Destructiveness and chewing

Having a young puppy in the house brings much pleasure but puppies also bring with them many undesirable behaviours. Early training is important to ensure that your puppy grows up understanding the rules in your house and fits in with your lifestyle. All dogs chew at some point in their life and this is only recognised as problem behaviour when chewing affects objects you would rather weren’t chewed!

Dogs, especially puppies, are extremely playful and curious. While play with people and other dogs is an important part of socialisation and social development, exploration and object play are important ways for dogs to learn about their environment.

It is normal for puppies to investigate their environment by sniffing, tasting and perhaps chewing on objects in the home. Dogs that chew may also be scavenging for food (as in garbage raiding), playing (as in the dog that chews a book or couch), 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).

Chewing and destructive behaviour may also be a response to anxiety. Dogs that are confined in areas where they are insecure may dig and chew in an attempt to escape. Dogs that are in a state of conflict, arousal or anxiety, such as separation anxiety, may turn to chewing and other forms of destructiveness as an outlet. (See our “Separation anxiety” factsheet for this specific problem.)

In order to control a chewing problem it is necessary to understand why the dog is chewing. If the dog is a puppy or young adult dog that is chewing at a variety of objects in the household, it is likely that play and investigation (and perhaps teething) is the motive. This behavior may decrease in time, provided the chewing is directed to proper outlets.

It is essential not to inadvertently reward chewing behaviour. Some dogs chew because their owner gives them attention or treats when they chew household objects. Inattention or disruption devices may be useful for these dogs. Dogs that are garbage raiding or food stealing need to be treated by supervision, prevention and booby traps, since the behaviour itself is self-rewarding.

Dogs that are destructive to escape confinement must learn to become comfortable and secure with the cage or room where they are to be confined. Alternatively a new confinement area may have to be chosen. Dogs that are destructive as an outlet for anxiety, will need to have the cause of the anxiety diagnosed, and the problem appropriately treated. (See our “Separation anxiety” factsheet.)

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, odours, 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 the natural prey and wood products that attract most dogs. Coating toys with liver or cheese spread or peanut butter may also increase their desirability.

Numerous other play toys are also available that provide a means for stuffing food or treats inside, so that the dog has to “work” to get its reward. Hollow chew toys, can be filled with food e.g. a piece of cheese or liver and then filled tight with biscuits. 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 supervised at all times. Whenever supervision is not possible, you must prevent access to any object or area that might be chewed.

The needs of most working dogs are usually satisfied with daily work sessions (retrieving, herding, sledding, etc.). Non-working house-pets will require alternative forms of activity to meet their requirements for work and play.

Games such as tug-of-war, retrieving, catching a ball or Frisbee, jogging, or even long walks are often an acceptable alternative to work, allowing the dog an opportunity to expend unused energy, and provide regular attention periods.

Obedience training, agility classes and simply teaching your dog a few tricks are not only pleasant interactive activities for you and your dog, but they also provide some stimulation and “work” to the dog’s daily schedule.

Access to all areas that the dog might chew must be prevented unless the owner is present to supervise, or the area is effectively booby-trapped. Your dog can only be punished for chewing if it is caught in the act. Even then, punishment must be humane, immediate and effective.

A shake can, verbal reprimand, or alarm (audible or ultrasonic) can deter the pet in your presence, but the behaviour will to continue in your absence. Remote punishment (where the owner is out of sight while administering punishment) may teach the dog that the behaviour itself is inappropriate. A head halter and long remote leash pulled each time the dog chews, a water rifle, or one of the audible or ultrasonic alarms, may be effective. Arriving home and punishing a pet for an act that is already completed will only serve to increase the pet’s anxiety.

The only way that chewing might be deterred when your dog cannot be supervised, is to booby-trap the areas where the dog might chew. To be successful the punishment must be unpleasant enough to immediately deter the pet. Taste or odour aversion is often the simplest and most practical type of booby trap. A small amount of cayenne pepper mixed with water, oil of citronella or commercial anti-chew sprays may also be successful as deterrents. Alternatively, the spray could be placed on any object that the dog might chew and a fishing line can be attached from the object to a stack of empty cans on a nearby table or counter. At the instant chewing begins the stack will come crashing down.

Most dogs are then conditioned after a few events to avoid the particular taste or odour for fear of another “can attack”. If an indoor kennel or crate has been used from the very beginning destruction by chewing should not arise.

In most cases behavioural problems can be easily resolved if they are recognised and treated early. Once the behaviour is established bad habits are much harder to break. Your own veterinary surgeon will be able to offer useful advice on dealing with behavioural issues but for more challenging cases they may wish to refer you to see a specialist in animal behaviour.