Updated: Nov 28
You’re watching TV, reading a book, or talking on the phone. You suddenly glance over at your puppy who is walking through the room with one of your new athletic shoes. You yell “No!”, jump up and chase your puppy through the house. When you catch up to him you take the shoe away and go back to what you were doing.
If this story sounds familiar to you it’s because you either have had a puppy in your past, or currently have a puppy! This is certainly something that I’ve done, because no one wants a puppy destroying things.
What to do with a destructive puppy
However, there’s a couple of problems with this particular scenario when it comes to puppies. First of all, in an ideal world the puppy wouldn’t have access to your shoes. Just as if you had a 2-year-old child in your home you would childproof and place breakables and unsafe items out of reach, you also need to puppy proof your home. Anything a puppy can pick up and carry off should be removed from the areas where the puppy has access.
One of the concerns I hear raised by puppy parents is that if they put things away the puppy will never learn not to chew, destroy or play with it. And I truly understand the logic behind this way of thinking. However, what I’ve seen happen over and over again is that prevention through management works. If you prevent access to non-allowed items, and get the puppy in the habit of engaging with their toys, later you can leave your shoes by the front door and place the remote on the coffee table with very few issues.
I say “in an ideal world” because we are human and are not perfect. We might unthinkingly place a remote control on the coffee table without considering that it’s nose height of the 12-week-old puppy. The puppy gets it and “the game’s afoot” as far as the puppy is concerned.
Puppies aren’t born knowing what is and what isn’t ok to play with, just as children aren’t born knowing the same. A puppy being destructive is very normal, and as knowledgeable grown-ups our job is to prevent them from getting stuff they aren’t supposed to get, while at the same time teaching them what they can play with.
Chewing is a natural behavior for dogs, and they need a way to be able to perform it. Puppies tend to chew even more than adult dogs because they may be teething, it helps them explore their world, and relives boredom.
A puppy destructive when left alone is completely normal. Remember that they don’t yet know the rules. If you can’t directly supervise your puppy, then it would be best to prevent your puppy from having access to anything they may get into. Using management by crating your puppy, confining them to an exercise pen or a puppy safe room is the best way to keep both your puppy and your belongings safe.
What to do when puppy chews on things
So, what should you do if one of the kids forgot to put their shoes in the closet and the puppy gleefully runs through the house with one? The worst thing to do is to jump up yelling and chasing the puppy all over the house.
Because to the puppy it IS a game. If the puppy was a bit bored and no one was giving him attention, he’s just learned that a great way to have fun and engage with his humans is to play a fantastic game of keep away! The more he gets that kind of reaction from his humans, the more likely it is that he’ll want to play the game of “steal the shoe”.
The better thing to do is to trade your puppy for the shoe with either a squeaky toy or a really great treat. One of the reasons I recommend trading is that it’s a way to prevent your puppy from learning to guard objects.
If every time your puppy gets a “prize” their human chases them down, grabs them and pries the prize from their jaws, it could cause some puppies to get so annoyed they start to growl and snap when they have something they think of as valuable. This could lead to resource guarding behavior that gets worse as the puppy matures.
If on the other hand they learn that giving up a prize means they get really fantastic treats or a wonderful squeaky toy, they’ll learn that giving valuables up is no big deal.
But doesn’t this also reinforce my puppy for stealing shoes? The answer to this is of course it does! I have two responses to this reality.
First of all, wouldn’t it be better if your puppy voluntarily spit out contraband, rather than you having to chase them all over the house? Even better is that some puppies find valuables and bring it to their humans in hopes of making a trade.
But second of all, trading your puppy for prizes isn’t meant to teach them what to play with and what not to play with. Remember that I said in an ideal world your puppy wouldn’t have access to shoes, sunglasses, remote controls or anything else you don’t want them to have. Trading is supposed to be an emergency measure for when management fails. So, continue your puppy proofing, and try to remember to put the shoes in the closet and everything else out of reach.
What to do if your puppy chews furniture
Of course, there are still things your puppy can get into and chew on that you really can’t put away, such as furniture, molding and carpeting. This is where supervision comes into play. Just as you wouldn’t leave a toddler alone unless they were safe in a playpen or crib, you shouldn’t leave a puppy alone unless they’re confined to a place where they can’t get into anything.
If your puppy starts to chew on something they shouldn’t, you need to consistently interrupt, and get them interested in a chew toy instead. Interruptions shouldn’t be corrections; remember that your puppy is a baby and truly doesn’t know any better. Simply clap your hands or squeak a toy to get the puppy’s attention, and then get them interested in a toy.
A lot of people make the mistake of just handing the puppy a toy. That might work sometimes, but you’re better off trying to make sure that toy is as interesting as possible to build value for it in the puppy’s mind.
Swish the toy around on the floor in a little keep away game, hide it behind your back and then suddenly bring it out, or show it to your pup and run away. Once you’ve got your puppy’s attention you can let your puppy have the toy.
How to stop a puppy from being destructive
So far, I’ve focused solely on what to do when management fails, or when your supervision allowed you to notice your puppy practicing undesirable chewing. But I’ve yet to discuss the most important part of teaching your puppy what it is you DO want them to play with and chew. And this is the most important part of raising a well-mannered puppy! You want to catch them being good.
It’s not enough to prevent or interrupt the undesirable behaviors your puppy is engaging in. It’s no fun for anyone to hear “No” to everything, and if that’s all your puppy hears they’re likely going to get frustrated. After all, the number of things in your house that you DON’T want your puppy to chew on or play with, far outnumber the items that the puppy can engage with. It’s not likely for the puppy to learn to only play with their toys through process of elimination.
Puppy chews everything but his toys
Training the puppy to play with their toys and leave everything else alone is simple in practice, but exhausting for the owner in reality. This is because whenever your puppy isn’t confined to a crate or x-pen or sleeping, you will be keeping an eye on them at all times. And during the times you’re closely observing your puppy you will actively notice when they are chewing on a toy, running around squeaking a stuffy, or relaxing on their dog bed.
At this point most puppy owners breathe a sigh of relief that the puppy is “behaving” and the owner can relax a bit. Manny puppy owner’s think, “thank goodness he’s lying on his bed, chewing on his toy! I better just let him be so he continues doing it.”
But this is the wrong attitude, because this is the exact time that you should be going out of your way to engage with your puppy. Give him a minute or two to let him enjoy that activity and then reward your puppy for doing the right thing. This is the time to give him a treat, call him over and engage with a bit of play, or take him for a walk or do another activity he enjoys.
The one exception to this is if your puppy is sleeping. Don't wake the puppy up and reward them, since puppies need their sleep as much as human babies do!
Yes, you just lost your peace and quiet, and yes you interrupted your puppy from doing what you want him to do. But if the best way to get your attention is to lay on the dog bed and chew on a dog toy, then that’s the behavior your puppy will choose to do regularly in the future. And as your puppy increasingly choses the “right” behavior, you can wait longer before you reward it, and eventually reward that behavior only some of the time.
Once your puppy matures and you notice they make good choices most of the time, you can relax your puppy proofing. If you notice your puppy showing interest in the remote control you placed on the coffee table, be proactive and grab a toy to redirect your puppy to something more appropriate before they pick up the remote. If your puppy still seems interested in playing with that item, understand this is an indication your puppy isn’t mature enough to handle those temptations, and resume puppy proofing and try again at a later date.
Raising a puppy is a lot of hard work requiring management, supervision and consistency. But when all of those are put into place, it pays off, and you’ll end up with an adult dog that can be trusted in your home.