Gleaning: A Dog’s Guide

Posted on July 10th, 2009 by

Guest Column by Tilde Heldke-O’Connor

Most of you readihead-shot-tilde1ng this know me as the pretty face whose picture appears with some regularity in this blog. What you may not know about me is that I also have a passionate interest in food. Because of my passion, I asked Lisa if I might have a few inches of space here to share with you the results of some research I’ve been doing for the past several years. It’s pretty timely stuff, I think-connected, as it is, to the whole locavore thing.

Folks looking to slip into something smaller, in the carbon shoe department have been talking about the virtues of gleaning-gathering the bounty of nature that’s free for the taking and likely going to waste anyway. Depending on where you live, you could join a group collecting fruit from trees growing in the backyards of Portland Oregon; attend a class on how to harvest, cook and eat the wild plants growing in New York’s Central Park; or go on a wild boar hunt with Michael Pollan in the California wilderness. You can’t emit much less carbon than a guy running around his neighborhood harvesting pigweed from the sidewalk cracks.

But in all this hunter-gatherer talk, I haven’t seen anything from my particular vantage point-a point literally lower to the ground, and thereby arguably far more advantageous for spotting or sniffing out (again, we’re talking literally) the earth’s bounty. In the interests of filling that void, I present to you:

A Field Guide to the Edible Outdoors: Advice from a Dog Expert

I have divided this necessarily-brief guide into the six major outdoor-food groups: Buns, Candy, Grass, Meat, Poop and Other. For each food group, I note some of the most likely locations in which to find it. I also note the group’s primary characteristics and (where possible) some “false friends”; things that look like this food but are in fact some altogether different thing. (When confronting one of these false friends, what the heck? Give it a chew. You never know.)

These six groups may strike the human reader as unusual.  I’ve noticed that people tend to limit their foraging to things that have actually been growing where they are found-plants and animals, mainly. This seems to me to be an overly-fastidious attitude to take, in the face of the earth’s aforementioned bounty. (It also constitutes an unwarranted re-inscription of the nature/culture dichotomy, but that’s for another time.) I say if we hadn’t been meant to eat it, it wouldn’t be lying on the ground smelling delectable. Thus, rule number one of this field guide is: If it smells good, put it in your mouth. The corollary, of course, is: If it doesn’t smell good, give it a chew anyway.


Habitat: Don’t bother going to the woods or open meadows looking for buns; buns are town food. Fairgrounds are good bun habitat, as are street festivals, the parking lots of fast food restaurants, freeway rest areas, and college campuses.

Identifying characteristics: The best buns are white, with a lovely brown exterior shell. If you are lucky, you’ll find one with a smear of red and yellow on it. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find one with meat in it (see below). Brown buns aren’t quite a “false friend,” but they tend to be tougher, grittier, and not very sweet; they’re edible, but nowhere near the prize of a soft, squishy white one. Around college campuses, you’ll often encounter what looks like a white bun with a hole through the middle; get ready for a jaw workout if you decide to pick up this bagel (as it is called). If you’re not into chewing that much, you might still check the inside of it to see if it is smeared with a delicious white, creamy substance. That substance is a kind of cheese, which is one of the major indoor food groups (the topic of a future post).


Habitat: Candy tends to turn up in many of the same places as buns. An important addition, however, are parade routes; candy actually grows out of the asphalt after a parade has passed by. It gets harvested by giant machines that sweep it up, together with any poop produced during the parade. (Be careful to stay out of the way of these harvesting machines; clumsy and unsubtle, they could well sweep you up in the mechanism if you’re not careful. No candy is worth this risk. There will be other parades.) Holidays are excellent candy times; holidays are periods of time during which the candy harvest is offered to the general public. Holidays can be distinguished, one from another, by the color of candy that is ripe.

Identifying characteristics: This is a tough one, because candy comes in so many varieties. Especially delectable are the brown varieties that melt in the sun. This chocolate is exceedingly rare (humans rarely drop it, and if they do, will tend to pick it up), and absolutely scrumptious. (But don’t let your human see you eating it; humans freak out about dogs eating chocolate, for some reason. Probably because they wanted it.)

False friends: while technically candy, the sticky stuff known to humans as “gum” is a deadly substance that ought to be illegal. Get a wad of that in your mouth, and chew it forever; it will never soften up and go down. Should you (Dog forbid) get some stuck in your fur (the result of trying to pry up a wad from the street), you can kiss that patch of fur goodbye. Your human will take after you with a clipper, and for weeks you’ll look like the lawnmower ran over you. Speaking of lawnmowers…


Allow me to wax rhapsodic about grass for just a moment. Grass is the most succulent, most juicy, most exquisite food to be found in the outdoors. It is also the most labor intensive. Grass is Dog’s proof that we canines are carnivores. Just watch a dog trying to eat grass sometime; those teeth that are so well-designed for ripping moving meat to shreds and devouring it are absolutely worthless when it comes to tearing off a clump of grass and grinding it to a pulp. It’s kind of pathetic, really; we can only manage one sprig at a time, and then all we can really do is chomp at it and hope it goes in our mouth and down our gullet. But ask any dog and they’ll tell you the same thing: grass is delicious.

Habitat: grass is great because everywhere you go, there’s likely to be some there. Well, I take that back; where I live, I can go for months at a stretch without seeing a single piece of it, and then suddenly, it’s all over the ground and I can’t keep up with the supply. (This seems like bad product management to me; couldn’t some of it be harvested and distributed during the off-season, like candy?) Look for large patches of identical grass; sometimes these have been harvested, by lawnmowers, which are machines that look sort of like miniature versions of the things that harvest candy. These machines produce large clumps of grass, depositing them strategically around the yard, just for dogs. Finding a lawn that has been harvested by one of those machines is as close to being a cow as I am ever going to get. (Man, if I had a cow’s teeth, I’d never leave the yard!)

Identifying characteristics: It’s grass, people! What’s to say? It’s green, long and skinny! Note that it comes in a tremendous number of varieties, not all of which are equally delicious to every dog. Pick your poison. I do just want to urge you to give it a good sniff before you go at it hammer and tongs; there’s nothing worse than realize that this patch of your favorite–Kentucky Blue–was some other dog’s, er, watering hole.

My Lab assistant, Callie, wanted me to note that grass isn’t just delectable going down the first time, either; disgorged and re-swallowed, it’s even better. Callie thinks it’s the closest she’ll ever get to being a cow.[1]


A confession: I love meat. This is something that causes a modicum of distress to my humans, who are vegetarians. The first time I killed…well, never mind. Suffice it to say that we all agree not to talk about the fact that my kibble (the chief indoor food group) is made out of ground up lamb, which, it turns out, is another name for baby sheep. Next to a hot dog bun, nothing satisfies like meat.

Habitat: Meat will surprise you. It can show up just about anywhere-city, suburb, country or wilderness. Sometimes, as I noted above, it even shows up inside of a hot dog bun (where it will appear as a bit of narrow pink tubing. Given the shape of the meat you find inside a hot dog bun, I’ve sometimes worried that I was actually eating daschund-would this be fratricide? And would I be agin’ it, if it were?)

I was going to make some hopelessly simplistic claim about how town meat and country/wilderness meat differed, in that town meat was more likely not to be unmoving, but then I realized the utter falsity of this claim. For instance, the first squirrel I ever…well, never mind. Suffice it to say that you can find moving and unmoving meat in the city and the wilderness alike. And more power to you if you’re still able to bring down the moving kind. The last rabbit I…well, never mind.

Identifying characteristics: Moving meat, whether in town or in the country, looks like moving meat; what can I tell you? But a few suggestions, if you decide to go after it: 1) Make sure you know what a cat looks like. And a raccoon. They may both be good eating, but our kind doesn’t have a chance in hell of finding out. And you will die trying. 2) Be realistic; skip the macho, Rin Tin Tin, one-sixteenth-wolf crap. I’m sure I’d love a good venison haunch, too, but I know better than to imagine I’m going to sink these worn down old canines into Haunch of Bambi’s Mom any time soon. 3) In the country, some slow-moving meat looks like it’s there for the taking, but if that floppy little fur-covered bit of succulence turns out to be little Johnny’s 4-H project, you are going to be on indoor food for the rest of your life, Buddy (you did say your name was Buddy, didn’t you?).

In the wild, unmoving meat can often be distinguished by its smell. (And can anything beat the smell of some well-hung-or, I should say, well-laid-on-the-ground-game?) Get your nose right in that carcass and take a good sniff; you’ll know in a tick[2] if it’s meat and not a rusted out washing machine. Chances are, your head will come out slick, too. With luck, you’ll carry that delectable smell with you-at least till your humans find you. For some reason, humans are not into this smell.

(P.S. If you ever want to impress the heck out of your humans, trot out of the woods some day with a deer leg in your mouth. That’ll get them to take you seriously! And you don’t have to tell ’em it was unmoving meat when you found it. Let ’em wonder.)

False friends: some people say chicken bones are false friends, but I personally have an iron gut so I just grind ’em a little extra long and Bob’s your uncle. (Street fairs are terrific chicken bone habitat, btw. Just keep a weather eye on the humans; they’ll try to take this away too.)

Photo at

Razor clam, courtesy of

The false friends I encounter most often in the summer are these things that look for all the world, like chicken bones, but are the vilest, saltiest, hardest things I have ever in my life encountered. (They are so salty that they actually make the water near which you find them salty too-it’s the craziest damn thing. Biggest water bowl you’ll ever seen, and is there any drop to drink? Nope; it’s all salty, just because of these razor clams.) Callie seems to find these edible, but, well, she’s a Lab assistant, isn’t she?


Some straight talk about poop: Dogs and poop-eating have gotten a bad rap, and I for one think it’s totally unfair. I don’t have a single friend who eats poo. (Come to think of it, I don’t have a single friend who’s a dog, either, but you get my drift.) The way people talk, you’d think there’s nothing a dog loves better than some other animal’s …leavings. It’s just not true. But let’s face it; some animals have remarkably inefficient digestive systems, and is it really appropriate to leave all those good nutrients to rot? Take deer poop. In the middle of the winter, there’s nothing better than coming upon a mound of frozen deer poop. Thanks to Nature’s ice box, it remains just as fresh as the day Bambi made his deposit. And nutritious? Don’t get me started! It’s like the deer were just storing that food in their gut for a while, they take so little of value from it! In the summertime, bear is my favorite; it’s blueberry flavored.

I draw the line at dog poop, though-my own and, needless to say, other dogs’.  I mean, have you seen what they eat???

Habitat: Where there’s meat, there’s poop. (You might think this wouldn’t be true for unmoving meat, but I’ve found that even hot dog bun meat seems to always be found in close proximity to poop.)

Identifying characteristics: C’mon, guys. Don’t make me do this. You all know poop when you see/smell/step in it.


“Other” is a big category that includes ice cream cones.

Habitat: the world, Pal (you did say your name was Pal, didn’t you?), is your oyster. Go out there and stick your nose in it.

Identifying characteristics: remember rule number one. Does it smell good? If so, give it a chew! When in doubt, put it in your mouth and chew it for a while. If it goes down, it must have been edible. If it doesn’t, it’s probably gum.

[1] A tip o’ the nib to Rob Shillady for forwarding Callie’s recommendation.

[2] Speaking of ticks, do be sure your human gives you a good going over, if you’ve been in the woods. My rule of paw is; if there’s grass to eat, it’s tick season. (I’m still working on the rhyme scheme there.)


One Comment

  1. Lisa Heldke says:

    Beulah, the Golden, who lives with Staff Vumman Brita, has this to report:

    Tilde – RRruuff!!! I know what you mean and I like your thinking and
    sniffing. I went a bit crazy at Okoboji the weekend of the 4th. As soon as
    I jumped out of the car, I remembered the wide assortment of grills in the
    neighborhood, all of which are crusted with delicious, oozey greasy goo. I
    couldn’t help myself. I had black grill stripes on my white head all
    weekend. Then they made these fried onion rings on the deck one night and
    left the big, black pan of grease outside to cool. I found it in the
    morning. I was delicious!! And the snotty yacht club next door actually
    isn’t so bad. They had this big outdoor party, the big pizza truck came,
    and no one finished their crusts! The whole weekend I kept sneaking away to
    check out the grounds and found several sticky plastic ice cream sundae cups
    that people just hid in the bushes. They must have saved them for me! And
    then of course, there’s Dick’s Ribs on the 4th. For a calm girl, I just
    couldn’t settle down the whole holiday weekend. My mom is thankful that I
    have an amazingly tight sphincter and am able to hold on to the trots for
    hours because she’s too tired to get up in the night, or perhaps because she
    thinks my barking is just to go out and lick the grill. I think we should
    visit the Galaxy Diner that just opened in St. Louis Park. They will feed
    you anything, and even have free cones for dogs. Hope you’re having a good
    summer and that the ground is full of treasures!!