By Dr. Becker
Dogs are chewers and “mouthers” by nature. They explore the world using all their senses, which includes picking up objects with their mouths to feel them, taste them and learn things about them.
Reasons Dogs Chew
Puppies and young dogs often chew to alleviate the itching or pain of teething, and adult dogs chew to clean their teeth and exercise their powerful jaws. Chewing can also be a boredom buster, as well as a stress reliever for dogs.
Occasionally, an underlying medical condition can be the cause of a dog’s chewing, such as tooth or gum problems, oral masses, certain neurologic conditions, stomach or gastrointestinal (GI) issues or a medication that causes extreme hunger. Some pets suffer from pica, a compulsive behavior that causes them to chew and often actually swallow strange non-food items such as rocks, dirt or soap.
If you suspect your dog has an underlying medical problem that is causing abnormal chewing behavior, make an appointment with your veterinarian to have him checked out. I have found that many “bad dogs” who have are driven to consume certain things have some type of underlying medical issue. This became overwhelmingly clear to me when I studied zoopharmacognosy with Caroline Ingraham.
So if your dog consistently exhibits the same annoying, repeated behaviors when it comes to eating certain things, assume he’s trying to communicate with you, not annoy you.
Good Chewing Versus Bad Chewing
Good chewing is when your dog gnaws away on an approved, appropriate object like one of her toys, or a recreational bone or dental chew you’ve offered her. Bad chewing is when she destroys shoes, clothes, furniture, doors, floors … you get the picture. Bad chewing generally occurs when your dog is either home alone or is unsupervised, and so the results of a bad chewing session are an unpleasant, often costly surprise when you find them.
The technical term for bad chewing is “destructive chewing,” and applies to dogs who destroy items of value. It’s important to keep in mind that to an untrained dog, there’s no difference between the chew toy you bought him and the leg of your coffee table.
Common Causes for Destructive Chewing
Most destructive chewing is done by anxious, bored or stressed dogs. One common cause is separation anxiety in pets left alone at home. If you arrive home to a chewed up baby gate, door or window frame, chances are your dog was trying to escape the house as a way of coping with his anxiety.
Many dogs grow bored when their humans are away from home all day, and this can lead to destructive chewing. Boredom that leads to bad chewing can also be the result of lack of adequate exercise, playtime or mental stimulation. In addition, changes in your dog’s routine, or the loss or addition of a family member (two- or four-legged) can create stress that may lead to destructive chewing.
The good news is problem chewing can be redirected to appropriate items for the sake of your dog’s health as well as your belongings. But keep in mind that until your dog has learned what he can and can’t chew, it’s up to you to make sure he doesn’t have opportunities to chew off-limits objects.
Changing Your Dog’s Chewing Behavior
This is obviously the first step in resolving an issue with destructive chewing. However, until your dog is fully trained, make sure to keep anything you don’t want chewed out of her reach. This is the responsibility of everyone in the household. A good rule to live by: “If you make it available and the dog chews it, it’s on you, not the dog.”
Secondly, make sure your dog has plenty of her own toys and other appropriate things to chew on. Also make sure her toys don’t resemble or aren’t in fact household items. If you give her an old sock or slipper to play with, don’t be surprised or annoyed when you find her chewing your new Nikes. Dogs don’t know the difference between old and new. The goal in modifying your pet’s behavior is to give her every opportunity to succeed, and no chance to fail.
When your dog picks up an inappropriate item with her mouth, grab a treat and give her a "drop it" command. As soon as she complies, give her the treat and replace the item with one of her own toys. It’s extremely important that you do this consistently in order to successfully modify your dog’s behavior.
Whatever you do, don’t give chase when she has something her mouth, because for many dogs the “Catch me if you can” game is irresistible. During times when your dog will be home alone, the kindest and most effective way to prevent destructive chewing is to crate train her.
Make Sure Your Dog Gets Lots of Exercise
Dogs who get plenty of physical exercise and playtime are much less likely to develop destructive behaviors born of boredom and/or stress. “A tired dog is a good dog,” as the saying goes. Letting your dog out in the backyard by himself won't get the job done, so don’t kid yourself. Like humans, dogs need a reason and incentive to exercise. Get out there with him and wear him out for at least 20 minutes, preferably twice a day.
If your dog likes to retrieve balls, you’ve got a built-in way to give him a good workout. For bigger dogs, a device such as the Chuckit! Ball Launcher works well to increase the distance your pet runs out and back. You can also take him on a power walk, or to the dog park, or on a hike. Change things up frequently so he doesn’t get bored.
I can’t stress this aspect of controlling behavior issues, including chewing, enough. Without exhausting your inquisitive, mouthy dog on a twice-daily basis, he’ll continue to be inquisitive and mouthy.
Also Make Sure Your Dog Gets Enough Mental Stimulation
Keeping your dog’s mind active is also critically important in preventing undesirable behaviors like destructive chewing. She should be continuously socialized throughout her life by giving her regular opportunities to interact with other dogs, cats and people.
Regular training sessions are also a great way to keep your dog’s mind occupied and strengthen the bond you share with her. Nose work, which encourages her to use her natural hunting drive and unique talent for picking up scents and locating the source, is another fabulous way to keep her mentally stimulated.
And don’t overlook the value of treat-release and food puzzle toys, which not only challenge your dog’s mind, but also provide appropriate objects for her to chew. I find Dr. Sophia Yin’s Treat & Train an exceptional option for this purpose.
It’s also a good idea to rotate your pet’s toys regularly. If you leave all of them out in a big basket, she'll probably lose interest in them quickly. A better idea is to leave out one or two and put the rest away. In a day or two, swap them out. Also be sure to play with your dog using her toys.