As humans, we often see chewing as a problem that needs to be fixed, or as something that dogs do to get back at us for something. And it's understandable: inappropriate chewing can be frustrating and expensive to us.
But all dogs use their mouths to explore and entertain themselves, and they don't think of chewing as sending us a message. The solution lies in teaching them what's acceptable and providing them with plenty of outlets for this behavior, along with enough exercise and time with you to prevent boredom and frustration.
Meanwhile, it's up to us to keep them from making mistakes--especially mistakes that involve the things we value most, like our furniture!
Manage the Situation
Until your dog knows what to chew and what not to chew, you have to make it impossible for them to make mistakes.
- Remember that your dog can't learn what you want when you're not there to teach them, so make sure that your dog doesn't have access to things you don't want chewed when you're not there. Set your dog up with plenty of appropriate things to chew and safe interactive toys while you're gone.
- Be consistent in what you allow your dog to chew. Old socks aren't much different from new socks to your dog, so don't confuse the issue by offering them any socks at all!
- Make sure the things you love that your dog might find appealing are safe: put your shoes, clothing, remote controls, kids' toys, and so on where your dog can't get to them.
- Tire your dog out before you leave them alone. If your dog's needs for exercise and mental stimulation aren't being met, destructive behavior, including chewing, is likely to be the result.
- When you can't be there to supervise, confine your dog to a dog-proof area with fresh water and "safe" toys (see "Crate Training" and "Dog Toys and How to Use Them").
- Teach Your Dog What to Chew
- While dogs have preferences about what they like to chew, you can help them learn what you want by making safe, appropriate chew toys appealing.
- Provide plenty of safe alternatives for your dog: hollow sterilized bones and strong rubber toys, such as Kongs, can be stuffed with food to make them enticing.
- You can feed your dog some or all of their meals in interactive toys like Kongs, Buster Cubes, or Busy Buddy toys.
- Praise your dog and give them lots of happy attention when they chew on the things you want them to.
- When your dog puts their mouth on something inappropriate, interrupt them immediately with a startling sound ("Agh!" or "Hey!") and offer them an approved toy. Praise them happily when they take it.
It will take time for your dog to learn the house rules, so keep your expectations realistic. If your management isn't perfect and your dog makes a mistake, just take it as a lesson learned and move on.
Other Reasons for Destructive Behavior
Dogs can become destructive for reasons beyond normal curiosity and activity levels. If your dog is healthy and is getting plenty of exercise for their age and breed type as well as enough attention, companionship, and mental stimulation, here are some reasons to consider:
- Separation anxiety: If your dog's destructive behavior occurs primarily or only when your dog is left alone and is accompanied by other signs of possible separation anxiety (vocalizing and urinating or defecating when left alone, following you from room to room), see the handout "Separation Anxiety" and/or the booklet I'll Be Home Soon: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety by Patricia McConnell, PhD (available online or at the Sacramento SPCA retail store).
- Fears/phobias: Destructive behavior can be triggered by something that your dog is afraid of, such as thunderstorms or loud noises. See "Helping Your Dog Overcome the Fear of Thunder and Other Loud Noises."
- Attention-seeking behavior: It's easy to fall into the habit of paying more attention to our dogs when they do things we don't like than when they do the things we like. And while we may think that saying "No!" and chasing them around to pull things out of their mouths isn't the kind of attention anyone would want…that's not true for most dogs. If your dog has learned that picking things up gets them attention, the best way to get them to stop is to ignore them when they do it -- along with making sure they get your attention when they act the way you like.
What Doesn't Work
Your dog can learn only what you're there to teach in the moment. Punishing your dog for destruction that happened while you were gone, or even a minute ago while you weren't looking, won't help your dog learn what you want. Dogs need feedback for their behavior while they're engaged in that behavior – or within three seconds of the behavior -- in order to learn what you do or don't want them to do.
Punishment after the fact is likely to make a chewing or destructive-behavior problem worse, and will probably add other problems as well by increasing your dog's anxiety.