Ranking high in the top ten of unwanted canine behavior is destructive chewing on things that matter to their owners. That’s right; humans define what is not appropriate to chew on. The dog however, views the world through his own canine lenses and has not the slightest clue why you are so upset – just because he turned soccer cleats into sandals!
Identifying why your dog is engaging in destructive chewing is key to figuring out how to stop it. Let’s examine the most common underlying reasons for this behavior.
First, however, we must recognize that dogs enjoy chewing. It is normal behavior as they lack human hands to examine things they find, and their instinct of gnawing every nutritious morsel off a carcass once aided in their survival. Dogs generally learn quickly what is okay to chew on and what is not, provided that they are given appropriate direction by their pack leader (YOU!) and their needs for exercise, social engagement, and mental stimulus are met. Taking notice of when your dog starts chewing any of your items is important to understand what is causing it and to prevent future destructive behavior.
Chewing is a normal explorative behavior for puppies as they grow and try to learn and understand the world around them. A puppy’s deciduous teeth will erupt between age 3-8 weeks. These teeth, in turn, will be permanently replaced at around age 4-6 months. Teething is a painful process because it irritates your puppy’s gums. Chewing relieves some of the discomfort. For this reason, most puppies will seek objects to chew on during the first 6-7 months of their lives. The chosen objects are those that are (1) easily accessible and (2) have a texture appealing to the puppy (regardless of what human value you have assigned to them).
For obvious reasons, shoes, leather furniture and table legs rank high on the puppy’s list; likewise your hands and feet. Similar to children, things tend to derail over time if you don’t remain in control. Not surprisingly, establishing and maintaining your status as pack leader is an absolute must for successfully raising and/or having a dog. Only then will you be in a position of guiding and shaping your dog’s behavior, including chewing.
Puppy proofing your environment is the next step, paying particular attention to dangers such as household cleaners, other chemicals, toxic plants, power cords, and items of opportunity such as shoes, socks, and toys. Restricting access to certain rooms and crate training will greatly aid your efforts. Make sure you spend enough time with your puppy, because they get bored easily. Now that you set the stage, pay attention to what the puppy does and calmly and immediately redirect chewing on undesirable objects (your furniture) towards something that is equally or more interesting to your puppy (rubber toy, antler pieces). Gradually, your puppy will learn what objects are his and which are not.
For teething puppies, we place a wet, rolled-up washcloth in the freezer and give that as a chew object. It provides pain relief, water and an object appropriate for chewing at the same time. Remember that your dog is instinctively looking for direction from the pack leader, unless of course the dog has become the pack leader (then you are in more trouble than you can imagine!).
The above is a perfectly normal process of dog development and with your knowledge and understanding this will typically result in an adult dog without major chewing issues. But what if the chewing has persisted into adulthood? Like many engrained behavioral patterns, this will take more time and effort to correct and ultimately extinguish the problem behavior. Here you may want to seek help from a seasoned professional. Before you do that, let’s explore the possibility of another underlying issue where chewing is only the tip of the iceberg.
Dogs that have excess energy to burn will do so, one way or another, including chewing your favorite pair of shoes. Remember that a tired dog makes for a happy owner. The amount of sufficient physical exercise depends on the breed of dog, but must be provided as a baseline. Only then can you provide additional mental challenges to further engage your dog and meet its emotional needs.
Likewise, if destructive chewing occurs secondary to separation anxiety you must address the underlying issues first, by leaving your dog home in a rested state with a ‘no eye contact, no touch, no talk’ policy in place.
If a chewing problem started suddenly, consider medical issues. Nutritional deficiencies and GI tract parasites can lead to eating non-food objects (also known as pica) which in turn may be mistaken for a chewing problem. Nausea caused by various gastrointestinal tract disorders may cause chewing as a coping mechanism, in order to induce vomiting.
Older dogs may start acting differently all of a sudden, such as chewing your shoes when this never had been a problem before. It is quite possible that an old dog doesn’t know what it is really doing. Removing the item rather than scolding is often the best cause of action.
Now comes the best and often confusing part: You have learned, understood, and implemented all of the above and are setting out to find appropriate objects that are not harmful, and that your dog will like to chew on. Resist the urge to simply give him an old shoe – dogs see the world in black and white, or more appropriately, a shoe is shoe. Likewise, there is no gold standard, and you will have to experiment a little to discover your dog’s preference. Often, dogs find the least expected object the most intriguing and stay with that for a long time. What you offer your dog will also depend on breed and size. Be careful with rawhide and other objects where pieces can break off that are small enough to be swallowed and large enough to cause intestinal blockage or perforation. The same applies to balls and Kong toys where the size of the toy needs to be sufficient to prevent swallowing. Beyond that, the internet is full of commercial items that may or may not be appropriate and/or harmful. Passionate online discussion forums tend to muddy the waters further rather than clarifying what you are interested in. We tend to keep things simple and gravitate towards proven quality that is often surprisingly inexpensive.