Ask a Dog Trainer #1 – Chewing Puppies!

by Guest Blogger Renee Will

Ask a Dog Trainer is a monthly guest blog by Renee Will, Training Director at Two Brown Dogs Canine Consultants and fellow member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT).  If you have a question you’d like to submit for future a future training column, please e-mail prairiedogdaycare@yahoo.ca. The person who submits the answer selecetd for our monthly training column will recive a prize from Prairie Dog Dayare and Two Brown Dogs.

The first question to Ask the Trainer is an interesting one.

We keep a couple of pairs of boots by the back door so that we can get ready quickly to take our puppy out into the fenced backyard for potty breaks. Lately, she has shown an interest in chewing on our boots. I know that a logical solution would be just to put the boots by the front door where she can’t get at them, but is that just putting a band-aid on the symptom but not solving the real issue? I would like to think that we can teach her to leave those boots alone . . . but how?

K. in Brandon, MB.

Destructive behaviours, including chewing off-limit items, are some of the biggest challenges owners face. And, interestingly the behaviour and the outcomes of wrecked belongings, are almost entirely our – the humans – fault. Now that I’ve laid all the responsibility at our feet, I’ll tell you why.

Mouthing, licking, sucking and chewing are natural dog behaviours. Dogs use their mouths much like we use our hands; to investigate, pick things up and taste them to determine if they are good, bad or indifferent, to move them, hide them and eat them. Beginning at the age of about four weeks puppies interact with their mothers largely through the use of their mouths. Mother licks to groom, carries the puppies from place to place and carries food for them. The puppies investigate items, groom litter mates, and learn about their environment by tasting and chewing on items left out for them like blankets, stuffed toys and chew sticks.

And then, all of sudden, they leave Dog Mom and come to our homes and find many of the same items out and about – so they do what comes naturally. Not only that the items we leave lying about within easy reach smell powerfully like us. Our underwear and shoes and socks retain the best part of our scent and for a new puppy left alone it must be very comforting to have something that smells like new Human Mom or Dad very close by.

#1 – Puppy Proof Your Home

  • Plan for the arrival of your puppy by making sure anything and everything that might be interesting to a puppy has a place that the puppy cannot get to.
  • Prepare for your puppy by having lots of items that are puppy-appropriate and teaching your puppy what is yours and what is theirs.
  • Your best friend is a size and age-appropriate Kong®. Other appropriate puppy play items include soft toys, fabric tugs, balls and soft discs.

Puppies and young dogs are developmentally like two-year old children. While it would never occur to any of us to leave a two-year old running around the house with unlimited access to food and no nap times, that is exactly what we do with puppies when we do not provide them a safe place, leave food available for them at all times and do not provide rest and nap times.

 #2 – Create a Dog Safe Zone in your Home

  • Your other best friend is a crate or kennel. The crate helps you to achieve two very difficult training tasks – housetraining and teaching your puppy or dog the boundaries of your home.
  • Crate training is most easily accomplished by feeding your puppy in its crate. This is terrific in multiple dog homes, preventing any and all silly behaviour around food and food bowls. It creates a schedule for meals and lets you use the meal, which you are going to give them anyway, as a training reward. Good dog in your crate – here’s a big bowl of food.
  • Your puppy should be comfortably confined to its crate when you are out of the home. Puppies, and dogs, that are confined cannot be getting into the garbage, chewing on your belongings, pooping in corners or barking witlessly at the window. You may believe your dog sleeps quietly all day but without leaving a video camera running you really do not know what they are doing. All you see is what they are doing when you leave and when you come back.
  • All dogs need rest. Less than 17 hours of down time contributes to stress, less than 12 hours to serious stress. Down time doesn’t mean lying on a mat waiting to leap into the air the minute the tiniest sound is heard. Downtime means nap time, just like for babies and a crate is the safest place for this to happen.
  • Your Dog Safe Zone could be a laundry room or other small room in proximity to the family or an X-pen. It can contain your dog’s crate, her blanket if you wish, dog safe toys that can be left like a Kong and water for longer periods of time. If you are away over meal time put the food into the Kong and let your puppy keep himself busy rooting it out. Rooting for food is also calming, natural dog behaviour. Your Zone should be in the interior of the house, away from windows and doors and away from extremes of heat or cold.
  • Your Dog Safe Zone doesn’t just have to be for when you are out of the home. It can be used for any times that you cannot supervise you puppy or dog; company over, in the shower, having a family meal, having a life. In the example provided it sounds like puppy is getting into the boots when the family is at home but not right at hand. Maybe this is a time to consider the Dog Safe Zone.

Boredom is often discussed as a cause for chewing behaviours. I am not convinced that dogs get ‘bored’ as we understand it but I certainly suspect that left to their own devices they will begin to engage in behaviours that are more natural and comfortable to them. Chewing, licking and sucking are comforting behaviours. They reduce stress and anxiety much like cigarette-smoking or nail-chewing in adults. And then, just like the smoking and nail chewing, they become habits and habits are hard to change.

 It is true however, and supported by research, that enriched environments provide for better behaved dogs. Enrichment does not just mean lots of things. It means a regular schedule that the dog can count on, regular exercise but not so much that the dog is in a permanent state of over-arousal, regular training, appropriate play items, opportunities for play, with you and other dogs, and opportunities for calm and quiet behaviour. It means that we are calm and consistent in our approaches to our dogs and that we make every effort to set them up for success rather than failure.

 One last thing to consider for today is what we do when the dog steals the items, chews them beyond recognition or otherwise wrecks them. Thinking about our reactions is critical because with our reactions we teach and reinforce and often what we teach and reinforce is not what we want. In the example above the owner says I would like to think that we can teach her to leave those boots alone. From my training perspective I would rephrase that to I would like to think we can teach her to never be interested in the boots in the first place.

For example, consider the original question above and the household where the boots are by the back door. The owners already know the boots are appealing to puppy but let’s assume they leave them there anyway because that is more convenient for the human family members. So, someone comes to put her boots on and the boots are wrecked. Let’s further assume that there is then screaming and yelling and chasing of naughty puppy (and I know this is not happening in this household but let’s pretend). What is puppy being taught? If you can think about what happens from the puppy’s perspective.

Yippee ….chase!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is the best. Run run run – oops they caught me – now it’s yelling and shaking. Now what is puppy learning? If you think the puppy is learning to leave the boots alone you are mistaken. Your puppy has just learned to (a) not get caught (b) run and hide and (c) play keep away so you can never get your hands on her, a really useful behaviour in a dangerous situation when you want your puppy to come when called. And most importantly your puppy has learned that the behaviour gets attention from you. It may be negative attention but it is still attention.

So, let’s consider the alternative. The boots go to the front hall where the puppy cannot get at them. She never gets to learn how much fun chewing on them can be so she does not develop a bad habit. She doesn’t experience the thrill of the chase and she doesn’t get rewarded for keeping away from you when you want her close. Instead you go get your boots when you need them and take puppy outside. She does her business and then you come in, spend some quality time with her, teaching her appropriate behaviours like Go to Mat, Settle, and Leave It and other impulse control exercises and bingo… life is grand.

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