Dog chewing up pillow

Q. Our dog eats strange things all the time, everything from television remote controls to our daughter's toys. With the expense of replacement already a factor, we obviously don't want to be running to the veterinarian all the time. When is eating a nonfood item an emergency? How can we end this behavior?

A. I recommend some training … for the people in your home. You need to learn to put things away while you manage and redirect your dog’s behavior.

Chewing is normal for dogs. It’s necessary for puppies who are teething, and it's a deeply satisfying behavior for many older dogs as well. Dogs love to chew objects that are heavily impregnated with the scent of human family members. Toys and reading glasses are common targets, and one company that sells replacement remote controls notes that “the dog ate it” is the second most popular reason for replacement after “we lost it.” These objects aren’t the only things dogs will chew, of course, and veterinarians have surgically removed everything from underwear and socks to piles of rocks from dogs.

Just because your dog likes to chew on your stuff doesn't mean it's good for him, though — quite the opposite, in fact.

What to Watch For

If you know your dog has swallowed a “foreign body,” as we veterinarians call them, you need to be prepared for a veterinary visit. Many times things “pass” without incident (and yes, you need to check stools), and emerge with little damage to the dog or the object, as in the case of the dog who swallowed diamonds. But if your dog stops eating or starts vomiting, you need to get to a veterinarian right away.

Once there, your veterinarian will likely suggest radiographs. Exploratory surgery may be necessary if an obstruction is suspected, even if it doesn’t show up on an X-ray, as may be the case with cloth objects such as socks or stuffed animals.

Prevention Preferred

No one wants to put a dog through surgery, which is why prevention is a better solution. Get everyone in the habit of putting clothes in hampers, closing bedroom doors and putting eyeglasses and remotes out of reach. When you’re not home to observe him, it’s a good idea to confine your dog to a small, uncluttered part of the house, and give him a special chew object, such as a stuffed Kong.

Use positive reinforcement to teach your dog what he can chew. When he takes an approved object to chew, like the Kong, praise him. If you catch him with something he shouldn’t have, remove it without comment, provide an acceptable chew toy and praise him for chewing on that.

Most dogs will outgrow the need for constant chewing by the age of 2 or so, but will continue to enjoy chewing when you offer safe objects. Here are three rules of thumb for choosing chew toys:

  1. If you wouldn't want a chew toy to hit you in the knee, don't give it to your dog. Bones from the butcher can crack or break teeth, or splinter and cause problems in the digestive tract.
  2. Choose toys that are too big to be swallowed in their entirety, and can't be chewed into pieces and choked on or swallowed. Many stuffed animal toys have button eyes that can be gnawed off and swallowed, not to mention stuffing and plastic squeakers inside that may end up in your dog's stomach. Rubber Kongs, on the other hand, tend to be more indestructible than other toys.
  3. If you give your dog rawhide chews, opt for the thicker bones rather than thin strips. Only give these to your dog under supervision, and take away any small pieces that your dog may chew off.

By being careful — and training your family and your pet — you will hopefully be able to avoid emergency visits!