5 Good Reasons Why Your Dog Needs to Chew
Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
- February 24, 2020
- Dogs are natural chewers, in part because they explore the world with their mouths
- Benefits of chewing for dogs: it’s a cure for boredom and stress; it cleans teeth, massages gums, and works jaw muscles; it can help your dog learn to spend time alone
- Destructive chewing is seen most often in bored, anxious, or stressed dogs; rarely, dogs chew in response to an underlying health condition
- Problem chewing can be resolved by redirecting the chewing to appropriate objects and ensuring your dog gets plenty of vigorous exercise along with mental stimulation
You may have noticed that chewing is one of your dog's favorite pastimes. Not only is your Canis lupus familiaris (domesticated dog) a natural chewer, but she also uses her mouth to explore her environment, picking up objects to see how they feel and taste.
There are actually lots of other reasons dogs chew, some of which are beneficial, and others, not so much!
Benefits of Chewing for Dogs
1.It's a boredom and stress buster — Boredom and stress or anxiety are often triggers for humans who bite their nails. It can be an unconscious response you don't even notice until it's too late to save your manicure. For dogs, chewing on anything available can serve a similar purpose. Dogs who are chronically under stimulated physically and/or mentally are likely to do more chewing than their well-exercised and therefore calmer, counterparts.
2.It's good for teeth, gums and jaw muscles — Adult dogs chew to brush and floss their teeth, massage their gums, and work their powerful jaw muscles. Puppies and young dogs who are still teething often chew in an attempt to relieve itching or pain.
3.It can help your dog learn to spend time alone — Pups and adult dogs who are regularly given a private spot and plenty of time to chew on a food-stuffed toy or raw, meaty bone learn to spend time alone — which makes them much less likely to develop separation anxiety.
Since I always recommend that you supervise your dog whenever he's chewing on a raw recreational bone, it's important to offer only food-stuffed or treat-release toys when you leave him home alone.
4.Chewing the right things prevents chewing the wrong things — Since puppies and dogs are hard-wired to chew and will do so with or without your blessing, the best way to preserve your own possessions is to ensure your canine family member has plenty of his own approved items to chew.
5.It's doggone satisfying
"I sit watching one of my dogs chewing on a raw beef shank bone and wonder at how blissful the experience seems to be for him," writes dog behavior expert Dr. Stanley Coren. "There appears to be no better canine sedative than a bone to gnaw on."1
When Your Dog's Chewing Is Abnormal
It's rare, but an underlying medical condition can be the cause of a dog's chewing, such as tooth or gum problems, oral masses, certain neurologic conditions, stomach or gastrointestinal (GI) issues, or a medication that causes extreme hunger.
Some dogs suffer from a condition called pica, which is a compulsive behavior that causes them to chew and often swallow strange non-food items such as rocks, dirt, or soap.
Needless to say, if you suspect your dog has an underlying medical problem or compulsion that may be causing abnormal chewing behavior, make an appointment with your veterinarian to have her checked out.
I have found that many "misbehaved" dogs who seem compelled to consume certain things have some type of underlying medical issue. This became overwhelmingly clear to me when I studied applied zoopharmacognosy with Caroline Ingraham. If your dog consistently exhibits the same annoying chewing or eating behaviors, she's very likely trying to communicate with you, not annoy you.
When Your Dog's Chewing Is Destructive
Destructive chewing is most commonly seen in bored, anxious, or stressed dogs. One common cause is separation anxiety in dogs left alone at home. If you arrive home to find a chewed-up crate, baby gate, door, or window frame, chances are your dog was trying to escape the house as a way of coping with his anxiety.
Many dogs naturally grow bored when their humans are away from home all day, and this can lead to destructive chewing. Leaving a dog home alone for 8 or 10 hours is similar in many ways to leaving a toddler alone for that long. Boredom that leads to destructive chewing can also be due to lack of adequate exercise, playtime, or mental stimulation on a daily basis.
In addition, changes in your dog's routine, or the loss or addition of a family member (two- or four-legged) can create stress that may lead to destructive chewing.
Fortunately, problem chewing can be redirected to appropriate items for the sake of your dog's health as well as your belongings. But keep in mind that until he has learned what he can and can't chew, it's up to you to make sure he doesn't have opportunities to chew forbidden objects.
First, Redirect Your Dog's Chewing Behavior
This is the very first step in resolving an issue with destructive chewing. However, until your dog is fully trained, make sure to keep anything you don't want chewed out of her reach. This is the responsibility of everyone in the household. A good rule to live by: "If you make it available and the dog chews it, it's on you, not the dog."
Secondly, make sure your dog has plenty of her own toys and other appropriate things to chew on. Also make sure none of her toys resemble or are, in fact, household items. If you give her an old sock or slipper to play with, don't be surprised or annoyed when you find her chewing something brand new. Dogs don't know the difference between old and new.
Provide a variety of safe, non-toxic toys of varying textures that range from soft and squishy to firmer and less pliable. Until you know your dog's preferences for what type of toy or chew provides the most chew-satisfaction for your own dog, offer a variety of natural options and allow your dog to choose. For more information about what edible bones are safest for pets, catch my review here.
The goal in modifying your dog's behavior is to give her every opportunity to succeed, and no chance to fail. When she picks up an inappropriate item in her mouth, grab a treat and give her a "drop it" command. As soon as she complies, give her the treat and replace the item with one of her own toys. It's extremely important that you do this consistently in order to successfully modify your dog's behavior.
One thing you never want to do is give chase when she has something her mouth, because for many dogs the "Catch me if you can" game is great fun. During times when your dog will be home alone, the kindest and most effective way to prevent destructive chewing is to crate train her.
Next: Lots and Lots of Exercise
Dogs who get plenty of physical exercise and playtime are much less likely to develop destructive behaviors born of boredom and/or stress. As I always say, "A tired dog is a good dog."
Giving your dog access to your fenced-in backyard, no matter how large and inviting it seems, won't do the trick. This is because like us, dogs need a reason and incentive to exercise. That means you need to get out there with him and tire him out for at least 20 minutes, preferably twice a day.
If he likes to retrieve balls, you've got a built-in way to give him a good workout. For bigger dogs, a toy like the Chuckit! Ball Launcher works well to increase the distance he runs out and back. You can also take him on a power walk, or to the dog park, or on a hike or a bike ride. Change things up regularly so he doesn't get bored.
I can't stress this aspect of controlling behavior issues, including chewing, enough. Without exhausting your under-stimulated, mouthy dog on a twice-daily basis, he'll continue to be under-stimulated and mouthy. A physically tired dog is a good dog.
Finally, Provide Plenty of Mental Stimulation
Keeping your dog's mind active is also critically important in preventing undesirable behaviors like destructive chewing. Boredom is the breeding ground for "bad dogs," including destructive chewers. In addition to daily activities to engage their brain, dogs should be continuously socialized throughout their lives with frequent opportunities to interact with other dogs, cats, and people.
Regular training sessions are also a great way to keep your dog's mind occupied and strengthen the bond you share with him. Nose work, which encourages her to use her natural hunting instincts and scenting abilities, can be a great way to keep her mentally stimulated. Even allowing your dog to have 10 minutes a day of sniff-time in a natural area will enrich her senses and fulfill her need to experience the world through her nose.
And as I discussed earlier, don't overlook the value of treat-release and food puzzle toys, which not only challenge your dog's mind, but also provide appropriate objects for her to chew. I find the Treat & Train Manners Minder a great tool for this purpose.
It's also a good idea to rotate your dog's toys regularly. If you leave all of them out in a big basket, she may lose interest in them quickly. A better idea is to leave out one or two and put the rest away. In a day or two, swap them out. Also be sure to play with your dog using her toys; rigorous, engaging play sessions several times a day are a great way to her pent-up energy and bond with her at the same time.