Chewing Dangerous Things

Earlier today I got a call from someone whose puppy is eating glass. This is the email I sent in response (edited to remove names and specifics). If your dog is doing something dangerous, like eating glass or rocks, I STRONGLY suggest you call a professional. It might be expensive — setting aside a few hundred for dog training hurts — but not as badly as having to replace couches, baseboards, coffee tables… or your dog.

Note that in this email I’m addressing glass specifically. Other life-threatening items include live electric cords and rocks; you can substitute that for glass, as well. Though stuffing and towels and the rest can be dangerous, they are less immediately dangerous — typically it’s harder for a dog to hurt themselves with soft things. Use your best judgement when deciding which scenario fits your dog.

This email is to specifically address the chewing glass, which is a life-threatening habit. (Tiny pieces of ingested glass can tear up his intestinal tract, leading to thousands of dollars of vet bills and/or death.)

I’m going to go through two scenarios: worst case and best case.

Worst Case Scenario:
If any of these is true, you’re dealing with a worst case scenario:
He’s been chewing glass (or other dangerous objects) for at least two weeks.
He chews everything, several times a day, and has for months, regardless of whether or not someone’s home.
He’s going specifically for glass/dangerous items.

If any of those are true, then I’d recommend major heavy-duty stop him right now holy shit kind of training. This training isn’t designed to be nice. This training is designed to get him to stop a dangerous behavior as quickly as possible, and THEN we can go back and find a way to make him happy. This is the doggie equivalent of swatting your child for running into a busy street. Are there better ways? Yes. Are there kinder ways? Yes. Would it have been ideal if it had been addressed before and it hadn’t come to this? Yes. But those have gone by the wayside, and now we have to make sure the child doesn’t get killed so that we can then explain why running into the busy street is bad.

So. First, you need to confine him when he’s not being supervised. Notice I didn’t say “When he’s home alone.” If you’re making dinner, hanging out with friends, or otherwise not keeping a close eye on your pup, he needs to be confined. You can do this by putting him in the bathroom, putting him on a leash and keeping him with you, putting him in a crate, putting him in an x-pen, etc. (The yard doesn’t count. There are other dangerous things to destroy.) If he’s not crate trained, see this.

The reason you do this is to make it so he doesn’t learn, “When people are around I can’t chew things, but when they’re gone…” We want not-chewing-things to be such a habit that when you do leave him alone, he doesn’t do it! This will take 2 months, maybe more depending on the dog.

Second, get yourself a static collar. PetSafe makes one that’s strong enough to surprise and cause discomfort, but is nowhere near the zap of a bark collar.  These are $140, and worth every penny.

Now, you’re going to put it on him, and not turn it on for several days. This is extremely important; we want him to forget he’s wearing it! Otherwise he’ll learn to behave when it’s on and not behave when it’s off.

Next, set it on five. Five is strong enough to startle, but not enough to really hurt. We just want that startle reaction — we want your pup to think that when he chews things, they bite him back! If your dog is anxious he might yelp and pee when you do it. That’s okay. Child running into the street, remember. Better to alarm him than kill him. That yelp is a startle reaction, not necessarily a pain reaction, so we’re not torturing him. Now, when he goes to SNIFF something with great interest that he shouldn’t chew, bump the “static” button. Don’t say anything, don’t reprimand him; let him think the couch bit him. The reason you do this when he goes to sniff is because puppies sniff things they want to chew or pee on. When you’re gone he’ll break a rule: we want that rule to be sniffing but not chewing! If we tell him not to chew, then the rule he breaks will be chewing. (Obviously, you can also do this for when he’s chewing on something.) If you don’t get a reaction, turn it up and bump the button again. Don’t hold the button down, and only use this collar on chewing (no matter how tempting it is to use it on other things.) If you over-use it, it’ll create anxiety and make him think the world just shocks him randomly, and then he’ll be anxious and still doing all the bad things. THIS IS NOT A QUICK FIX-IT MACHINE. DON’T USE IT LIKE IT IS.

Since he’s confined when you’re not paying attention, every time he messes up for the next two months he’ll get that correction. He’ll figure it out surprisingly quick! (For many dogs, within a week if you’re really on top of it.) This doesn’t mean he can be trusted alone; give him the two months to make it a habit. While you’re doing this, start finding ways to reward him A LOT. Dogs with anxiety need LOTS of praise; teach him to sit, teach him tricks, anything you can to make him happy.

Best Case Scenario:
If these are ALL true, you’re in the best case scenario:
He only started chewing dangerous things within the last couple of weeks.
He was doing much better about not chewing everything, or had only a couple of things he tended to go back to.
He chews on things only once a day, when he gets really bored.
You’re there when he does it.

If this is the case, do the following:

You still need to confine him when you’re gone, for all the same reasons as above.

When you’re home and able to supervise, have him around. Use a squirt bottle (a heavy duty one, and put it on stream) and a can of pennies/a rolled-up newspaper. These aren’t for him; they’re to make a loud noise and startle him.

When he starts to sniff something with interest (see above for explanation), squirt him, slap the paper against the wall, or throw the can of pennies near him (NOT at him). All of these are startle techniques, and will startle him into leaping away from the thing he’s chewing.

This will take closer to a month to solve. The reason I suggest the collar for serious cases is because he may not have a month if he’s eating glass! But if that’s a rare occurrence, then you can do it this “gentler” way and take the time. This will not stress him out as much, but it also gets slower results. It may take 3-4 months of confinement before he can be trusted alone, but it also won’t create any more anxiety than he already has. (I cannot guarantee that’ll be the case with a static collar.)

In both cases, make it a point to hand him his toys and reward him for chewing on those, instead of anything else.

If you have greater concerns or a dog who is tenacious, again, I STRONGLY recommend calling a professional.

Jenna
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