Thursday, March 6, 2008

Why does my dog chew? Because he has teeth!

Chewing in dogs is a common problem that causes many people to give their dogs to shelters and shy away from the wonderful experience of owning a pet. That’s the bad news. The good news is that most of the time it’s the owners fault and with a bit of education, the owners can be fixed. One of the best ways to avoid the puppy chewing phase is to adopt an adult for the shelter. But sometimes even they chew, so let’s get to the causes….

The first thing we always do here is to find the cause of the problem that was we can fix the actual problem and not just treat the symptoms. Young dogs will chew as play behavior. Dogs that chew the garbage might be food seeking. Food seeking could be play behavior (who doesn’t like a good carrot?), normal food acquiring, or hunger from an incomplete or calorie restricted diet. Chewing on windows or doors may be due to separation anxiety or attempts to make contact with something outside, such as another dog for breeding or fighting, the mailperson, or passing cars. Random objects may be chewed for attention. Lack of exercise or mental stimulation can lead to chewing problems as well. (Don’t laugh; I’ve met families where the Border Collie was WAY smarter than the children….) And lastly, some dogs will have true compulsive disease which may require medication. So the first thing to do is figure out why the dog is chewing. Take some time to assess the situation. It may help to talk it out with your veterinarian or a licensed technician with a behavioral focus to help you identify the underlying cause of your dogs chewing. I know this sounds like a lot of work to just hear, “Give the dog a chew toy”, but if this blog gets one point across it’s this: You can’t fix the problem until you know what it is!

So now you ask, “How do I fix this?” Well, the solution depends on the problem. I can tell you one thing that will never work: punishment. Hitting, scolding, or yelling after the fact will only make the dog afraid of you and unwilling to respond to your attempts to modify the underlying behavior. Dogs ruled by intimidation will act one of two ways: fight or flight. How is you getting bit going to help anything?

While your situation will require a specific solution there are some things that will help in most cases. First, if you don’t want your dog to chew your new shoes, put them in the closet. He can’t chew what he can’t get at. (I know, people actually pay me for this type of advice!) And more importantly, teach the dog which chew toys are acceptable. Your dog doesn’t know the difference between your $10 slippers and your $400 “get to know me” pumps. They just know they both smell like feet and taste good. If you see the dog chewing on something inappropriate change the object out with something appropriate and praise the dog when they take the new toy. You should also make sure toys are always available for play. Provide the dog more exercise. Just like your kids, dog do much less damage after a day at the park playing soccer. Get the dog spayed or neutered. They are less likely to want to get out to breed if they don’t have that equipment. Feed the correct amount of an appropriate diet and put the garbage in a place the dog can’t get it. Also, you should see my earlier post on crate training. Lastly, if all the easy stuff fails, you should have your dog checked out by your veterinarian. Although rare, true compulsive disorder does occur in the dogs and may take some specific training methods combined with medication.

Chewing in Dogs by Debra Horwitz, Clinician’s Brief November 2007 (5:11, 15-16)

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