How to Deal with a Chewing, Destructive Dog

As most of us know, your dog can wreak havoc with its teeth. Whether the culprit is a young puppy exploring her environment, an energetic juvenile displacing pent up energy, or an adult dog acting out the distress of thunderstorm phobia or separation anxiety, a canine with a penchant for chewing can transform your valuable piano to splinters in a matter of hours.

Because the reasons for chewing are so diverse, it should be considered a sign or symptom of some underlying motivation rather than a diagnosis, per se. Before attempting to change your dog’s chewing behavior, it’s first important to understand just why she’s laying into your stuff.

Curiosity Propelled Chewing

Puppies and juvenile dogs learn about their environment by mouthing and gnawing on objects. Typically the targets are random, and may include shoes, books or bedposts. Investigational or “play-related” destructiveness of this kind is a normal behavior for a growing dog. Puppies seem to escalate such chewing behavior around teething time. Whether chewing more at this time facilitates dental eruption or simply reflects a response to irritation or discomfort is unclear.

The most expedient solution to play-related destructiveness is a dog crate. Ideally, your puppy should be acclimated to a crate from the first day in her new home. Also helpful for house-training, a crate limits your pup’s access to valuable items while allowing her to rest and chew at her leisure on appropriate items provided by you.

When your puppy must be left alone for long hours, a crate’s too confining and among other things, may force your pup to stand or lie in her own urine or feces. Instead, when you have to leave your pup for a few hours, it is better to restrict your pup to a larger area, such as a kitchen, by means of a baby gate.

Contrary to popular belief, your dog won’t necessarily stop chewing when she’s grown to adult size. In fact, some of the most profoundly destructive chewers are young adults—not puppies. Sporting breeds (such as the Labrador retriever) are well known for this type of behavior. With room for individual differences, consider strategic restriction or crating for your dog at times when you can’t supervise her until she’s two years old.

Even then, introduce freedom only slowly and just for short periods. Well-designed “food-for-work” toys, which can be filled with biscuits or kibble, can keep your dog busy for hours.

Anxiety-related Chewing

Playful chewing is dog-years apart from the anxiety-based chewing of thunder-phobic dogs or dogs severely upset when “abandoned” by their owners each morning. In frenzied efforts to escape the house or find her owner, a dog of this persuasion will dig and chew at doorways, windowsills and curtains. She may also search for shoes, pillows, purses and other personal items to chew on. Unlike play-related chewing — which can happen whether or not you’re home — anxiety-related destructiveness is most likely to happen when your dog is alone.

Because such dogs are already stressed, punishment or confinement (such as crating) isn’t advisable because it can make matters worse by increasing your dog’s anxiety. Separation anxiety is most easily identified by videotaping the dog right after you leave (a camera can be propped to focus on the door, for example). In most cases, an affected dog will start to whine or bark, dig, and even urinate or defecate within minutes of your departure.

If your dog suffers from thunder phobia, she can cause dramatic damage to your house on stormy days. In contrast to the destructiveness of separation anxiety, phobic behavior may be seen only once in a while. In addition to thunder, your dog may develop fears of fireworks, wind, and a variety of other noises.

Anxiety-related chewing is treated indirectly by addressing the anxiety itself; if you suspect this to be your dog’s reason for chewing, ask your veterinarian for help in addressing the problem. Most typically, a temporary anti-anxiety medication will be prescribed — along with a behavior-modification program — to help your dog feel less stressed and react more calmly when left alone or when exposed to storms.