Amanda’s Border Collie Charlie is a chewer. “I am so frustrated and upset,” Amanda says over a cup of coffee to her favorite barista, Mike. “I’ve given up telling him to stop chewing the sofa legs, and I put all my bags up high so he can’t get to them anymore, but yesterday, he destroyed my favorite sneakers. You know — my new Chuck Taylors? I found them in the family room when I came home from work. They’re ruined!” Mike nods while making someone a one-shot latte.
“So I scolded him big time,” Amanda continues. “He knows not to do it. He never destroys stuff when I’m home now. He only does it when I’m gone, and he totally gave me a guilty look when I came in yesterday. Before I even saw the shoes, he looked at me in that sort of sheepish way, like he knew he messed up.
“Wow,” Mike says, as he tops off her coffee. “I wonder why he’s destroying everything. I had a dog growing up, and she never did this kind of stuff. It’s crazy.
“Yeah. I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” Amanda says. “I love Charlie, but I can’t afford to replace all this stuff. I wish I knew how to get him to stop.”
We can help! Let’s figure out why Charlie keeps chewing things and see what can be done about it.
What is the dog's body language?(List what the dog looks and sounds like.) We don’t know what Charlie looks like when Amanda is not home, but when she comes home from work, his weight shifts back from her, and he kind of makes himself look small. His eyes are wide with lots of whites showing, and his pupils are dilated. His tail is tucked.
What is going on? (Describe the context.) Charlie used to chew stuff whether he was alone or not. Amanda would scold him when she was home and saw him doing it. Now he only chews when she’s not home. Amanda scolds Charlie when she comes home, after she finds something chewed up.
Now we put the information together:
By clicking on Chewingin All About Dogs, we learn that chewing is actually something dogs do because it’s great exercise for their jaws, and it’s really enjoyable — in the same way that we love to read a good book or watch a favorite movie.
But chewing can also be a sign that the dog is upset if, for instance, he only does it when he’s alone, and he’s chewing exit points such as door and window frames. That could indicate that the dog is suffering from separation anxiety.
Charlie is only chewing things when he’s alone now, but that wasn’t always the case. He used to chew stuff when Amanda was home, but he got in trouble for doing so.
Let’s keep digging to see if we can figure out if Charlie is chewing to pass the time or if it’s because he’s scared.
Like this dog in the Body Language Gallery, we can see that Charlie does indeed look upset. With his tucked tail, hard eyes, and body looking smaller and shifting away from Amanda, he looks frightened. So the question is, what is Charlie afraid of?
Charlie only chews when he’s alone now, so that could point towards separation anxiety. The way to know for certain if that is the case would be to get video of him when he’s alone. We asked Amanda to do that for us, using an app on her iphone that turned the phone into a camera while she watched Charlie on her computer. Not only did Charlie not look scared when she was gone, he actually looked relaxed. His demeanor changed when Amanda came back home.
Charlie has always been a chewer. But now he only chews things when he’s home alone, after being scolded for doing it when Amanda was home.
What's the answer?
If Charlie were chewing because he had separation anxiety, he would look scared when he was alone and then become relieved when Amanda came home. What we’re seeing is the opposite: Charlie is relaxed when he’s home alone, enjoying himself while chewing on this and that, and then he becomes scared when Amanda comes home, because that’s when she scolds him.
So, Charlie isn’t feeling guilty; he has become afraid of Amanda.
In 2009, researcher Alexandra Horowitz conducted a study to see if the “guilty look” that so many dog owners, like Amanda, claimed they saw, was actually a look of guilt. The results showed that the dogs were not looking like Charlie because they felt guilty; they were actually looking that way because they were afraid of being punished.
In this case, Charlie is chewing because it’s fun. He learned that he couldn’t do it when Amanda was home, because he would get into trouble, but as he happily chewed all day while she was at work without her telling him to stop, he thought it was cool for him to do it then.
He also learned that when Amanda came home from work each day, she would yell at him and point her finger in his face, which was pretty scary. It turned out that she was scolding him hours after he had finished chewing, so he never connected the scolding to the chewing. He instead learned that Amanda coming home from work lead to something scary happening, so he connected the punishment with her arrival. (Read more on this in How Dogs Learn.)
We have some good news to share: Dogs can be taught what is acceptable to chew (i.e. toys such as Kongs), and what is not, the same way dogs are housetrained. Visit Enrichmentto learn about ways to help your dog get the mental and physical stimulation he needs, and click here to find a qualified trainer if you would like help allowing your dog to get his “chew” on in a way that makes everyone happy.