Why Dogs Chew and How to Stop It
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
Lots of dogs chew on things they shouldn't and it can be very frustrating for their owners. Nobody likes to come home to their couch chewed up and stuffing all over the house. Not to mention that this bad habit can get expensive very quickly. In this post, I will go over the reasons why your dog may be chewing and how to stop it.
As puppies grow, they chew for two reasons. One, they are teething, and two, they are exploring and learning about their world. It is completely normal for puppies to go through a chewing phase, and very difficult to prevent completely. But there are a few things to do to help prevent most of it. For teething, make sure that they have a variety of different things to chew on to sooth their sore mouth. Some good examples are chew toys with nubs to massage the gums or a frozen stuffed toy like a Kong. Puppies will also put their mouth on things as a way to explore their world. But you don't want this to develop into bad habits as they grow. First, puppy proof a space for them to stay while they are unsupervised. This can be a crate, or a gated off room. This is not a punishment, think of it like a play-pen. Make sure they have toys and a comfy place to nap. Second, as soon as your puppy comes home, you should start enforcing what they can and cannot chew on. Every time your puppy picks something up they shouldn't, tell them no or leave it, and remove the object. Make sure you don't turn this into a game of tug as they may take that as a sign that it is a toy to be played with. Some common advice is to distract the puppy with a treat or another toy to play with, however I have found that with many puppies, they take that as a reward for doing the right thing. Instead, try placing the object where they can't reach it, if they try to get to it, tell them no or leave it again and as soon as they give-up trying to reach it, reward and praise them. Move the object and repeat. Once they consistently ignore it, move it to where it is within their reach but something is blocking them, like in your hand or behind a gate. Do the same thing as before. Then move it into the open and repeat. You have just shown your puppy that it is something to be ignored and not chewed on. As you go through a variety of different objects, your puppy should catch on quicker and quicker each time. And before you know it, as soon as you tell your puppy no or leave it, they will leave the object alone.
Chewing Out of Boredom
One of the most common reasons for excessive chewing is boredom. If dogs don't get enough physical and mental exercise, they will release their pent up energy in anyway they can. How do you know if this is the cause of your dogs chewing? Simple, for two weeks, give your dog more daily exercise and mental stimulation than usual. For physical exercise, take them for a walk, hike, jog, go on a puppy play date, play a round of fetch or tug, or book the services of a dog walker or daycare. For mental stimulation, give them a puzzle toy, teach a new trick, play a scent game, or take them to a new place to explore. If your dog stops chewing during this time, you now know that your dog is under-stimulated and you need to develop habits to make sure that your dog is getting the physical and mental stimulation they need on a regular basis.
Not Understanding What They Should Chew On
The first thing to understand is chewing is a natural behavior for all dogs. All dogs chew to some extent. Some may be content to chew on a bone or stick occasionally, while others want to chew all day, every day. It's important to get to know your dog and provide them with their favorite things to chew. If you don't provide any outlet to chew on, then they will chew on things you don't want them to. Some things that dogs like to chew on are bones and edible chews, sticks and pine cones, rubber chew toys and stuffed toys that they can tear apart. Once you know what your dog likes to chew on, it's time to show them what is and isn't OK. To teach them what not to chew on, read the section on puppy chewing and follow the same steps. For dogs that may be confused as to what is OK to chew on, you are going to need to encourage them. For example, for a dog that likes to chew on pillows and couches, get a stuffed toy and play with it with your dog. You can start a game of tug or fetch in order to show them that this is something they can play with and chew. You can also put a swipe of peanut butter in order to encourage your dog to start chewing on a rubber chew toy. Once you have shown your dog what is OK to chew on, never discipline them for chewing or playing with that toy as it may lead to confusion. Do not allow your dogs to chew on things that closely resemble things they shouldn't as this can confuse them as well. For example, don't give your dog an old shoe that you were going to throw away as they will not be able to tell the difference between the shoes you want and the shoes you don't.
Stress or Anxiety Chewing
Some dogs chew as a way to sooth themselves when they are stressed or anxious. This may be the reason why your dog is chewing if it is paired with excessive whining, barking or drooling or when exposed to a stressful situation. A couple of examples are a dog chewing on the shoes under the bed during a thunderstorm, or a dog chewing on the baseboards when left alone in the house. This situation is more difficult as it requires two parts and may require the assistance of a professional. You have to address the root cause of the dogs anxiety as well as show them other, less destructive, ways to sooth themselves. So for the thunderstorm example, you will want to desensitize them to the thunderstorm itself, which you can read about in my post on Keeping Your Dog Calm During Fireworks. Also, you will want to show them ways to sooth that aren't chewing on shoes. So maybe you show them that when the thunderstorm starts, you can take them to their bed, crate or other safe space for them and provide them with something high value, like a stuffed toy or bone. As your dog develops the habit of where to retreat to when they are stressed, you can start mixing in lower-value treats, like a single treat or toys that they always have access to.
Chewing as a Habit
Most chewing starts out because of one of the previous reasons, but if left unaddressed for a long time, it can develop into a habit. For example, an adult dog who was not getting enough exercise that has now been addressed. The dog may not chew nearly as often, but still does because that is the way that they have behaved for a couple of years. This is not a quick fix, and requires lots of patience. First you will need to make sure that your dog does not have access to the things they typically chew on, this may be anything from keeping the closet door shut, to confining your dog when left alone. This is to prevent the habit from continuing. Every time they chew, it sets the process backwards. Anytime your dog attempts to chew on anything they are not allowed to, tell them no or leave it and follow the steps laid out under puppy chewing. If you find the evidence of chewing, but do not catch your dog in the act, simply pick it up without saying anything or scolding. Unless the dog is currently in the act, they will not make the association between the action and the consequence and will just be confused. You must also override the habit by showing them how you want them to behave. For this, take note of every time your dog chews. What did they chew on, what was the situation, what did they do before, where was the object, etc. What you are looking for is a pattern so that you can override the habit. You may have to set up a camera, or video chat your computer from your phone, if it only happens when you are gone. For example, maybe your dog chews up the mail when it comes through the slot, but won't when it is just laying on the floor or table. So you could have someone put pieces of paper through the mail slot, while you practice a down-stay or play a game. What you are doing is showing how you want your dog to behave in that situation. Be patient, you will have to do many repetitions before the habit has been over-ridden.
In some cases, dogs may develop Pica as a response to a physical illness or mental illness. Pica is the chewing and eating of non-food items. If you suspect this is the case, take your dog to your vet to get tests done to identify what is going on and how to address it. If the chewing started suddenly and you can not identify a change that may cause it, take your dog to the vet to rule out physical issues before addressing the it behaviorally.
All training takes time, repetition, consistency and patience and fixing a chewing problem is no different. It can be overwhelming to get started, but the sooner you start addressing it, the sooner you can bring the behavior under control. And catching it before it becomes a habit, will save you headaches for years to come. If you are having trouble stopping your dogs chewing on your own, you made need the help of a professional. Contact me for a free consultation to discus your dogs chewing and set up a training plan to stop it.