How to Prevent Puppy Chewing Problems

Anybody who has ever raised a dog from a puppy knows that one of the challenging stages of puppyhood is the destructive chewing stage. Many people will ask me how to get their puppy to stop chewing because furniture, socks and remotes are getting destroyed. My response is always the same...it's not about stopping the chewing but about managing the chewing. I find that when I explain that a puppy has a biological need to chew that the person's focus quickly shifts from how-to-stop-the-chewing to how-to-manage-the-chewing.

Puppies Need to Chew!

  • Teething: Between approximately 4 months to 7 months of age, puppies start to break in their new adult teeth. Just like with babies, there is a certain discomfort associated with these new teeth coming in. This is the stage when puppy chewing is in full force. (Seems weird, I know. If the teeth hurt, why chew?)
  • Soothing: Most people can't understand why a puppy would chew when his teeth hurt. Here is the reason. There are feel-good chemicals that are released from the brain when a puppy chews. These feel-good chemicals actually help to mellow out the pain. The act of chewing stimulates these chemicals which helps relieve the discomfort of teething.
  • Exercise and Entertainment: Dogs of all ages enjoy it and they just plain need to do it. It keeps them physically and mentally occupied. Dogs can't read a book, watch tv or surf the net so think of a chew toy for a dog in the same way you enjoy playing scrabble on your smartphone.

Now that we understand why chewing is a critical part of a puppy's development, what can we do to save the house and our sanity?

Manage   -   Manage  -   Manage

Since we are in charge, it is our job to manage the situation so our puppy is set up to succeed. All a dog cares about is what interests him, what smells good, what tastes good, what smells like his humans (remote control, cell phone, socks, etc.), so it is our job to set him up so he can't make a mistake that would upset us. Puppies learn by repetition which creates patterns which creates behavior. It is our job to make sure those unwanted chewing habits are nipped in the bud and that bad patterns aren't created through uninterrupted repetition. Just like with humans, it is much easier to never smoke at all than to start smoking and then try and quit.

While at home...

  • It is important that we keep our puppy in our sight at all times. This may mean putting up baby gates, tethering him to a banister or doorknob using a leash, using ex-pens to block off areas or create little puppy-safe areas where we can keep an eye on him. This way we can see what he is up to at all times. (If using a tether, it is critical that we never leave him unsupervised so that his leash never becomes a hazard.)
  • We should be sure he has plenty of appropriate things to chew on and that he has a variety of toys/kongs/appropriate-chew-items that he enjoys chewing on. I always recommend having 6-8 toys for him but to swap them out regularly. For instance,  give him  2 or 3 toys for the week and then swap those out with some of his other toys the next week. This toy rotation will give our pup a sense of newness which will help keep him interested. 
  • We need to play games with our dog using the toys. This will help him get a nice association with the toy while getting our smell on the toy (which he'll like) and is overall just fun.
  • Playing games like Fetch and gentle games of Tug-of-War will get our puppy in the habit of not only bringing items he has in his mouth back to us (Fetch) but also letting go of items he has in his mouth when we tell him to (Tug-of-War). This way, if he does get a hold of something he shouldn't, we don't have to panic. We just go into "we're playing a game of Fetch mode" and have him bring it to us and drop it when we ask him to so we can swap it out for an approved toy. At this early stage our puppy doesn't know good from bad so we want to keep things positive while developing a taste for chew toys. And we need to keep this in mind; Fetch means our puppy brings the item back to us not us chasing our puppy. The chase-me-game is oh so fun for a puppy and is a no-no in dog training across the board.
  • Always remember that if we ever catch our dog starting to chew on something he shouldn't (leg of the table, our socks, etc.) to interrupt him immediately with a stern "uh-uh" and then redirect him to one of his toys and make that toy fun and exciting. When he redirects, praise him well. This will help to condition him to really enjoy making the right choice. If we are consistent with this redirecting exercise, our dogs will never get the taste for chewing shoes or electrical cords.

 

When not at home...

  • We need to put our dog in a place that has been puppy proofed where he can't get into trouble. This could be a laundry room, an ex-pen, a crate, the garage, backyard, etc. Note: The garage and backyard will need to be completely puppy proofed as there are potential hazards everywhere (toxic plants, electrical cords, pools, etc.)
  • It's important that we make sure our dog has plenty of things to chew on that also occupy him mentally and for a long time. This could be giving him a kong stuffed with peanut butter or a raw (uncooked) meaty bone which will keep him busy for hours and clean his teeth. (We are starting to get into what is known as the BARF diet <bones and raw food> which goes back to a more primitive way for dogs to eat so please do some research on your own before proceeding with raw meaty bones.) 
  • Use indestructible toys when unsupervised. Soft squeaky toys are fun but should be for interaction or under supervision. Dogs may rip the stuffing or squeaker out of these toys making them a hazard.
  • There are many new interactive toys on the market where the dog has to figure out how to get the treat out of the toy. These kinds of mind game toys can also keep dogs occupied for hours.
  •  I repeat...we need to control the environment and remove anything that he shouldn't chew on AND provide him the right things for him to chew on.

 

Setups: Practicing for the Real World

Now that we have managed the environment so there's no opportunity for our dog to make a mistake and he's gotten a taste for chew toys he likes and we haven't given him the chance to get a taste for what is off limits, we have to start preparing him for the real world which is full of things dogs will find interesting such as Legos, slippers and toilet paper rolls.

Here is where we are going to introduce a controlled setup where we will give our dog a chance to make choices while we supervise.

We'll start by setting out 2 or 3 of his toys in the enclosed, puppy-safe area. This could be a gated off living room or a hallway with all the doors closed so our puppy can't just grab the item and take off.  We will then introduce a temptation amongst the toys like a slipper or the remote control. We are going to give him the chance to choose. When he chooses an approved toy, we need to praise him and play with him with the toy. If he starts to go after the shoe, we interrupt the behavior with an "uh-uh" and redirect him to his toy. If our puppy responds to the verbal correction well, we can advance this exercise even further by starting to leave the area, giving him a chance to correctly choose without us watching. If we do this exercise even when he thinks we aren't watching (hide around the corner or watch from upstairs) he's less likely to associate being able to chew on the temptations with us being gone. If we are peeking at him from upstair and he starts to go after the shoe that we planted, we simply say, "uh-uh" and then follow up with "good boy," once he chooses his toy. (He might even start to wonder if we have eyes in the back of our heads.) If we do this exercise consistently, we'll eventually have a dog that doesn't grab our socks or chew up the sofa cushions whether we are in the room or not.

 

What if "Uh-Uh" Isn't Enough? Should We Punish a Puppy for Chewing?

So what if "uh-uh" or "no" isn't enough? Well, that is a fair and reasonable question which brings us to the topic of punishment. Punishment in the world of dog training is a controversial hot button but the reality is that it has its time and place and needs to be rationed out fairly and correctly.

We can do our best to minimize the need for punishment (outlined above) but there will inevitably be times when our pup simply needs to learn what "no" means and this requires a consequence. The world is full of consequences. If we don't do our job well, we can get fired. If we are caught breaking the law, we can count on being punished for it. When it comes to punishing or correcting our puppies, we should not be looking to scare them or harm them but to dissuade them from making that same poor choice in the future. In my opinion, the reason the topic of punishment is such a hot bed of controversy is because punishment can often be done improperly. Believe me, I totally get it. So, it is really important to be sure that we are being fair and effective when giving a correction of any kind.

Here are a couple of very important points to note regarding corrections: 

  1. Never correct a dog in anger. If we find ourselves aggravated, we need to take a deep breath and remind ourselves that he isn't trying to be annoying and we are just training a dog. Having this attitude will help to keep the correction fair and effective. 
  2. Never punish or correct  the dog after-the-fact because the chance of our dog associating the correction with his bad behavior is too slim. I've had a lot of people argue with me on this and say, "no, no... my dog knows when I hold up a chewed shoe and scold him what he is being scolded for," and my response it that he is probably just cuing off stern tones, serious body language and energy rather than realizing that he's being scolded for the chewing he did an hour ago. I've even demonstrated this point by picking up a totally benign object and holding it in front of the dog while mimicking the upset human's voice and posture. It would appear that I got the same "guilty" reaction from the dog that the owner holding the chewed shoe got.  So was he acting "guilty"? I'd venture to say if this dog had a thought bubble over his head, it would likely read, "oh crap, this human's in a bad mood."
  3. Make sure the punishment fits the crime. There is an art to learning how to properly correct a puppy or a dog. Just as in life, corrections need to be effective and fair and the punishment should fit the crime. It wouldn't do any good to give a re-offending petty thief warning after warning after warning for continuously robbing the same liquor store and it wouldn't be fair to send a person to the electric chair for a speeding ticket. Corrections need to be firm enough to stop the behavior but fair; again, the punishment should fit the crime. I've seen corrections done improperly that weren't stern enough and the bad behavior was never corrected and continued to get worse over time.  I've also seen people over-correct the dog which can make the dog fearful, afraid of making a mistake, or worse, afraid of his owner. There is an art to learning how to properly correct a dog. When in doubt...call in a professional.

The correct way to give corrections varies from dog to dog and situation to situation. For some dogs, a squirt of water on the nose is enough to stop him in his tracks while for another dog a squirt of water on the nose would be a fun game. The key is going to be finding the kind of correction that effectively stops our dog from doing whatever it is he's doing as well as the firmness in which we deliver the correction. A large, aggressive dog who is terrorizing the family cat will require a very different correction than a puppy who is mildly chewing on the corner of a throw rug. Finding that sweet spot that moves our adult dog or puppy off the activity he is doing so we can redirect him to something more appropriate can be tricky, so, if unsure, call in for some professional backup. 

So, staying on track with our chewing puppy problems, let's go back to our advanced setup where our puppy is in his enclosed puppy-safe area and we are giving him the chance to choose by throwing in some temptations among his toys. He has his 2-3 approved toys available to him and we've added a shoe and remote control just like we did earlier. Now let's imagine our puppy goes after the shoe. We give a stern, "uh-uh" but he isn't phased in the least. We can then try clapping our hands or stomping our foot near him while saying, "uh-uh" or "no". If that works, then great. You have effectively given a negative association to the word, "no" through sound aversion. (As you can see, punishment doesn't have to be physical.) But, if these verbal queues and startling noises do nothing, have no fear, this is actually quite common and that's because these words and sounds don't necessarily have value yet. By following these words and sounds up with a consequence, we will start to give these words some horsepower. Puppies will start to learn that "no" is bad because they don't care for the consequence that follows it. Our puppy will start to put two and two together when we say, "no" and follow up with any of the following actions:

  • A two finger poke to the side: A poke to the side of the neck or the side of the body
  • A squirt of water: A direct stream (not a mist) aimed right at the nose
  • A firm scruff grab: A firm grab of the loose skin around their neck  (which is something his canine mother would do)
  • A leash correction: Allow the dog to drag his leash around the puppy-safe area to be able to pop his leash for a correction

Remember that any correction should be followed up by redirecting him to the behavior we do want.

If these mild corrections don't do the trick, I advise pulling in a professional for help. In a perfect world we'll get some professional help from the beginning because mastering physical corrections is an advanced skill and has the greatest chance of negative fall-out if done improperly.

I will repeat here, if we properly manage the situation, we decrease the need to have to give our dog a correction in the first place.  Let's also remember that we are only talking about puppies chewing inappropriate items in controlled setup situations so the need for corrections will be rare. We will use the mildest correction we can to interrupt the improper behavior and then redirect him back to the proper toy. If we find ourselves constantly correcting our dog who thinks his name is "Fido-No" then we need to go back to the beginning of the article and start from square one as he likely has too much freedom and has not acquired a taste for proper chew toys.

Exercise: A Tired Puppy is a Good Puppy

Exercise helps to drain energy which, if left unchecked, can manifest in a variety of different behavior problems including chewing. We need to know our puppy's exercise requirements and meet them. Regular exercise as well as implementing the management steps outlined  above consistently will help us get through the puppy teething phase with as little stress as possible turning our puppy into an Allstar.

 

Chad Culp–Certified Dog Trainer, Behavior Consultant, Certified Holistic Chef for Animals

Copyright 2012 Chad Culp, Thriving Canine. All rights reserved. Chad@ThrivingCanine.com