Surviving the Termite Phase of Puppyhood

06.21.2021

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Starting December 2023

One of the most common “problems” I get asked about as a dog trainer is how to keep puppies from chewing on anything and everything they can get their little puppy teeth on. I like to refer to this as the “termite phase.” I started calling it this when I noticed a fairly common trend…puppies really seem to enjoy chewing on wood. This could be wood furniture, base boards, flooring, kitchen cabinets, fencing, sticks, mulch, and anything in between. I have recently experienced this phase with Kiely. In typical Staffordshire Bull Terrier fashion, she really enjoys chewing! Last summer she was very helpful when we were clearing brush. She would run up, snag a small tree branch out of my hands then run off with it and chew on it. When Armada was a young lad, I found his teeth on the kitchen chairs, the kitchen table legs, end tables, and basically anything wood. Trek also had a pretty extensive termite phase, even when we got him at 18 months old! He would carry around (and chew) fairly large logs of firewood! With three dogs that had extensive termite phase as puppies, you might think I have all kinds of dog chewing damage in my house. I don’t! Part of this is because we moved a little over a year ago, but even in our old house we did not have any damage from puppy teeth.

This post is going to specifically discuss chewing on items, not on people. My friend Dr. Jen has written a great blog on Puppy Mouthing/Biting people with great information and strategies on how to get past the “Jaws phase” which generally coincides with the termite phase.

Why do puppies chew so much?

Puppies process and explore the world with their teeth. Look at a small human, they toddle and scamper around picking up everything with their hands (sometimes putting things in their mouths). Puppies don’t have hands, so the way way they explore their environment is by using their mouths. Mouthing is very much a species-specific normal behavior. Take a look at when dogs play. Their mouths are heavily involved during play from wee pups on up to adulthood. During the exploration phase, puppies learn what makes their teeth feel good. Think of it as the Goldilocks principle. They want something that’s not too soft, not too hard, but just right to give them the relief they need, especially when teething. Sometimes items that are “just right” happen to be items we do not want our puppies to chew on. This is why it is really important to offer your puppy a variety of items that are safe for him or her to chew on. Some days a puppy might enjoy a fabric toy. Other days a puppy might want a rubber toy or nylabone. Proper chewing is also important for oral health of your dog as well.

Keeping your house and items safe from puppy teeth is super important for a few reasons. One reason is because there are plenty of dangerous items around the house that puppies could chew on. Non-dog fabric items (and some fabric dog toys) can be dangerous if consumed by causing blockages in the digestive system. Sometimes blockages will pass, but more often they require veterinarian intervention to resolve. Another danger to be mindful of are electrical cords. While your puppy may not die from this, he or she could suffer severe permanent damage. There are also plenty of items that are toxic to dogs, such as certain types of mulch, various plants (hydrangeas, lilies, and poinsettias are just a few), toxic finishes on wood furniture, and more. Resentment, on the human’s part, is another reason I try to make sure your puppy does not chew on inappropriate items. A puppy that chews up grandma’s handmade Afghan Blanket or a child’s favorite toy is likely not going to go over well with certain members of the family. Resentment will cause a breakdown in your relationship with your puppy. As a dog trainer, my goal is for people to have good relationships with their puppies.

Some Strategies

Management

Management is when we set our dogs up for success by controlling their environment. This is the #1 best advice I can give for puppy owners! So what does management look like? In my house, management is blocking off access to the house where I’m unable to keep an eye on my puppy for 100% of the time. If I’m unable to keep an eye on my puppy, he or she will be in his or her crate or exercise pen. I do not want my puppy practicing behaviors I don’t like, such as: pottying in the house or chewing on inappropriate items. This keeps my puppy safe, keeps me from being frustrated with my puppy, and allows my puppy to learn how to be confined or be away from me for periods of time. Each puppy will have a different timeline for when more freedom can be granted to them. I allow more freedom when my puppy shows me that he or she is responsible with their teeth and with their bladder and bowels. This means, if a puppy is choosing to chew on his or her toys and is giving me signs for when they need to go outside, I will give a LITTLE bit of more freedom. Freedom is gained gradually, in like 5-10 minute increments.

Sometimes you do not even have to do any training for management for be successful. For example, at one point during the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 Kiely thought TPing the house would be a great idea. The first time, I did not give much thought to it, but once she started doing it fairly often, I just simply moved the toilet paper roll out of her reach. A year later, I put the toilet paper back on the holder, and she has yet to TP the house. The point here is, I didn’t even have to do any training. I just made something inaccessible for a period of time, until she grew up, and it is no longer an issue. If I had left the toilet paper roll where it was, I would probably still have this issue. Because she would have practiced this unwanted behavior, gotten enjoyment out of it, and repeated it.

Provide Safe Opportunities

By providing a large sampling of appropriate items to chew on, my puppy will be less likely to choose something inappropriate. Some days my puppy might want something hard to chew on. On another day my puppy might want something soft to chew on. By providing various types of appropriate chew toys, my puppy is more likely to try his or her toys, rather than my couch. Some examples of toys I provide for my dogs are as follows:

  • Nylabones – these are safe, hard chew toys. Because the entire bone is generally not consumed in one day, I find this to be a safe chew toy. Nylabone even makes puppy safe versions of the adult version. Be sure to purchase the right type of toy for your puppy’s age.
  • Benebones – these are similar to nylabones, as being a safe, hard chew toy, which will last for weeks to months depending on your dog’s chew style. Benebone also makes puppy safe versions of the adult version. Be sure to purchase the right type of toy for your puppy’s age.
  • Antlers – you can find these in the woods, or buy them from a commercial dealer. For puppies, I recommend buying deer antlers that are “split” so the softer “marrow” is exposed. Deer antlers can sometimes cause broken teeth, so be sure your dog is chewing appropriately when chewing an antler.
  • Buffalo Horns – since bull horns are made out of keratin, which is essentially compact hair, this chew almost acts as a toothbrush as the dog chews on it. This is also a slightly softer chew than the previously mentioned toys.
  • Kongs – these rubber toys can be filled will food, which can help occupy your pup, but also provide a soothing chew, especially when teething. Kong makes various types of toys for size and age of dogs. They specifically make puppy versions, while also include their regular rubber toys and black kongs for super chewers.
  • Dog Specific Fabric Toys – Fabric that does not unravel is important. If it comes off in chunks like polar fleece, it is unlikely to cause GI obstructions. There are certain types of fabric dog toys I find to be very dangerous, such as the rope toys that are made of strings compacted together, toys with fleecy looking add ons that are woven throughout the toy. If your gut says “this might be dangerous for my dog” then it very well could be.

It is always a good idea to supervise your dogs when they are chewing on toys to ensure they are not consuming dangerous amounts of toys. It is always recommended to discard toys once they have become damaged.

Make It Unpleasant

I generally do not like to use aversive methods (something my dog deems unpleasant) with my dogs, but I will say, sometimes there’s no other options. As previously mentioned, dogs chewing is normal behavior and we do not want to completely discourage chewing; we just want to direct it to more appropriate items. If you have a “sneaky chewer” meaning your puppy will chew on an item at your feet with you RIGHT there, you could use a product like Bitter Apple, Bitter Yuck, or a similar “no chew” spray. Some dogs enjoy the taste or Bitter Apple, so you may need to play around with different products, but I would only use this as a last resort! Be VERY careful on how you use this. Be sure your dog does not associate this unpleasant experience with you and be diligent about not getting these products on items you WANT your dog to chew on. I have gotten Bitter Yuck in my mouth more than once, its terrible, but pickle juice helps get rid of the taste.

I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

 

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