Having a dog that chews on inappropriate things in the house can be frustrating because there doesn’t seem to be a limit on what the dog wants to chew. Anything and everything goes!
Much like other behaviors that we consider problematic, chewing is a natural behavior for dogs, and especially young puppies. It is our job as dog owners to direct the chewing to appropriate items, instead of our couch or cables. The good news is that you can “stop a dog from chewing everything.” Yes, even your own fingers.
It is important to remember when treating this behavior problem that chewing is something that dogs do naturally. They are not chewing on your couch to spite you or because they are angry.
Dogs are very intelligent, inquisitive and curious about their surroundings. Puppies and dogs that have never lived in a house environment are going to want to explore. Since they don’t have hands, dogs will often use their mouth to gather information. Think about 1- or 2-year-old children, and how they want to touch everything. Puppies are a lot like babies and children in this way.
Dogs also chew on items because they are bored, teething, have an inadequate/inappropriate diet, or because they genuinely enjoy tearing things up.
As with other behavior problems, by implementing a four-part treatment plan, you can treat the problem. When treating inappropriate chewing, we want to redirect the chewing onto appropriate items because eliminating chewing altogether is unrealistic.
1. Reinforcement of Alternate Behaviors
Since all dogs chew, it’s up to you to help the dog decipher between a forbidden item and an appropriate chew toy. Most dogs don’t inherently understand the concept of a chew toy, so you need to help the dog fixate on an appropriate chew item.
To help your dog make the right decision on what to chew, choose four or five toys that you see as acceptable. I don’t suggest choosing toys that resemble forbidden items. For example, Nylabones and KONGs don’t look like common household items, but plush squeaker toys look like stuffed animals and rawhide resembles the leather in shoes and gloves.
You can help your dog fixate on these items by making the approved items more enticing and the forbidden items less desirable. Soak a Nylabone in beef broth for 20 minutes before offering it, or put peanut butter in a KONG. Also, you can make the approved toy the focal point of many interactions with the dog. The dog needs to learn that the chew toy is a good and positive object. Use a combination of praise, petting and play to help the dog make the correct decision.
If you see the dog chewing an inappropriate item, don’t chase him, because this quickly becomes a game. Put the dog on a leash if he often runs away when you take an object from him, and step on the leash as soon as he tries to get up.
2. Management and Setting the Dog Up for Success
To manage inappropriate chewing, consider the dog’s environment. Just as you would “child-proof” a house, you need to dog-proof his environment.
If the dog is proven untrustworthy in this manner, don’t leave your shoes, slippers or even underwear around the house or where he can easily get to them. If you are leaving the house for a longer period of time, you probably shouldn’t leave him with free range of his environment. Block off a dog-proofed section of the house, create a puppy playpen or crate the dog while you are gone.
To set the dog up for success, make the inappropriate items less desirable by spraying a chew deterrent on them. I have had the most luck with Bitter Apple Spray when it’s reapplied once every 24 hours. If the dog is fed solely a soft-food diet, he may not being getting enough chewing activity during meal times and will go elsewhere to find it.
Usually, managing the dog’s environment and fixating on appropriate chew items are enough to deter the dog from chewing forbidden things.
For particularly severe cases, I suggest adding a consequence. When you see the dog chewing a forbidden item, run away very quickly and make a silly noise. This will disrupt the behavior enough to get the dog to stop chewing and to follow you. When he reaches you, offer an approved chew item and praise him for making the correct decision.
Also, set up a situation where the dog does not see you and throw a shaker can (aluminum can with pennies in it), squirt water or use a shriek alarm to interrupt the behavior. Make sure, though, that the dog does not see you when you are applying a punishment, because you want the dog to connect the punishment to the chewing and not you.
I have heard that a dog that is involved in a “good chew” is comparable to us being involved in a good book. Since this is an enjoyable behavior and is natural for the dog to partake in, staying consistent with the treatment plan is most important if you are looking for a consistent behavioral change.
If a dog is destructively chewing your home — “chewing everything” — then putting in time, effort and consistency with your practices can develop a change in behavior fairly quickly.