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Writing by Dr. Sarah J. Cutler

Artwork by Zoe Stevens

Were’s a riddle for you: What is difficult to imagine but impossible to forget? The answer: a natural disaster. hen my children were young, one of their favorite books was “Chewy Louie” by Howie Schneider. The story is about a family who brings a scruffy puppy named Louie into their home and how he chews everything in sight, including parts of the house like the porch and the stairs. The family hires various trainers to help, but to no avail. And then, one day, he just stops.  

I always thought the author had a good sense of humor, an understanding of families and dogs, and compassion for both.

In fact, this is one of the most common concerns dog owners express to their vet or trainer. They worry when their pets use their mouths in ways we find to be a nuisance or even dangerous.

Their mouth is their tool

Dogs, and their wild ancestors, use and need their mouths for survival. It’s natural canine behavior, and it’s very different from our human behavior.

Our dogs use their mouths to:

  • Capture, kill, shred, tear and eat other animals. 
  • Carry their babies from place to place.
  • Clean themselves and their pups.
  • Cool themselves down (panting).
  • Communicate with vocalizations (whine, bark, growl, cry or howl).
  • Communicate physically with licking, nuzzling, nudging or grabbing the ears or body parts of another dog (in play), as well as defensively with snapping or biting.
  • Explore novel items by picking them up in their mouth or licking them.
  • Stimulate their pups to urinate and defecate by licking them (and yes, ingesting what comes out).
  • Regurgitate digested food into the mouths of their puppies.

Historically and currently, we humans have identified what dogs are naturally good at doing, and we’ve even shaped some breeds to perform tasks for our benefit. For example, our dogs can retrieve birds, herd sheep or cattle and defend our property.  

However, when our average family companion has the very same traits that serve dogs at work or in the wild, it can be hard to manage.  

Understanding how and why dogs are so skilled in the oral department will hopefully give you a little more patience for some of the common behaviors you see at home, including:

  • Counter-surfing for high-value food items.
  • Eating feces from cats, geese, deer or other dogs.
  • Finding items that smell like humans (socks, underwear) and chewing or ingesting them.
  • Garbage foraging (indoors and out).
  • Licking plates in the dishwasher.
  • Play that turns into nipping or biting human body parts or clothing.

Young or worried dogs

It is normal for puppies and teenage dogs to want and need to chew and explore using their mouths. In some cases, they don’t have enough appropriate items to investigate, so they chew furniture, grab pajama bottoms or nip at hands in play. These and other behaviors depend on the breed, age of the pup, human handling and the enrichment provided.  

In some cases, being treated with harsh or punitive training techniques can increase mouthiness; it’s a manifestation of feeling anxious. For many dogs, licking, chewing and shredding is a self-soothing type of behavior.  

As dogs mature (typically by age two), their need to chew on items usually decreases, but most dogs still enjoy chewing bones and Kongs, and it is important to provide them with this kind of calming enrichment for their happiness and well-being.

In some cases, dogs may chew, ingest or destroy items when they are left home alone, confined in a crate, or experience something scary, such as a thunderstorm. These dogs may have separation, confinement or storm anxiety. Address these conditions with a professional, as they will likely progress with time.

Communicating with their mouth 

Unlike humans, dogs use their mouths to communicate all sorts of messages to other dogs without even using their voices. For example, in play, they put a small amount of pressure (soft) on each other’s ears and necks, but if they’re defending themselves at the threat of another dog taking their bone, they may snap and bite (hard) at another dog to get them to move away. 

When it comes to dogs communicating with their humans, they may use some of these natural canine tendencies as well. For example, a young dog may be very happy to see their human come home from work and will greet them by putting their mouth on the human’s wrist or sleeve while excitedly taking in all the scents of the day.

Feast or famine

In the wild, dogs and their ancestors ate quickly before another animal could take their food. Sometimes, there were long intervals between meals. Many domestic dogs have retained these eating habits, and they cannot self-regulate the amount of food they ingest. Even though they are provided regular meals, many will continue to eat voraciously beyond the point of satiety and into a state of discomfort if their food intake is not restricted. 

To this day, many dogs are protective of their food. Depending on the age, breed, home environment, and presence of other dogs or people hanging around them, a dog may become uneasy and worry that someone will take their food.  

Food that has been scavenged tends to have a higher value, and very tasty items, such as a marrow bone or chicken meat, may elicit more excitement and therefore more protection of the item.

Regardless of how they obtained their food, some dogs will bury it to save for later, while others will eat very quickly out of fear that their food will be taken away. It’s also common for dogs to snarl or growl when they’re bothered while eating. It’s always best to let your dogs eat at a location and time where they can simply enjoy their meals without a lot of fuss and commotion around them.

Information seeking

Dogs and young children explore in similar ways by using their senses. Children do this by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, moving and hearing. (In this context, senses also cover movement, balance and spatial awareness.) So when a child is in a room full of new toys, they explore the objects using their sensory system to take in information.  

Dogs do the same. Try giving a dog (of any age) a sensory experience by putting them in a room full of new (and safe) items for them to investigate. To gather more information, they might sniff it, lick it or put it in their mouth. For dogs, their very first round of exploration begins with smell, and then they often use their mouths to see what an object feels or tastes like.

Accepting and supporting their natural behaviors

When bringing home a pet dog of any age, make sure you have created safe zones where tempting items are out of reach and provide appropriate enrichment items, such as Kongs, snuffle mats and lick mats. Some dogs love to shred cardboard boxes, and as long as they don’t ingest a large amount of the material, it’s a great and economic enrichment item. 

If your dog seems to chew excessively and you are unsure about what you should do, consult with a Fear-Free certified trainer or your veterinarian for guidance to sort out underlying causes, including boredom or anxiety.

This article was published in the March/April 2024 print edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

Dr. Sarah J. Cutler
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Sarah J. Cutler is a veterinarian with a special interest in behavioral medicine.  Upon graduation, she took an oath to “first do no harm,” which is a guiding principle in her practice.  Sarah combines her scientific background with her respect for cats and dogs to help humans live in health and harmony with their pets. “I’m passionate about following safe practices for our pets and understanding where to find trusted professional resources,” she says.