Dogs have an affinity for chewing things. Chewing is a part of who they are and is a species-appropriate behavior, says Dana Ebbecke, an animal behavior counselor at the ASPCA. Come home to a torn sofa or chomped up pair of shoes, however, and that natural behavior ceases to be endearing. It instead becomes a source of agitation for both human and canine members of your household.
The term “destructive chewing” is applied to dogs who destroy items we value, says Ebbecke. Dogs don’t know the difference between a five-dollar toy and that pricy woodworking you just had installed. “They aren’t born with an understanding of human rules,” she says.
So how do you get the dog you love with all your heart to stop destroying your stuff? It depends on what’s behind the chewing, says Dr. Liz Stelow, of the University of California-Davis, Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.
“If the dog is anxious, the underlying anxiety must be addressed, because the chewing is just a symptom,” she says. “A dog that’s hungry will need to have her constant hunger addressed. The bored dog needs more to do with her time. If she’s a puppy, she may be teething.”
Why Do Dogs Chew?
Chewing is a normal activity for dogs, but sometimes it’s tied to a more serious condition. On rare occasions, a medical issue is to blame, says Dr. Zenithson Ng, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. Some of these conditions include dental issues, oral masses, neurologic disease, or a disease resulting in extreme hunger, he says.
Some dogs with stomach or intestinal problems can also be driven to lick or chew items, says Stelow.
“Some are very hungry—often due to medications—and will chew, and even consume items that may taste like food. Some are soothed by chewing or sucking on soft items,” Stelow says.
A compulsive behavior called pica, in which a dog eats inedible objects like dirt, clay and soap, may also be to blame, says Ebbecke.
But mostly, destructive chewing is tied to behavioral issues like fear, stress and separation anxiety, says Ng. Some dogs become panicked when the owners leave, so they attempt to “break out” of the house, says Stelow, which is why you may have come home to find your window frames, doors and child-proof gates destroyed.
Boredom from lack of exercise or mental stimulation may also play a part, as can changes in the dog’s routine, says Robin Bennett, a certified professional dog trainer in Stafford, Virginia.
Once your vet has ruled out health and behavioral issues, there are things you can try to help curb your best friend’s appetite for your valuables:
Modify the Behavior
Correcting your dog’s behavior is the first step in preventing destructive chewing, says Ebbecke.
“If your dog chews on objects you prefer she did not, it is your responsibility to keep those things away from the dog and provide more appropriate alternatives, such as dog toys or chews,” she says.
Teaching your dog behavioral cues can be helpful. “When your dog picks up a pair of socks, ask her to ‘drop it’ or ‘leave it,’ offer a treat, and trade the sock for an appropriate dog toy,” she says.
Positive behavior training needs to be done consistently, says Ng, as it’s unlikely that any type of modification will work the first time and will need to be practiced regularly.
Because you can’t always be at home to supervise your dog or observe her chewing habits (and most dog chewing often happens when the caregiver is not around), crate training can also be beneficial, Bennett says.
Keep Her Mind Active
Does your dog have enough to keep herself occupied? Mental exercise can help to tire a dog just as much as physical exercise can, says Bennett.
“Using (healthful) treat-filled toys, which the dog has to roll around to get the food, playing ‘find the hidden treats’ in the yard or house or any of the puzzle games made for dogs can help,” Bennett says.
Variety is also important, says Ebbecke, who recommends providing your dog with enough appropriate chew toys and rotating them regularly to keep them fun and interesting.
Ng also suggests leaving the radio or television on for your dog while you’re away. Television may help break the monotony (like it does for us) and help with separation anxiety.
Exercise provides a number of benefits for your dog, from helping with weight loss to promoting relaxation and aiding in digestion. And it can also help deter unwanted chewing, says Bennett, but you have to do more than just let your dog loose in the backyard and expect results.
“At least two times a day for 20 minutes a day, someone should physically interact with the dog,” Bennett says. “Although some dogs get outside time in the yard, if no one is playing with them, they will often find their own activities which might include chewing something we consider valuable.”
You don’t have to limit the exercise to just walking, either. Make it as fun as possible and head to a lake or park that allows dogs to swim, play catch with a baseball, or even dance with your dog.
A dog who chews (and yes, destroys) things is being true to her species. If the item she chews on happens to be something you love, discuss the behavior with your vet or behaviorist to rule out other issues. Then take positive steps to modify the unwanted behavior. Remember, “It’s up to us to show them what behaviors we want from them,” says Ebbecke.
Paula Fitzsimmons is a freelance writer and researcher specializing in companion animal health and nutrition, and science. She’s written for clients like Prevention magazine, PetMD.com, PawCulture.com, Parrots magazine, and University of Texas-Arlington. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and feathered family members, including parrots Whit and Sweetpea.