As the lead behavior modification trainer at a Professional Dog training facility, my primary responsibility when a new dog arrives at our kennels is to evaluate the specific needs of the owner as well as the reasons for the behavior exhibited by the dog. One of the primary concerns I hear from owners requesting behavior modification training for their dog, is destructive chewing. Below are some steps that you can take on your own to correct this behavior.
The first thing that I do when beginning behavior modification training with a dog is start with a foundation of Basic Obedience. Basic obedience is the solid foundation for any kind of training because it teaches dogs the very fundamentals of a dog and human relationship. The most important rule in training, as well as a daily relationship with your dog is to be sure that you and your dog understand each other. You want to be sure that your dog knows that you are in control, that you are the alpha of the relationship, that you are trustworthy, fair and dependable. Because we cannot speak to our dogs and have them understand our every word, we have to put things in a language that they can understand, and be sure that they understand it before we expect results. Basic obedience is the foundation for this communication. In basic obedience we teach the very fundamentals, walking at your side on leash, sitting, staying there until told to get up, laying down on a dog bed when asked, etc.
These very simple and basic commands tell your dog that you are in control, that you are going to ask them to do some things and you expect your dog to follow your directions. This foundation also teaches your dog how to follow your directions, how to understand the new language that you are creating. When doing behavior modification training, I always begin with a three to four week basic obedience course. In order to correct destructive chewing I suggest that you begin with this course as well. If your dog already responds well to commands such as sit, lay down, can walk on a leash without pulling you then you have a strong foundation to begin modification training. Although if you find that these simple commands escape your dog, you should begin with Basic obedience before attempting to tackle any kind of behavior modification.
Next, in order to effectively tackle destructive chewing you need to figure out what kind of “Chewer” your dog is. There are three basic reasons that a dog becomes a destructive chewer and each has different strategies behind correcting the behavior. The most common kind of destructive chewer is a dog that chews out of anxiety. An anxious chewer chews on different kinds of items, items that are really important to you, items that are not so important to you, items you had under your bed for years but forgot about, but this kind of chewer does not seek out a particular item, or only items he/ she knows are important to you. An anxious chewer typically chews during obviously stressful situations, during a car ride, when you leave the house, if he’s not getting enough exercise, when visitors come to the house, if he is closed in a room without you. Anxious chewing can be one of the easiest chewing types to correct, although some anxious chewers can take a lot of work, but if you are committed to a long, loving relationship with your pet, it will be well worth it.
The second kind of chewer is the teething chewer. Labrador Retrievers are famous for producing this kind of chewer. Even after official puppy-hood has come and gone, this chewer just keeps on going! This chewer is also not particular about what he chews on, anything that is available to him. You often find that this kind of chewer takes up his favorite hobby when he is bored, when he is not distracted by your interaction, when he is left alone, or even sometimes when you are in the room next to him but not paying attention. This kind of chewer is usually the easiest to break. He finds that he chews simply because the pressure feels good on his gums and teeth, also common among working breeds because these dogs find themselves with nothing to.. well, work on. Cleaning, massaging their teeth and gums while effectively “working” seems like a good way to spend their time. With some simple training tips, this kind of chewer is usually modified within a few days to a week, with the right amount of time and effort put into correcting the behavior.
Finally, the third kind of chewer is the dominant chewer. This dog picks up all kinds of things, but particularly enjoys chewing on things that are valuable, or important to you (your favorite pair of running shoes, your cell phone.. just to name a few). This chewer chews when you are home, when you are watching, when you are away, when you are watching TV, when you are giving him attention, pretty much any time he feels like it. The biggest signal of a dominant chewer is a dog that gets caught chewing and when you attempt to take the item away he growls, hovers over the item, refusing to return it to you; tries to play tug of war with the item, bears his teeth, or tries to take the item back from you once you have removed it. This is your most serious and concerning chewer. This stems from a dog that is dominant over his dog pack, and somehow has begun to see you as a member of his pack, a member that he controls. This is extremely unhealthy behavior. A dog in your home should be a part of your pack, you being the alpha member. It is unsafe and unhealthy for a dog not to recognize you as the alpha. A dog that believes he is the alpha can often times be unpredictable, attempting to fight other dogs, chase animals or children, and generally responds in an unfriendly way when you try to correct this behavior. What many people do not understand, is that dogs do not want to be the alpha. A dog would rather you be the alpha; to interpret the world around you both, make decisions and follow your lead. He would rather not have to think or react or make decisions for that pack, that is a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. Although if he feels that you are not doing your job, being the alpha, he will step into this role for you.
Again, this is very unhealthy and can be dangerous. There are varying degrees of a dominant dog, but many who are allowed to become too dominant can become aggressive towards other animals, and even people. A dog who is allowed to be overly dominant for an extended period of time can reach an age/ state of mind that is considered irreversible by many trainers. Therefore, if you find that your dog fits into this category, the best thing that you can do is seek professional help. A professional dog trainer can start your dog on a basic or even advanced obedience regiment, teaching your dog that he is no longer the alpha of your pack. A professional dog trainer can evaluate your specific dog and give you one-on-one advice, tips and measures to help fix your relationship with your dog. Because of the varying levels and degrees of dominance, one method may work perfectly for one dog owner, and be disastrous for another. Therefore, my advice for owners who feel their dogs fit into this category: seek professional help. Word of mouth is always the best way to find a professional dog trainer, although if you do not know anyone who has used such services, I would recommend a Google search for dog trainers in your area.
The Anxious Chewer
To begin correcting your anxious chewer you will need to start by doing a pretty thorough examination of your dog. Most anxious chewers exhibit other anxious behaviors along with their chewing. Sit down and make a list of behaviors you have noticed when your dog is placed in a situation that seems to make him uncomfortable or overly excited. After you have made your list you will find that there are two kinds of dogs in this category. There are anxiety ridden dogs and there and just chewers. If you find that your dog is exhibiting two or more additional anxiety behaviors, you know that you have some work ahead of you. Some other common anxious behaviors are: mouthing (your dog putting his mouth on you, your arm, leg, etc. Holding your arm, leg in his mouth and putting on pressure with his teeth, enough to make you uncomfortable, but usually not enough to break the skin. If your dog is mouthing and leaving marks or breaking the skin, it’s time to seek professional help.) Jumping, jumping and wrapping front paws around your leg, pushing his body close to yours, hiding behind you, urinating, running away, digging, barking excessively, hurting himself to get to you, etc.
A dog that is just a chewer will generally not exhibit these other behaviors, or if he does he will only exhibit one, and not serious enough to be unhealthy. Again, with a solid foundation of basic obedience, most of these additional issues will probably take care of themselves for the dog that mostly just a chewer. I would equate the “just chewing” anxious dog to a woman who bites her fingernails. It is just her way of coping when she becomes stressed. In order to fix this behavior in a “just chewer” here is what I would do: After basic obedience is established I would begin to crate the dog when I was not able to carefully watch it. I would not recommend locking the dog in a laundry or bathroom as this could create more anxiety issues, I would purchase a crate and use this only. (There is plenty of information on the internet about crate training your dog if this is a concern for you.)
An Acceptable Chew Toy-
During the day, when you are not at home, the dog should always be in a crate. Go to your local pet store and purchase some acceptable chewing items, like an indestructible toy that you can put peanut butter or other treats inside, or a doggy tire toy. Do not purchase stuffed toys, or other toys that your dog would easily destroy. When you leave the dog unattended put him in his crate with his new chew toy with peanut butter, or some other treat inside. When you return let your dog out as normal but make sure the chew toy is in a place that is always accessible to your dog. Make sure that any time your dog is out of his crate you are watching him closely. The moment you see him begin to chew on something other than his toy, you say in a loud, firm tone, “NO!” Pick up whatever the item is and take it away, instantly providing the acceptable chew toy.
Remember that corrections should come instantly, within a fraction of a second of the undesired behavior. Your dog does not make the connection to the behavior and the correction if it does not come fast enough. Never correct your dog in any way if you find that he has been chewing on something but you did not catch him in the act. Remember, the point of basic obedience was to teach your dog that you are reliable, fair and trustworthy. Disciplining your dog for something he did earlier, when he does not understand what the correction is for, only serves to break down this established communication and trust.
Continue this for 5-7 days, each day giving your dog more and more time unsupervised. If you find that while unsupervised your dog chewed something up, decrease his unsupervised time until he gets it right.
This should be all that is needed for a dog who only chews out of anxiety. For a dog that exhibits other anxious behaviors you want to begin this regiment, with some others as well. If your dog is exhibiting other anxious behaviors in addition to destructive chewing you have to be sure that your foundation of basic obedience is very well established. Make a list of when and where these specific behaviors occur and when and where they are the worst. Start with one of the places, or events on your list that your dog exhibits low to medium level anxiety. Take your dog to this location or put him in this situation when you are feeling calm, and prepared. Remember that your dog picks up on you, if you are feeling anxious or tense, he will too. When your dog begins to display the anxious behaviors you have noted use the techniques you have learned in the basic obedience course. While on leash give your dog the sit command. If he does not respond, physically force him to sit, while giving the command until he does so. Force your dog to sit down and remain calm, ending the anxious behavior. When you feel that your dog is beginning to calm down you can begin petting him on his head and telling him in a soothing, calm voice that he is a “good dog.. good.” Try not to say his name as this can get him more excited.
Continue this exercise for about five minutes a session in this low impact location until you feel that your dog has mastered his anxiety. Through this exercise you are teaching your dog to “work it out”. Eventually your dog should be able to cope with his anxiety without your help. Work your way up to the locations and situation that cause him the most anxiety until you find that he is “working it out “on his own. Remember that a dog who is afraid can be more dangerous than an aggressive dog, so be sure not to push your dog too far in these exercises. If you get to a point where you feel overwhelmed, you’re not making progress, your dog is getting worse, or you can’t handle his anxiety, seek professional help. You do not want to risk getting yourself or your dog hurt.
The Teething Chewer
Because the teething chewer is generally still exhibiting his puppy behaviors well past his puppy-hood the fix for his destructive chewing is going to be.. treat him like a puppy! Do not give him much, or for a severe chewer, any time alone. Keep an eye on him at all times. Use the above method “An Acceptable Chew Toy” to begin to train him what toys are acceptable to teethe on, although even once he has learned this lesson, given much time alone he will probably continue to chew. Many dogs who are teething chewers will grow out of this stage. Some teething chewers on the other hand will not, particularly working breeds. If your dog is a working breed his desire and drive to work drive him to chew. To fix this I would recommend a chew toy that requires work, like one that you can hide food on the inside of. Make sure that your dog is getting plenty of exercise, and time outside, with and without you.
If he wants to work, let him work! Get him a carrying vest for your walks, make it his job to carry your water, for retrieving breeds get him his own ball and make sure you take him to a special place to throw daily. Obedience can once again be a quick cure! When your dog is learning he is using his brain and muscles 10 times more than when he is just running. A 10 minute walk around the block applying what you have learned in obedience can be the equivalent of running 20 laps around a 5 acre field. It can be that stimulating and exhausting. Also, if you have a working breed or a particularly smart dog, make sure that you always have some kind of curriculum for him. Make sure that there is always something available for him to learn, a new trick you are ready to teach him, a new place to throw his ball, etc. Keeping a teething chewer busy and active can be the difference between an unhappy dog causing lots of damage, and a happy, well balanced dog, working hard for his master.
Good luck! I hope that these suggestions will help your chewer. Remember, if you get to a point when you are unsure of yourself, or your own training abilities, your dog can sense that, and is less likely to do as you ask. If you get to a point that you are uncomfortable, afraid or feel ineffective, do not hesitate to back off and call a professional.
Allison B. Sutton
Canine Behavior and Training Specialist
For more information about Basic, Advanced Obedience and Behavior Modification Training, please visit our website and click on the Services/ Training page.