If you’re a dog parent, you’ve probably been there: You come home from work to find a prized possession chewed to bits. Maybe it’s your favorite pair of new shoes, or the wooden legs of your furniture, or even the walls of your house. Either way, it’s frustrating, it’s expensive and it has a name: destructive chewing. So, how do you stop a dog from chewing on your stuff?
Like it or not, chewing comes naturally to your four-legged friend. Wolves, dogs’ ancestors, chewed on bones, sticks and other materials in the wild, and those instincts remain in their domesticated brethren.
“Dogs use their mouths like we use our hands,” explains dog trainer and author Victoria Schade.
They’re an essential tool for exploring and interacting with their world. But that doesn’t mean you need to resign yourself to years of mangled footwear and bite-marked hallways.
Whether you want to get your dog to stop chewing on your furniture, your shoes or anything else in your home, it’s important to appease this natural instinct. Veterinarians and trainers say the first step to solving your dog’s destructive chewing is understanding what’s driving your dog to chew, then designing a solution to match.
Why Do Dogs Chew?
Destructive chewing is not a “one size fits all” problem, so let’s look at the possible reasons a dog might chew.
When it comes to teething, puppies are just like human babies, says dog trainer Irith Bloom, CPDT-KSA, CDBC, who owns The Sophisticated Dog training company in Los Angeles, California.
“When they’re anywhere between 3 months to 7 or 8 months of age, their teeth are coming in and their gums are sore,” she says. “Dogs seek out the comfort of chewing on something, just like a human baby likes to put her mouth on something. It helps them deal with the pain.”
Even puppies who aren’t technically teething may display teething-esque behavior, Bloom adds.
“In younger puppies, you see a variation of something you see in human children: puppies put their mouths on everything.” It’s their way of exploring the world, she explains. “It’s not necessarily teething in the sense that their gums are sore, but it’s still a developmental stage.”
How can you tell the difference? “When their gums are sore, puppies tend to choose harder things—the wood of furniture, baseboards, things like that—because it gives them more relief,” Bloom says.
Have you ever noticed that your dog behaves differently when they’re behind a fence? That’s classic barrier frustration, says Bloom.
“The term barrier frustration is typically used to refer to situations where a dog overreacts in a way he normally wouldn’t, except that there’s a barrier between him and something else,” she explains. “The typical scenario is the dog behind a fence. When another dog walks by on the sidewalk, the dog behind the fence becomes this ferocious, fierce-seeming animal. But if the same two dogs met with no fence between them, there’d be no aggressive behavior at all.”
Barrier frustration is sometimes called barrier aggression, but it doesn’t always start out that way, Bloom says.
“They’re frustrated that they can’t get to the other side, and they display aggressive-seeming behavior, but sometimes they just want to say hello,” she says.
No matter what your dog wants on the other side of the fence, however, chewing is a common tactic to try to get there.
“They’re thinking, How am I going to get around this barrier?” Bloom says, “and sometimes they’ll tear at it with their teeth in the process of trying to get around it.”
“Some [dogs] are very hungry—often due to medications—and will chew and even consume items that may taste like food,” says Liz Stelow, DVM, DACVB, chief of service for the University of California-Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. “Some are soothed by chewing or sucking on soft items.”
Compulsive Behavior Issues
A compulsive behavior called pica, in which a dog eats inedible objects like dirt, clay and soap, also may be to blame, says Dana Ebbecke, an animal behavior counselor at the ASPCA in New York, New York.
Serious Health Conditions
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 Zenithson Ng, DVM, DABVP (canine/feline), a clinical assistant professor of small animal clinical sciences at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville, Tennessee. 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 also can be driven to lick or chew items, Dr. Stelow says.
While medical issues, hunger and pica are sometimes to blame, destructive chewing is mostly caused by behavioral issues like fear, stress and separation anxiety, Dr. Ng says.
Some dogs become panicked when parents leave, so they attempt to “break out” of the house, which is why you may come home to find your window frames, doors and child-proof gates destroyed, Dr. Stelow says.
Boredom—from lack of exercise or mental stimulation—also may play a part, as can changes in the dog’s routine, says Robin Bennett, CPDT-KA a certified professional dog trainer in Stafford, Virginia.
“Chewing can become a kind of stress relief, an activity that they do when they’re bored or a little anxious,” adds Bloom. “Just as a human being might bite his or her nails, chewing becomes a thing they do when they’re under stress.”
"In a wild state, most animals spend a large part of their day in the quest for food," explains Dr. Roger Mugford, animal psychologist and founder of The Animal Behaviour Centre in Surrey, England. "It is not surprising, therefore, that many domesticated pet animals who have their food provided for them become bored and frustrated with little or no way of filling their days."
In addition to changes to a dog's routine, changes to a dog’s home or environment can inspire destructive chewing.
“Say you’ve just moved. It’s stressful for us, and it’s stressful for our dogs. They don’t understand what’s going on. They’re in a new environment, with new smells, new sights, new sounds. All of those things can increase their baseline agitation,” Bloom says. “They’re looking for ways to work off all this additional stress, and chewing is one of the places where that stress ends up being expressed.”
How to Stop Dog Destructive Chewing
Once your vet has ruled out health and behavioral issues, there are several things you can try to help curb your dog’s destructive chewing.
Pet-Proof Your Home
The first thing the parents of a dog who’s prone to destructive chewing should do is to remove the temptations laying around their home.
“Leaving delicious-smelling leather shoes within reach of a confirmed chewer just isn’t fair,” Schade says.
If you’re unable to remove chewable items in a certain area of your home, make sure that space is off-limits for your pup. Schade suggests using dog gates, like the Midwest steel pet gate, to keep unchecked chewers away from areas that are difficult to dog-proof. Dog-safe bitter sprays, like Grannick’s Bitter Apple spray, can be applied to furniture and cabinets to deter problem chewers with their yucky taste.
"How do we fill our dog's day and provide him with the mental stimulation that he lacks to prevent him from becoming bored? Simply we need to give him a job to do," says Dr. Mugford. "The easiest way of providing a job is by using our dog’s food. Instead of receiving his daily ration for free in a bowl, let’s make him work for it."
One of the simplest ways to do this, Dr. Mugford says, is to use a KONG toy.
"KONG toys are uniquely shaped, tough rubber toys with a hollow center which can be stuffed with treats or your dog’s dinner," he says.
“The KONG Classic is the king of busy toys,” Schade agrees. “I suggest it to nearly everyone and it’s a hit at the shelter where I volunteer.”
KONG’s Classic dog toys come in a variety of sizes and rubber strengths, so they’re appropriate for dogs from puppies to seniors. A pet parent struggling with a teething puppy, for instance, can entice their pup with a KONG Puppy dog toy, which is uniquely designed for growing baby teeth and provides a soothing outlet that rewards appropriate chewing behavior. Then, as their furry friend grows up, pet parents can swap in larger and/or stronger KONG toys as needed.
Plus, as mentioned above, pet parents can incentivize their dogs to chew their KONG toys by stuffing them with treats. That’s a delicious bonus they won’t find inside your shoes!
For dogs who like toys with a higher degree of difficulty, Schade says, “I love the KONG Genius line because the toys can be connected to make the puzzle more challenging.”
Other dogs might prefer the KONG Goodie Bone. “It’s a great choice for dogs who give up on activity toys because it has easier access to the treat,” Schade says.
In cases of extremely stubborn problem chewers, parents can hire a certified professional dog trainer. They can help you set up beneficial rules and routines, including teaching basic commands like “leave it” and “drop it,” to help curb dog destructive chewing.
Create Soothing Distractions
In addition to providing appropriate chew toys, Dr. Ng also suggests leaving the radio or television on for your dog while you’re away. These sounds can help break the monotony (like it does for us) and help with separation anxiety.
If keeping your dog busy and giving them access to appropriate toys help, adding an exercise program can amplify those results.
“Nearly every dog can use more exercise, so working your dog’s brain and body might take the edge off the need to boredom-chew,” Schade says.
In addition to reducing boredom, exercise provides several other benefits to dogs, from helping with weight loss to promoting relaxation. It also can help deter dog destructive chewing, Bennett says, but you must 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. You can also engage your pup in an interactive game, Schade says. For example, why not play tug-of-war with a KONG Goodie Bone with Rope?
All dogs chew, but that doesn’t mean your possessions have to be constantly at risk. With the right combination of training and toys, your pup can live in harmony with you—and with your stuff.