Chewing... An Adolescent Superpower!
Chewing is a natural dog behavior. Some dogs like to chew more than others. Developing proper chewing habits beginning in puppyhood will not only save your pocketbook but also keep your dog safe.
Chewing is energy. Dogs will chew to release excess energy, relieve stress, or temper boredom. Plus, it just feels good! In fact, chewing is something that dogs will do throughout their entire lives. So, to create good chewing habits and prevent destructive chewing later, there are a few rules to follow.
Contributing Factors to Destructive Chewing
Key components that have to happen: management, supervision, calmness and appropriate outlets, and training. If certain parts are missed, your dog can have holes in learning. Things can fall apart early, and some common factors contribute to bad chewing habits:
- Too Much Freedom - when puppies are given the privilege of freedom too soon and allowed to roam the house or room without proper training and habits developed yet, chewing inappropriate items will happen. It only takes a couple seconds for a puppy to find something to chew on that you don’t want. If changes aren’t made, your puppy continues to rehearse inappropriate chewing and gets really good at it.
- Separation Not Addressed - destructive chewing happens during adolescence because specific skills were not developed. Some aspects of training may not have been accomplished when the puppy was younger and continued for the appropriate amount of time. Learning how to handle being alone is a critical skill your dog must learn. Puppies cry because they don’t know how to do things on their own. Older puppies and dogs who have not developed the skills needed often times develop separation-related behaviors, and that can lead to destructive chewing. That typically happens when you are away and your adolescent dog does not have the proper skills to handle being alone. The older the puppy, the quicker things can get destroyed. Puppy teeth are needle-sharp, but they can’t cut through things as quickly or effectively as adult teeth can.
- Lack of Appropriate Outlets - every dog has energy and needs appropriate outlets for it. If a dog does not have the opportunities to appropriately satiate these needs, the dog will find its own way to do it. That means chewing on whatever feels good to chew on. Exercise is not just physical, which just builds endurance. The brain also needs to be satisfied to be calmed.
- Inability to Turn Off - trainers will refer to an”off-switch.” This means that a dog can default into a calm state, saving any energy until it is an appropriate time to use it again. Dogs, especially high-energy breeds, which are exercised until they crash, not only build stamina and will need even more exercise, but they also don’t learn how to turn off. When they then can’t go until they crash, they resort to destructive behaviors like chewing.
Management and Prevention
It’s a common sight - you come home and there is stuffing all over the room and a very cute but guilty face looking up at you. Pillows, cushions, or dogs beds are often the object of our dog’s attention while we are gone. They become giant carnival prize toys!
Management controls the environment to prevent inappropriate behavior from happening - you limit choices to only a couple that are all appropriate so no mistakes are made. Owning a puppy means controlling and managing the environment. Puppy play yards (or ex-pens), crates, and baby gates are all good tools to use to control your puppy's access. Using these tools limits your puppy's choices and allows you to set up space to make all chewing choices appropriate. Have your puppy rehearse proper chewing habits, not inappropriate ones. Additionally, crates and ex-pen teach calmness, the top skill your dog needs in order to handle things while you are gone.
Adolescent dogs that engage in destructive chewing should not have freedom when you are gone. That is why crate training is so beneficial when you first bring your puppy home. Your dog is already familiar and comfortable with the crate, so you won’t need to train and transition your dog to it. Another alternative is a dog-proof room. But, if your dog is chewing molding or door frames, you might have more than just bad chewing habits to deal with. This could be a sign of separation issues that you will need to address.
Before you leave, assess if your dog’s need have been met, especially for young dogs (puppies should always be in management when you leave). Allow time to provide enough exercise, time to calm down, and time to potty before you leave your dog. For dog’s on the border of being able to behave while you are gone, the question of “Have my dog’s needs been met?” will be crucial. If the answer is yes, then your dog may not need to be crated. If you have had a busy week or if activity has been less than what you normally do, or if your dog has a history of being destructive, then crating your dog would be a wise decision. Calmness is not a mastered skill in a young dog yet.
Just like when we get ready to bring a new baby home, you need to set your house up for the arrival of a new puppy. When puppies come home, they are already in that "mobile baby stage" and can, and will, if allowed, get into everything. Tuck or block all access to cords for lights, electronics, etc. Dogs can hear the "buzz" of the alternating current and can be attracted to the cords. Curtains, cords to blinds, table cloths, towels, etc., can be mistaken for "tug toys," and it is good to put them away or tuck them up and out of reach. Trash cans should be stored inside cabinets or have lids to prevent the exploration of the wonderful smells that come from them. Laundry should be kept in baskets and out of reach of puppies. They love the smell of dirty socks and undergarments! Small objects that can easily be swallowed should be put away and stored in drawers, closed cabinets, or bins with lids.
Puppy proofing also applies to outside areas! Block off places that could be dangerous (pools, gardens, etc.) Do not allow access to areas that have small rocks, tanbark, plants, and other objects that are easily chewed and consumed. Some plants are highly toxic to dogs, so know what is planted in your yard!
Supervision is actively watching your puppy so that when a wrong choice is made, you can immediately intervene and teach the correct choice. This is also prevention - redirecting your puppy away from something to prevent any interaction and self-rewarding.
Puppies do not know what is "right and wrong." You have to teach it. Puppies default to dog behaviors and most of our efforts are to train all of that out of them. A harsh reality - that we train our dogs not to be dogs in many ways. The big ones with little puppies are potty training and appropriate chewing habits.
Supervision is active, not passive! It's not just being in the same room or space. You need to be actively watching and not take your eyes off your puppy. Puppies should never be out (of an ex-pen or crate) unsupervised. Just like little babies, puppies will pick up all sorts of things, especially anything new and novel. They will chew on things and eat something. So you have to be right there to redirect when an inappropriate choice is made. This is for both inside and outside.
This also needs to happen for quite a while through your puppy's stages of development to ensure good habits form. This includes adolescence; when behaviors change, new ones will be experimented with, and old ones can resurface. For chewing, management and supervision are the keys to teaching good habits.
Always supervise your puppy when he is playing and chewing on his toys. If pieces break off or if toys get worn down, remove them and replace them. Be careful with stuffed toys - stuffed toys are not chew toys. Many puppies love to "gut" them - tear them open... and pull out the stuffing and the squeaker. Once a stuffed toy has a hole, get rid of it! Until you know your puppy or dog's chewing habits, don't leave him alone with chew toys, edible and non-edible. Also, be aware that a puppy's chewing habits will change with age - more intense when teething or bored, less intense after they grow into adulthood and settle (around 2 years of age, but this also varies with breed and the individual). The one toy I can confidently say is safe for puppies and dogs to play with unsupervised is a Kong. They come in various sizes and toughness to match your dog's chewing habits. Plus, you can put yummy treats inside to entice your puppy to lick, roll and play with the toy and get rewarded for it. Perfect!
Chew Deterrents - Do they work or not?
Grannick's Bitter Apple® spray or gel, Veterinarian's Best® Bitter Cherry Spray, Yuk-2e Anti-Lick Gel, Bitter YUCK!™ No Chew Spray, Chew Guard® Spray are all chewing deterrents that can be helpful to make inappropriate items undesirable to chew, but they don't always work. Some dogs find them unappealing enough to stop chewing. Other dogs could care less or find them intriguing enough to instigate chewing. So, don't solely rely on chew deterrents. Chew deterrents should not be your only way of keeping your puppy from chewing items you don't want her to chew. If using a chew deterrent, follow the directions on the bottle - you will need to reapply often.
You need to understand why your dog is chewing. Chewing is not just about energy or curiosity. Some dogs chew due to separation issues, under-stimulation, or overstimulation. You need to find the cause for the chewing before you purchase items such as deterrents.
Building Skills Through Training
Teaching appropriate chewing habits is another part of the equation. Invest in a variety of dog toys and rotate them every couple of days to keep them feeling new. Play with your puppy with these toys to build their value. A dead toy is a boring toy. A variety of textures and types will be helpful to address your puppy's mood and how you use these toys for training.
Teach cues so that you can have control over certain behaviors. Begin with "Drop," but make sure that you create good associations around this behavior so that it remains reliable. You want your dog to think that letting go of items is a good thing because something better comes along. Later, when your puppy is starting to be able to handle a bit of impulse control, add "Leave It" also. Don't use that cue with toys, though; keep fun and drive with toys and use the leave it cue for things that are inappropriate. With toys, I use a wait cue and then Premack my dogs to get the toy.
Capturing is the most powerful way for a dog to learn. When your dog makes a good choice, you capture that moment in time and reward your dog. By doing this, you shape your dog's brain and make your choices the best choices ever. They then become default and good habits. You want your dog to make the right choices, so you need to be there to influence these choices. Play games that teach impulse control and teach your dog how to manage his own behavior, like my Room Service game. Controlling impulses has to come from the individual. You won't always be there to cue your dog to make a good choice! Self-control and good choices are essential to good chewing habits. Value in appropriate behaviors and appropriate chewing choices is key!
Separation "Should Be No Big Deal"
The sooner you work on this with your puppy, the easier it will be down the road. Puppies don't like doing things on their own, so naturally, your puppy will cry when he doesn't have access to you. Working through separation elements will help your puppy build the necessary skills and concepts to handle being alone and self-soothe or sleep until you return. Your dog should eat, drink, be calm and sleep while you are away. Management tools like crates and ex-pens are your first steps with separation. They deny access, but you can be right there to reinforce and help your puppy through this critical concept. From there, you will work through distance and then use obstacles to block the line of sight and leave the room altogether. There should always be one space where the dog is not allowed to follow you. When you leave and return home, your comings and goings should be a non-event. That means that it is calm and no big deal. As much as we can love seeing the excitement in our dogs when we return home, this excitement can very quickly build anticipation. Anticipation turns excitement into anxiety-related emotions and through a dog off-balance and into a precarious and unhealthy emotional state. Separation-related behavior can be severe and very destructive, not just to your home but also to your dog.
Energy is the leading drive for chewing, which is why chewing is at its worst during adolescence. This is the time when the hormones are churning and the energy peaks. But all dogs must have appropriate outlets for the energy they have each day. The correct amount of physical exercise and mental stimulation is the formula for success. Part of that means that you should provide enrichment and appropriate outlets for your dog's desire to chew. That can be toys, treats, and food dispensing toys.
Some toys are meant for play. Others are meant to chew. Know the difference and teach the difference. Toys that are appropriate to chew on can be left out and available throughout the day. There are a number of chew toys on the market and have "chew style" ratings, so pick what is age-appropriate and works for your dog.
Along with chew toys, there are a number of treat toys (or activity toys) that dispense food as your dog rolls it around. These are great for time in the crate or ex-pen. The toys offer different puzzles to solve are great for self-entertaining and a calmer activity. Remember that puppies don't automatically know how to manipulate the toys to get the treats out. So you might have to start with easy toys or assist and encourage your puppy to play with these toys to help your puppy be successful and learn that the toy will reward your pup for messing with it.
There are numerous types of sticks for dogs to chew on, such as tripe sticks, bully sticks, bones, and more. Make sure to choose what is appropriate for your dog. I also recommend Kongs. You can stuff these toys with a variety of foods and work your way up the levels of difficulty, so your pup learns tolerance of frustration. Stuff the Kongs so there is a challenge, but the challenge is attainable.
- For beginners: everything needs to be small and loose and easily fall out.
- Larger pieces create more of a challenge.
- Adding water to get things a little wet and sticky creates a bigger challenge.
- Using yogurt, pumpkin puree or peanut butter to “cap” the top of the Kong. This can also be made ahead of time and put into the freezer.
- Layering soft wet foods (like pumpkin or pureed squash) with dry foods (kibble or broken biscuits) is a more advanced challenge.
Other enrouchment items include sniffle mats and licky mats. Set aside time for your dog to have a go at a good and satifying chew/lick session.
Balancing Act: Activity and Calmness - The Off-Switch
This is a critical factor in training. A calm dog is a good dog and always makes appropriate choices. So you need to make sure that growing calmness is part of your training with your dog right from the start. Teaching your dog a good off-switch means that your dog can go down into calmness quickly and save any excess energy until you say it is time to go again.
Calmness is a behavior, and it needs to be rewarded in order to be valued. You value it, so make sure your dog does too! This does not mean you exercise your dog to exhaustion. That is not calmness or an off-switch. You just build stamina when you do that. Calmness training is helping your dog default into a clam state whenever you are not engaging in an activity with your dog. Boundary training is one of the most supportive ways to build calmness in your puppy or dog. It puts structure on the behavior so your dog has a clear guide. Additionally, you can easily build a lot of value for calmness so your dog loves it just as much as doing any other activity. "High-energy” dogs especially need structure and calmness training!
Physical and Mental Stimulation
Puppies and dogs chew for many different reasons. They chew to explore the world around them. They chew when teething and because it is fun. They chew because they have energy. They chew because they are bored. They chew because they enjoy it. It is your job as the owner to provide plenty of stimulation, exercise, and appropriate items to satiate this need and instill good chewing habits in your dog. You need to teach your puppy what is appropriate to chew and what is not. This involves diligent redirection and positive reinforcement
Physical Exercise - All dogs need to walk, run and play to burn off energy. Daily exercise is a must for every dog. What and how much exercise is designated by each individual dog. As a puppy grows, exercise needs will change. Puppies nap a lot at first, but the naps will become less frequent as they grow older. The highest levels of energy tend to be in the morning and late afternoon. These are great times to go walk out and about or play games in the backyard. The amount of chewing a dog will need to do directly ties to how much exercise she gets. Remember - dogs chew to burn off excess energy.
Games with Structure - The best way to exercise your dog is to play structured games with you. Your dog puts his energy towards the team instead of self-indulging behaviors where your dog does not need you. Training games provide physical exercise and mental stimulation and teach concepts and behaviors that you want!
Mental Stimulation - Dogs also need activities that provide stimulation: cognitive thinking and problem-solving. Games and activity toys are great for providing mental stimulation. So is training, socialization, and sports for dogs. You can begin training your puppy the moment she comes home. Start simple with cues like "Sit." Remember that training not only includes obedience but also teaching and rewarding situational behavior. Set expectations and obedience for particular events of the day to maintain control and make your dog earn her rewards, from going on walks, feeding, answering the door, etc. Provide socialization experiences for your puppy every day.
Keepin’ It Real
With proper use of management, games, exercise, calmness, and training (for the proper amount of time needed for your individual dog), your pup will develop good choices and decisions to instill good chewing habits. There is no time frame because some dogs are just more oral than others or have more energy or better natural impulse control. The time frame depends on your dog's personality, how good you are at implementing strategies and sticking to them, and the time you invest in teaching your dog what is appropriate and not.