Maintain Your Sanity While Meeting Your Dog’s Chewing Needs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

chewing behavior in dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs are natural chewers, which is why it’s important to allow them to ex-press this natural behavior in a safe, non-destructive way
  • If your dog is displaying what you think is abnormal chewing behavior, make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out an underlying medical condition
  • Destructive chewing is most often seen in dogs who are stressed, anxious or bored
  • The first step in curbing destructive chewing is to redirect the behavior to appropriate objects
  • It’s also critical to ensure your dog is getting enough exercise and mental stimulation

Dogs like to chew things — it’s a natural canine urge. They use all their senses to explore the world, which includes picking up objects with their mouths to see how they feel and taste. As with all (or at least most!) of your dog’s natural behaviors, it’s important to allow him to express his need to chew, while also protecting his health and your belongings.

Acceptable chewing happens during those times when your dog gnaws away on an appropriate object like one of her toys, or a recreational bone or dental chew you’ve given her. Obviously, unacceptable chewing involves your shoes, clothes, furniture, doors, floors and any item that could harm your dog, such as an electrical cord or the leaves of a toxic plant.

Unacceptable chewing generally happens when your dog is either home alone or unsupervised, and the results are an unpleasant, often costly and even frightening surprise when you realize what has occurred.

The technical term for unacceptable or 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.

Understanding Why Dogs Chew

Puppies and young dogs who are still teething often chew in an attempt to relieve itching or pain. Adult dogs chew to brush and floss their teeth, massage their gums and work their powerful jaw muscles. Chewing can also quell boredom and relieve stress in dogs (more about this shortly).

Once in a great while 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 dogs suffer from a condition called pica, which is a compulsive behavior that causes them to chew and often swallow strange non-food items such as rocks, dirt or soap.

Needless to say, if you suspect your dog has an underlying medical problem or compulsion that may be causing abnormal chewing behavior, make an appointment with your veterinarian to have him checked out.

I have found that many “misbehaved” dogs who seem compelled to consume certain things have some type of underlying medical issue. This became overwhelmingly clear to me when I studied applied zoopharmacognosy with Caroline Ingraham. If your dog consistently exhibits the same annoying chewing or eating behaviors, it’s wise to assume he’s trying to communicate with you, not annoy you.

Destructive Chewing

Destructive chewing often falls into its own category, unrelated to those I just discussed, and in my opinion, it’s the most common form of chewing. It’s most commonly seen in bored, anxious or stressed dogs. One common cause of destructive chewing is separation anxiety in dogs left alone at home. If you arrive home to find a chewed-up crate, 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 naturally grow bored when their humans are away from home all day, and this can lead to destructive chewing. Leaving a dog home alone for 8 or 10 hours is similar in many ways to leaving a toddler alone for that long. Boredom that leads to destructive chewing can also be due to 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 she has learned what she can and can’t chew, it’s up to you to make sure she doesn’t have opportunities to chew off-limits objects.

Step #1 — Redirecting 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 his 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 his own toys and other appropriate things to chew on. Also make sure none of his toys resemble or are, in fact, household items. If you give him an old sock or slipper to play with, don’t be surprised or annoyed when you find him chewing your new Nikes. Dogs don’t know the difference between old and new.

The goal in modifying your dog’s behavior is to give him every opportunity to succeed, and no chance to fail. When he picks up an inappropriate item in his mouth, grab a treat and give him a "drop it" command. As soon as he complies, give him the treat and replace the item with one of his own toys. It’s extremely important that you do this consistently in order to successfully modify your dog’s behavior.

One thing you never want to do is give chase when he has something his mouth, because for many dogs the “Catch me if you can” game is great fun. During times when your dog will be home alone, the kindest and most effective way to prevent destructive chewing is to crate train him.

Step #2 — Lots and 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. As I always say, “A tired dog is a good dog.”

Giving your dog access to your fenced-in backyard, no matter how large and inviting it seems, won’t do the trick. This is because like us, dogs need a reason and incentive to exercise. That means you need to get out there with her and tire her out for at least 20 minutes, preferably twice a day.

If she likes to retrieve balls, you’ve got a built-in way to give her a good workout. For bigger dogs, a toy like the Chuckit! Ball Launcher works well to increase the distance she runs out and back. You can also take her on a power walk, or to the dog park, or on a hike or a bike ride. Change things up regularly so she doesn’t get bored.

I can’t stress this aspect of controlling behavior issues, including chewing, enough. Without exhausting your under-stimulated, mouthy dog on a twice-daily basis, she’ll continue to be under-stimulated and mouthy. A tired dog is a good dog.

Step #3 — Plenty of Mental Stimulation

Keeping your dog’s mind active is also critically important in preventing undesirable behaviors like destructive chewing. Boredom is the breeding ground for undesirable behaviors, including chewing. In addition to daily activities to engage their brain, dogs should be continuously socialized throughout their lives with frequent 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 him. Nose work, which encourages him to use his natural hunting instincts and scenting abilities can be a great way to keep him 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 him to chew. I find the Treat & Train Manners Minder a great tool for this purpose.

It’s also a good idea to rotate your dog's toys regularly. If you leave all of them out in a big basket, he may 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 his toys; rigorous, engaging play sessions several times a day are a great way to vent your dog’s pent up energy and bond with him at the same time.

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