up. At least, once he licks a toad, he’s done for the evening.
When they mouth a toad, both dogs make a noise that is similar to the clicking sound people make when they taste something awful or very sour. Too much toad taste, their saliva looks like foam. One would think that just tasting the toad would be aversion therapy, but the drive to hunt outweighs the memory. Bred to hunt, the pointers cannot help themselves. Princess will be ten the end of September, but she is not content to rest in the sun on the deck. Each morning she springs forth from the house, nose in the air, ever alert for prey. Runs through the forest are fraught with sprints after squirrels. She cannot contain herself. Dude patrols the yard every chance he gets, watching for intruders and prey. Once he found a wood frog, a remarkable creature that can actually freeze during the winter and still remain alive. While I stopped him from hurting the frog, he still returns to the spot where he found it, hoping. Large insects are also an enjoyable quarry. The movement of the toads is the real game.
But it really isn’t a game. Licking toads is not healthy for the dogs. While these toads are American toads or Fowler’s toads and not too toxic, two other types of toads, Bufo alvarius and Bufo marinus, are highly toxic. Dogs that try to eat those toads can die. Since we travel with the dogs, I know I need to break their interest in toads. As funny as the toad addiction may be, I have to do some aversion training.