Written by Caz Irving Veterinary assistant
Dogs, especially puppies, are extremely playful and love to explore. While play with people and other dogs is an important part of socialisation and social development, exploring and object play are important ways for dogs to learn about their environment. It is a normal behaviour for puppies to investigate their environment by sniffing, tasting and perhaps chewing on objects throughout the home.
There are various reasons why dogs chew, for example some may be scavenging for food (as in raiding dustbins), others playing (as in the dog that chews on objects that releases feathers or foam such as cushions or sofas), teething (dogs 3 to 6 months of age that chew on household objects), or satisfying a natural urge to chew and gnaw (which may serve to help keep teeth and gums healthy). Some dogs may chew because they receive attention (even if it is negative) or treats from the owners each time they chew, and the owners are inadvertently rewarding the behaviour. Chewing and destructive behaviours may also be a symptom of anxiety. Dogs that are confined in areas where they are insecure or frightened may dig and chew in an attempt to escape. Dogs that are in a state of conflict, high arousal or anxiety may also turn to chewing and other forms of destructiveness as an outlet for their emotional responses.
Arriving home and punishing a pet for chewing that has occurred in your absence will only serve to increase your pet’s anxiety and cause more problems with its behaviour.
How can chewing be treated?
First, it is important to determine the cause and motivation for chewing. If the dog is a puppy or young adult that is chewing at a variety of objects in the household, it is likely that play and investigation (and perhaps teething) is the motive. Dogs that raid bins and steal food off counters are obviously motivated by the presence and smell of food. Some dogs are attempting to escape confinement while in others chewing may be an outlet for anxiety. Directing the chewing into appealing alternatives, providing sufficient play and exercise, and preventing inappropriate chewing are all techniques used in dealing with this problem. In addition you must ensure that you are not inadvertently rewarding the behaviour by interacting with your dog when he is chewing. If the dog is still a puppy the chewing behaviour may decrease in time, provided you direct it into proper outlets. In the case of dogs that are raiding bins or food stealing the behaviour itself is self-rewarding and booby trapping the bin or food with an unpleasant stimulus, such as taste or sound, may be necessary. Close supervision and prevention of access are obviously also needed. Dogs that are destructive in an attempt to escape confinement must learn to become comfortable and secure with the place where they are to be confined. Dogs that are destructive as an outlet for anxiety, will need to have the cause of the anxiety diagnosed, and the problem appropriately treated.
Encourage correct chewing.
Before considering how inappropriate chewing might be discouraged the real key is to provide some appropriate outlets for your dog’s chewing “needs.” Begin with a few toys with a variety of tastes, smells, and textures to determine what appeals most to your pet. Although plastic, nylon or rubber toys may be the most durable, products that can be torn apart such as rawhide or pigs ears may be more like natural prey. Coating toys with liver or cheese spread may also increase their desirability as may soaking the toy in meat juices. Durable chew toys with hollow centres are ideal as their appeal can be greatly enhanced by placing a piece of cheese or liver inside and then filling them tight with biscuits. This encourages the dog to "work" to get its reward. You can also place soup or meat juices into these toys and freeze them.
To ensure that your puppy is encouraged and rewarded for chewing on its toys, and discouraged from chewing on all other objects, it must be well supervised. Whenever supervision is not possible, you must prevent access to any object or area that might be chewed.
Increase play and exercise.
The needs of most working dogs are usually satisfied with daily work sessions (retrieving, herding, sledding, etc.), while non-working house-pets will require alternative forms of activity to meet their requirements for work and play. Games, such as retrieving and catching a ball or Frisbee, and exercise, in the form of long walks or jogging, are often acceptable alternatives to work, allowing the dog an opportunity to expend energy and benefit from the attention of their owner. Obedience training, agility classes and simply teaching your dog a few tricks provide some stimulation and "work" to the dog's daily schedule.
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