All dogs, and young dogs in particular, like to take objects in their mouth and chew them. Most puppy owners can relate to this painful, frustrating, and often costly experience of chewed up new shoes, carpets and sometimes even a whole new sofa.
Before we start working on the dog’s behavior, let’s try to understand “why” is the dog chewing on everything?
Dogs use their mouth the way humans (and specially kids) use their hands. When a young dog (or any dog for that matter) is looking at an object he is asking himself “will that fit in my mouth or not?” Dogs use their olfactory sense as well as their teeth and mouth to explore and learn about the environment that surrounds them. They may chew up on furniture because they can’t understand the difference between a wooden chair and a stick (they do not share with us the “what is it used for” perspective on objects). They may chew your socks or shirt because they have your scent on it. They may walk around with a tennis shoe in their mouth because they learned that it is a great way to get you off the couch to chase them around the house. Without any feedback from the environment, your dog cannot know whether what he just put into his mouth is a rewarding object like a bone, or a correcting object like a hot pepper.
The timing of the feedback is crucial for the dog’s understanding. In both cases of chewing a bone or hot pepper the feedback comes straight from the object the dog bites. This means that the dog gets all the information he needs in order to decide whether to keep on biting the object or not right away. If the feedback is delayed (you yell at your dog when you enter the room to find a chewed up couch) the dog will not have the information he needs in order to learn. When discussing the timing of the feedback, we need to separate feedback that is coming from the owner and feedback that is coming from the object:
Feedback that is coming from the object:
This is a very powerful tool in shaping your dog’s behavior. You can compare it a child touching a hot stove. The feedback was immediate, strong and will be consistent in case he tries it again. The child learns to stay away from the object as it poses a threat by itself. When we want a dog to learn the same lesson about socks, shoes, shirts etc…we need to make sure that:
- The feedback is always associated with the object.
- The feedback is such that the dog will stay away from the object.
As for the feedback itself, we can choose one of many options. Keep in mind that it needs to be strong enough to teach the dog not to touch your sock next time, but not too strong as to make the dog not to go into that room again. As most dogs dislike the sounds of clattering metal we can use a chain link or a soda can full of pennies and throw it on the ground right next to the dog as soon as he picks up a sock. For the timing to be right you will need to plan ahead. Have the objects you want to teach the dogs to avoid on the floor or within the dog’s reach, and have your noisemaker ready. You should follow the dog around to see what he is doing.
Another way to create a situation in which the “object corrects the dog” is by using a spray that tastes bad to dogs. Pet stores sell a number of these sprays like “bitter apple”. Most dogs will stay away from them while there are dogs that actually like the taste. The problem is that some dogs will still get back to chewing when you stop using the spray.
Feedback that is coming from the owner:
In this training method the owner is giving the puppy the information about the different objects and whether they are the right things to chew on or not. For this, you will place 5 – 6 objects that are not for the dog to chew on the floor. In the same group you will place an object that the puppy can chew on (a toy, a bone…).
Bring the dog into the room with his leash on and let him explore the objects. Stand right next to him with the leash in your hand and let him choose. If the puppy chooses the wrong object say a clear and loud “NO”. Praise him if he drops it or correct him with the leash if he does not. If the puppy chooses the right object praise him and pet him. If he wants to bring it to you for you to tug or throw – go ahead and play with him.
In this method we are “loading” the objects with information. Our dogs are tuned to our reactions more than we think they do. With patience and consistency this training method can be very effective.
Here are some additional tips to consider when you are training your dog not to chew:
Managing the environment
Dogs learn 24 hours a day 7 days a week. They learn from your reactions, they learn from the environment that surrounds them and they learn from other dogs and people as well. Puppies are faster learners than adult dogs. In our effort to teach our dogs to know the difference between objects in their environment we cannot give them the chance to acquire any unwanted information. All this can be summarized in three rules:
- Keep objects your dog is not allowed to touch out of his reach until he learns.
- Keep your dog crated when he is not supervised.
- Keep objects that he is allowed to chew and touch within his immediate reach at all times.
Most dogs are very excited around new objects. If you keep all the dogs toys around at all times your dog is going to get bored with them. Instead of going to the pet store every other day, you can put some toys away for a week and then get them back into circulation. Your dog will be excited every time a toy reappears and this will prevent him from going around the house “shopping” for new and exciting things to chew.
Chewing as a way to get attention
Some dogs will learn that the only way to get the owner off the couch is to have a tennis shoe in their mouth and start the chase game. Do not give up to that. Make sure your dog gets the playtime with you that he needs and deserves, and make sure not to leave shoes around. Have your dog supervised at all times when he is out of the crate In addition make sure he has a leash on so you can tell him immediately what you think about this behavior. The leash will enable you to control your dog without having to chase him.