If you have a dog that is constantly carrying or gnawing on something in his mouth, then chances are you have a “mouthy” dog. Mouthy dogs often are very destructive dogs, particularly when they are not properly redirected to acceptable alternatives. These are the dogs that created the classic homework excuse used by children the world over “the dog ate my homework”. These are the dogs that gnaw on furniture, doors and wood trim in the house. Some mouthy dogs also will try to gnaw on their owners, emulating play behaviors from puppyhood with their littermates.
Mouthy dogs love to chew and some just have to chew to drain off anxious, nervous energy. I should know.
Take one of my dogs, Lucky, as an example. Lucky is a medium-sized Pit Bull type dog, possibly a full-bred American Staffordshire Terrier that I had rescued in 2007. She is very orally-oriented and nearly always has to have something to chew on, whether it’s a cow hoof, beef tendon, stick, bone or nylabone. Lucky reminds me of a child who always has a thumb in the mouth; since she does not have thumbs, she uses what is available.
But it was not always this way. Before I learned how to redirect her oral fixation, she had a field day, causing literally thousands of dollars worth of damage. Nothing was safe. Three car seatbelts, at a replacement cost exceeding $400 each. The bottoms of three different doors and the door frame around one of those doors was destroyed by her strong teeth. A stairway step met a similar fate. Lumber meant to become a wall stud; she literally picked up a 2″x3″x7′, walked it away and chewed it in half.
Being angry at her didn’t help; the first time she destroyed something and I started to get angry, she backed away out of fear, away from me. It was when she chewed the laptop cord that she made a connection; I was so upset when she chewed it, that I just sat down on the floor, remnants of the cord in my lap and I cried. I had a major project due the next day, no way to get a new cord in time and very limited battery life left. Instead of backing away, she waited a moment and then started licking my hands and chin, very submissively. She never chewed an electric cord after that. She had to destroy one sneaker, one slipper and one dress shoe before understanding that all footwear was off limits; having seen some success with the “hold the item and cry” approach with her, I did the same with my footwear. While she’s not the most brilliant dog on the block, she finally made the connection that all footwear is off limits.
For my part, once I realized that she needed acceptable alternatives, we tried rawhides, pig ears, cow hooves and beef tendons. She’s always got a few cow hooves in stashed in her favorite places and often will refuse to go out in the yard unless she has something in her mouth. While I am greatly relieved to know that she is able to control self-regulate herself and only chew on acceptable options, I recently had the pleasure of lucking into the next step forward for us. Here’s what happened.
We moved in January 2010 from a home that had only two little trees, to a more rural location with dozens of trees. This fall, I was attempting to pull out some weeds that had sprouted up in a section of the yard. Well, maybe they were a bit more than weeds… more like young saplings, a few feet tall. Which means the sapling is nearly as tall as me, as I am barely five feet in height myself.
So there I am, tugging, trying to pull this sapling out, rather unsuccessfully. Intrigued by what I was doing, Lucky wandered over and watched me. If dogs could laugh, I’m sure she was laughing at me. I stepped back to take a quick breather – and watched as she stepped in, grabbed the sapling and started pulling on it. She couldn’t quite pull it out alone either. I stepped to her side and we both started tugging together as a team. The sapling loosened and finally tore free from the earth. I cheered; Lucky happily ran off with the sapling, parading it around the yard like a trophy, head held high and tail wagging furiously. I plopped myself down and called out praises to her, giving my shoulders and back another break.
I figured her assistance was a one-time deal and turned my attention to another sapling. A few minutes into my yanking on this second sapling, I realized that Lucky was standing just behind me, waiting for “her turn”. (Actually, I darn near fell over her – she was quite literally behind me!) This time, she looked at me – almost questioning “Is this something I should do?”. I think fast. “Oh, yeah. Absolutely. You go for it. You want it, take it.” She dives in and is quickly rewarded with this sapling coming out. Again, she prances around the yard, doing the equivalent of a touchdown dance.
She comes back. “Sorry, baby, I got no more little trees to pull”. And in fact, I don’t. Now I’m staring at this awful mess of a vine that has wrapped itself around and into the base of a tree. The tree, I want. The vine, I don’t. I begin to pull tendrils free from the tree. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Lucky hasn’t moved. She is waiting and watching.
I shrug. I know that many dogs like to have “jobs”. So why not let her put her mouth and pulling ability to work if she wants? I free up a bit more of the vine so that there is enough for her to grab and invite her to “take”. She went after the bit of vine I’d pulled away from the tree and she pulled it free. I praised her. For the next half hour or so, we fell into a pattern. I’d get the smaller part of the vine, which was typically just beyond her reach, away from the tree. Then she would grab it and pull the thicker part off the tree for me. It certainly made short work of that tedious job.
In my view, we are graduating from just having “acceptable options” to praise-worthy activities, capitalizing on her innate desire to mouth, chew, tear and rip. She clearly enjoyed helping in the yard activities – remember, she literally was prancing around the yard, head held high, with her “trophies”. Lucky gets to feel confident and important; I get extra help in yard work and it’s a win-win all around. The owner-dog relationship is improved because we are working as a team.
While every dog might not want to help rip out saplings and vines, if your dog has an oral fixation or anxious energy, look for similar jobs that your dog might be able to help with. Practice gentle encouragement, keeping such training activities fun for your dog. Leave them wanting to do more, so that they look forward to repeating the activity.