Why do dogs chew?

Nikki, of Dallas, TX asks:

My dog is a female springer spaniel/pit bull mix. She is 2.5 years old, spayed, and is generally very well-behaved. Occasionally – perhaps once every 3-4 months- she will chew up one of my shoes. Why does she do this, and how can I stop it?

Unfortunately, with any issue that is this intermittant, it can be REALLY hard to figure out why something happens. Keeping a record  of the time that it happens and as many things surrounding the issue as possible may help you isolate a factor or group of factors that is leading up to the behavior- but it may not! (this is true for ANY behavior problem).  So figuring out what triggers the behavior may or may not be possible. With a log, you may discover that it happens only on days when there is thunder, or men mowing the grass, or some other external circumstance. If that’s the case, just make sure the shoe are picked up on that day (or your dog is not left home alone!), and the problem should resolve itself.

Dogs chew for a number of reasons. It’s fun, it’s comforting, and it just feels good. Shoes are a favorite snack of lots of dogs. They smell like mom or dad (mom or dad’s stinky foot-smell is probably a bonus, given dogs’ general standards for ‘good’ smells- most dogs like nothing better than to roll in something dead and rotting. Ugh.) and leather is a nice chewy material- it’s even sort of like rawhide bones! So while we can’t say for sure why she’s chewing, I suspect it’s more a matter of “Why not?” when she’s stressed or upset- or just bored.

The simplest way to solve this kind of behavior problem is to not allow the dog the opportunity to screw up in the first place. Put your shoes away, or close the bedroom door. If (as is the case in some older houses) the air won’t circulate without the door open, invest in a babygate. The pressure-mounted ones are very inexpensive, and if the chewing only happens when you’re away, there’s no need to keep it up all the time. If you want something easier to open, there are numerous ones available from hardware stores and catalogues like Dr Fosters & Smith, many of which are very nice looking. In general, if you can prevent the behavior from being practiced for long enough (in the case of a behavior occuring this infrequently, I would limit access to the bedroom for at LEAST 6 months and a year would be better), you may be able to squash the habit entirely.

If the behavior is based in boredom, increasing her exercise may help. Exercise doesn’t necessarily have to be physical. Mental stimulation like learning tricks, obedience training, or other behaviors that the dog has to THINK aobut can wear dogs out as fast or faster than aerobic exercise like running with a bike or jogging. (In fact, it can work better, because while dogs’ brains DO benefit from exercise, it’s not the same type of curve as physical exercise is- where you can just end up with an extremely fit and still bored dog, who now has MORE energy for sprees of naughty behavior.)

Deterrant sprays like Bitter Apple can be great for discouraging dogs from mouthing items that aren’t theirs, but for a behavior that occurs this infrequently, well… it’s alcohol based and it wears off fast. Unless you applied it daily, there’s no way of knowing that it would be on there when she DID decide to chew.
And if you can remember to apply the spray daily, you can remember not to leave your shoes lying around.

Lastly, although you didn’t ask, you may have been wandering how you should react when you come home and find something valuable that your dog has chewed. I recommend a rolled up newspaper, applied to your own head, while repeating “WHY did I leave that where the dog could reach it?!”

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