Adult (and Adolescent) Chewing

So you have a dog who is a destructive chewer. You are not alone! Here's a typical scenario of a dog called Scooter:

The final straw was two toothbrushes and the bathroom vanity. Scooter's owners were on the verge of giving Scooter away. They love the dog, but not his destruction of home and possessions.

Scooter is a 10 month-old Labrador retriever mix. His owners, the Smiths, both work so Scooter is alone all day. Despite having lots of toys, he destroyed a sofa, carpet, and several books and magazines. Confined in the bedroom, Scooter tore up a bedspread and ate a pair of shoes. Left in the bathroom, he ate the toothbrushes, chewed the cabinets and destroyed the door jam. Scooter's chewing has cost several thousand dollars, but more importantly, his destruction has created damaging tension between the Smiths.

The Smiths have tried yelling, angrily bringing him over and showing him the day's destruction, ignoring him, giving him a time-out in the crate and even, reluctantly and guiltily, hitting him with their hands, with a rolled newspaper, and with the chewed object. They've tried praising him effusively when, on rare occasions, he hadn't chewed anything. Nothing worked. He wasn't getting better, and in fact, his chewing escalated.

They're right. Such punishment strategies not only don't get the point across to stop chewing, they do make it worse. We're not fans of punishment, but even if we were, the way the Smiths were using it wouldn't work, no matter what. To be effective, any punishment must be directly connected to a behavior. Directly connected means immediate. Scolding for a behavior that occurred two hours, or even two minutes ago is not immediate. Punishment after the fact does not eliminate the behavior, but it does affect the dog. It builds stress, anxiety and tension - which the dog then expresses . . . through chewing!

But why did Scooter start chewing in the first place? Scooter was only doing what comes naturally. Adolescent chewing is predictable and is related to teething (see Puppy Chewing for more on this). Adult teeth erupt at around five or six months. Once these permanent teeth are in, most dog owners mistakenly believe teething is over. Au contraire - the worst chewing is yet to come.

The serious teething period begins around seven months and can last until 10 months or older. At this age, the adult teeth are permanently setting in the jaw and the adolescent dog not only wants to chew, he must chew. It is a physiological necessity. If you isolate a dog in an empty room, he'll chew walls or chew himself. Not because he is bad, vindictive or spiteful, but because he is teething. He will chew.

A dog will chew whatever he has access to - which is his own toys, and anything else. A dog doesn't know the difference when no one is there to tell him what is his and what is off limits. No one was there to stop Scooter from chewing the sofa or the cabinets for hours on end. Chewing felt good. Getting his teeth into the cabinet was very satisfying.

So preventing a chewing problem in an adolescent is much the same as with a puppy - supervision when you can and safe confinement - that is, in a crate - when supervision isn't possible.

Since punishment after the fact cannot eradicate the pleasure a dog gets from chewing, how do you eliminate destructive chewing?



Eliminating Destructive Chewing

Here are some guidelines to prevent or eliminate destructive chewing.

  • Management. This includes managing both the dog and the environment. Dog-proof your home, putting out of reach anything you don't want your dog to chew: books and magazines, trash, shoes, socks, children's toys and the like. Managing the dog means supervising her whenever she's not confined in her crate. When you aren't able to watch your dog, confine her in her crate with one chew toy such as a peanut butter-filled sterilized bone. It's important to use a crate rather than confining your dog in a room. Even an empty room has "chewables" like window moldings, floors, and even the walls.
  • Exercise and attention - both physical and mental. Pent up energy needs an outlet, and without a healthy outlet, the dog creates one - by chewing. It's not healthy to run your dog to exhaustion, but rather provide calm exercise such as taking a walk together several times a week. Other healthy outlets are to spend time brushing her, practicing tricks and other behaviors that she knows, tracking and training. Mental exercise is just as important as physical, and can be part of your normal interactions with your dog. For more on this, see Earn Life.
  • Training. The benefits of positive training are immeasurable. Training engages the dog's mind, builds a relationship, gives the dog an outlet for her mental energies, and results in a dog that is a pleasure to live with. Training is how you teach your dog right from wrong - this is yours to chew; this is mine, don't touch it.
  • Your toys, my toys. Give the dog no more than two toys at a time. Too many choices mean she can't differentiate between what is hers and what isn't. Make sure the chew toys are pleasurable to chew - and safe. Unsafe toys include hoofs, pigs' ears, and rawhide. Nylabones and sterilized bones are generally safe. For more on this see Puppy Chewing (Good Chew Toys)).
  • Diet. A high quality diet is important to your dog's overall health - mental and physical. Improper nutrition and chemical preservatives can cause hyperactive behavior - which often includes destructive chewing. Click here for more information on Diet
Following these guidelines will get your adolescent dog through the adolescent teething period without her developing an expensive, destructive habit. These guidelines are also the key to eliminating a chewing problem you may already have.

If this approach doesn't work for you or you're having problems with your dog's chewing, talk with a professional trainer - preferably a clicker trainer or positive trainer in your area, or click here for information on our in-person, email and telephone consultations.