Having a large Labrador Retriever munch his way through your furniture is no joke.
So, in this article, I’m going to show you how to stop your Labrador chewing up your things.
We’ll be looking at why puppies chew, why older Labs sometimes start chewing, and at the different options for fixing your chewing troubles.
And I’ll give you an ‘action plan’ to put an end to problem chewing for good.
Is chewing normal?
There is no doubt that some Labradors can be very destructive. But is constant chewing normal? Or is your Labrador suffering from some kind of behavioural problem?
I have read some interesting threads on forums, usually started by frustrated owners of puppies around six month of age that are systematically destroying the family’s possessions.
The responses are divided between those that think this behaviour is abnormal (“none of my dogs ever did that”) And those that think it is completely normal.
Over the last thirty-five years I have had usually had five or more dogs living with me at any one time. And have raised many puppies.
I have learned from these experiences, though perhaps not quite as quickly as I should have!
My take on this issue is that chewing, including extremely destructive chewing, is so common as to be absolutely normal. Particularly in young Labradors.
So if destructive chewing is pretty normal, how long does this stage go on for, why do dogs do it, and what is the best way to deal with it?
How long does the chewing stage last?
Many people assume that chewing is to do with teething.
And they naturally expect that puppies will stop chewing everything in sight once their baby teeth are lost and their adult teeth have come through.
And for some dogs this is the case. But for many Labradors, chewing continues long after the puppy has his full set of adult teeth
In fact it is fairly normal for a Labrador to continue to chew quite destructively up until around his second birthday. Chewing tends to fall off quite dramatically after that.
Why do dogs chew?
It helps to understand why most dogs chew, and why labradors in particular chew a lot.
There are a number of common reasons for chewing, apart from teething, including
- Relaxation and pleasure
Dogs that chew when they are bored
We all have different boredom thresholds, dogs are no different. Some dogs are quite happy to do very little for hours on end, others, not so much.
Labradors are intelligent, sociable dogs, and are particularly prone to boredom if left alone for long periods.
One way of relieving boredom, if you are a dog, is to chew things up!
It isn’t uncommon for chewing to become a problem once a dog gets to around a year old and his owners start leaving him alone for longer stretches of time. So it is worth bearing in mind how you are going to occupy your young dog when you are not there, and we’ll look at that in a moment.
Chewing as a means to relieve anxiety
Ideally, all dogs need to learn to spend time alone from puppyhood onwards. A well adjusted adult dog is then happy to be left from time to time, and will simply sleep when you are gone.
Dogs which are not taught to accept some periods of solitude in puppyhood, dogs which are left alone for far too long, or dogs that have had traumatic experiences when left alone may develop a disorder called separation anxiety.
A dog which becomes very anxious when left, may resort to destroying your possessions, or even the fabric of your home, in order to relieve his anxiety.
Which brings us to the point that the act of chewing is in itself, is very pleasurable and calming to many dogs.
Dogs chewing for relaxation and pleasure
There is no doubt that many dogs simply chew for fun. They aren’t anxious, they are not particularly bored, they just enjoy having a good long chew.
It relaxes them, and makes them feel happy.
The problems arise, when that chewing activity is directed at the wrong items – your items!
Relaxation chewing is particularly common in Labradors and other retrievers. This is probably partly because we have bred them to enjoy having things in their mouths.
Unusual causes of dogs chewing
Occasionally a dog will start chewing because he has some kind of medical problem. This is more likely to be the cause if the chewing starts quite suddenly in an older dog that has never had a chewing problem before.
As with any other unusual changes in your dog’s behaviour, a chewing habit that suddenly appears in a mature dog, needs to be reported to your vet so that he can rule out any physical problems that may be affecting your pet.
Is my dog hungry?
Chewing isn’t really related to hunger, though of course a hungry dog may be bored or even stressed while waiting for his meal, and chew for those reasons.
Eating is a fairly transient affair for most Labradors in any case, so you can never hope to prevent chewing by giving your dog something to eat. It’ll be gone in a moment, doesn’t satisfy the urge to chew, and he’ll soon be as fat as a barrel.
Is chewing a habit?
Like many other stress busting or pleasurable activities, chewing can become a deeply ingrained habit.
Habits can be difficult to change and breaking a habit may involve physically preventing your dog from parts of your home. We’ll look at that in more detail below.
Now we have looked at all kinds of reasons for chewing, let’s make a plan to improve things.
Action plan to stop your Labrador chewing
Whether you have a small puppy in the throes of teething, or an older dog that is chewing from boredom or just because he can, there are three parts to our plan
- Remove causes
- Redirect the chewing
- Break the habit
We’ll look at each of these in turn in a moment. But some people will tell you that its a good idea to punish your dog if you catch him chewing up your things, so first let’s look at the role that punishment or corrections have to play.
What about punishing dogs for chewing?
There are a number of problems with punishment in general, but punishment for chewing is especially problematic.
Punishment, even very mild punishment, focuses a lot of attention on the dog and perversely, this can make things worse, especially with a dog that is bored, and/or craves more of your attention.
Many Labradors are quite attention seeking, they have been bred to work closely with their human partners and being together, is very important to them.
If your dog feels rewarded by your attention, even though you are angry with him, it won’t stop him wrecking your stuff in the future.
Behind your back
Most destructive chewing in older dogs goes on behind your back, or when you are out. Punishment can sometimes be a way to teach your dog not to chew things in front of you. It is however nigh on impossible to teach a dog not to chew things in your absence.
Short of setting up a video, monitoring it around the clock, and operating some kind of remote punishment device in your kitchen, it can’t be done.
Punishment only works, if it occurs during the bad behaviour.
It won’t work if you punish your dog when you get home, for chewing up the sofa cushions while you were out.
He’ll just think you are grumpy and unreasonable.
Effectively, all punishment does, is teach your dog to be more sneaky about chewing.
Staying friends with your puppy
Remember also, that punishing a puppy will not prevent him chewing – he needs to chew and chewing is completely normal and natural for him.
What punishment will do, is make your puppy afraid of you. So I really don’t recommend it.
#1.Remove the causes of chewing
So, let’s look at practical ways to stop your Labrador chewing things you don’t want him to chew.
The first step is to make sure you have removed the causes of chewing that can be avoided. Let’s begin with boredom.
Preventing your dog being bored
Labradors need plenty of exercise and some company. In many homes, everyone is out at work all day, and young dogs can get very bored when left alone for long periods.
Try to give your dog a good long walk before you leave for work, and arrange for someone to come in and take him for another walk part way through the day. He is more likely to relax and sleep rather instead of dismantling your sofa cushions, if he has had enough exercise.
If your day is a very long one, consider sending him to doggy day care where he will enjoy the company of other dogs while you are at work.
Combining a dog with full time work can be challenging and you may need some extra help. You’ll find lots of information in that link and you can get support from other working dogs parents in our forum
Preventing separation anxiety
If your older dog has a separation anxiety issues do consider getting a consultation with a behaviourist. They will be able to assess your dog in his home environment and give you a plan to help him.
If you have a young puppy, you can avoid separation anxiety developing by teaching your puppy to cope with being alone for short periods of time from an early age.
Check out my click for quiet article for more information on helping puppies that cry when you leave them. And keep separations very short to begin with.
Make sure that puppies left alone for more than a minute or two, have something appropriate to occupy them. Rescue dogs may need to be treated in a similar way, and introduced to separation gradually, when you first bring them home.
Chewing for pleasure
Of course there is one cause of chewing you cannot and should not try to remove, or prevent in your dog, and that is chewing for pleasure.
What we do instead with dogs that like to chew for pleasure, and that includes all puppies, is redirect their chewing onto something more appropriate than your favourite shoes
#2. Redirect the chewing onto appropriate toys
Once you have tackled the causes of destructive chewing, you need to tackle your dog’s natural need to chew for pleasure.
This means redirecting his chewing activities onto sensible alternatives. This isn’t always as straightforward as it might seem.
Most people give their dogs chew toys. And wonder why he prefers to gnaw on the table legs. The fact is, most chew toys are rather boring.
Some puppies enjoy those giant knotted rope toys, though they are not indestructible and you’ll need to keep an eye on them and remove them when they start to come apart.
The ideal chew toy
To really make chew toys appealing you usually need to add something interesting. And for most Labradors, that means food.
Dipping chew toys in savoury spreads like marmite or peanut butter can help extend the pleasure time, but not for long.
The answer lies in the wonderful Kong toy. In fact what you need is not one, but several Kongs.
Why Kongs help stop Labradors chewing your things
The kong is a hollow, tough, rubber toy that most dogs cannot destroy. The Kong Extreme is especially sturdy and great for very aggressive chewers.
Your job is to fill this hollow centre with something delicious and then (this is the important part) freeze it solid.
When you leave your puppy or young dog alone or unsupervised for long – give him a frozen Kong first.
This will keep him happy for quite some time.
Choosing the right kong
You can get Kongs in puppy sizes for little ones, and in extra strong rubber (black) for really strong chewers. The red ones are suitable for most adult Labs.
Kongs are not the cheapest toy, but they are an indispensable aid to the long term prevention of destructive chewing. Don’t leave home without giving one to your dog. This is especially important with dogs that have an existing chewing habit, or suffer from boredom or anxiety.
So, now you have tackled your dog’s boredom, and any anxiety issues, and you have an alternative system for redirecting his chewing onto his frozen kong toys. What next?
#3. Avoid or break bad habits
The final step in the plan is to break any existing bad chewing habits, and in young puppies, to prevent those habits developing. In both cases this is a physical issue.
When it comes to avoiding or breaking bad habits, it means physically preventing the puppy from being able to indulge in them.
Some people struggle with this. They are hoping for a command or cue to give their dog, that will prevent chewing in their absence. But this isn’t going to happen.
Putting things away
Before we have our first dog, we are all used to being able to put things down on the floor or low tables, and for them to still be there when we come back.
Life with a puppy isn’t quite like that. If you leave the TV remote on the chair, your puppy will pick it up. He’ll then run around with it for a bit, and when he’s done running, he’ll lie down and chew it up. That’s what puppies do.
Trying to deal with this one incident at a time is exhausting and you’ll soon fall out with your puppy in a big way.
The best way is to prevent your puppy having access to rooms with important items in them, and to teach yourself and your kids to pick up your stuff in rooms where puppies have free access. Obviously, you can’t put your sofa away, or your favourite lamp, so let’s look at protecting things that cannot be moved.
You can buy spray on repellents that will put some puppies off chewing. You can try spraying it on your table legs and so on.
Bitter apple spray is a popular one, and it does work, for some dogs. Sadly not for all.
Some puppies and young dogs seem indifferent to the taste and will happily carry on chewing your furniture or baseboards, even when liberally coated in unpleasant substances!
A more effective solution, and one that is particularly suitable for puppies that are not yet fully house trained, is physical exclusion.
Methods of physical exclusion
To keep puppies away from your more precious possessions and soft furnishings, at a minimum, you’re going to need some baby gates.
Put these across doorways or anywhere you don’t want the puppy to go. Upstairs for example.
For older dogs, you can get taller baby gates that even a Labrador can’t jump.
You can even get extending baby gates for large openings in open plan homes.
If you are interesting in finding out more about this then check out our puppies and baby gates article.
Crating your puppy
Many people use a crate to keep their puppy out of mischief at night, and when they leave the house. Some of you won’t want to do this, but for those that do, there is plenty of information in our crates and crate training section.
If you are going to crate your puppy you need to do so for very short periods of time and leave the puppy suitable chew toys to occupy his need to chew while you are gone.
If you are going to go out for longer periods, then you’ll need to get someone to care for your puppy or use a puppy play pen or puppy proof room, instead of a crate.
Don’t forget your vehicle!
Crates are really useful in vehicles too and can save a lot of heart ache. One small dog can run up a very large bill when left alone in the interior of a car for a few minutes.
Many years ago my young Labrador ate through both the passenger and driver safety belts in our Landrover when left alone for less than twenty minutes. That was a pretty expensive lesson for us as a young hard-up couple.
You can buy safety harnesses for young dog to sit on the back seat of your vehicle, but these and the interior of your car are vulnerable to the attentions of your labrador’s teeth.
A crate in the vehicle is often a better solution until your Labrador has got past the chewing stage.
What about puppy bedding?
People often ask me what they can do about their puppy chewing up his own bed.
This is a tricky one.
None of us wants to see a puppy without a bed, but if your puppy is tearing lumps off his and swallowing them, you are going to need to remove it for a while.
A firm mat, or some vet bed is often the best option for bed chewers, but you’ll need to watch and supervise to make sure your puppy isn’t swallowing that too.
When the chewing finally stops
At some point, most dogs, even Labradors, grow out of constant chewing.
At this point, having broken the bad habit or successfully prevented one from starting, you’ll be able to give your dog the freedom of the house. You can heave a sigh of relief and put away your bitter apple spray.
The moment at which you reach this point will vary from dog to dog but is easily misjudged. I recently answered a question from the owner of a young Labrador that had been de-crated at seven months old. He had been very well-behaved in the house for a couple of weeks, and then the chewing had begun.
The problem was that his owner had de-crated him a little too soon, while he was still in the chewing stage.
In the article I set out a de-crating plan for her, which you might find helpful if you are wondering if now is the right time to give your Lab some more freedom.
It may help to remember that many Labradors will carry on chewing things they shouldn’t chew, well past their first birthday, and some will continue until they are around two years old.
So, a little patience is required.
Remember to be very generous with those frozen Kongs during the de-crating process and for the next few months.
If your dog hasn’t started a chewing habit by then, he probably never will.
As you can see, chewing is pretty normal, especially in Labradors, and it can last for much longer than early puppyhood.
Most experts now agree that destructive chewing is best avoided by reducing boredom, treating any anxiety problems, providing appropriate chew toys, and preventing very young dogs from having access to your more precious things.
With dogs that have already become destructive, it is especially important to break the habit by preventing access to the things he was destroying. This can take a little time and patience, but gets long term results.
More help and information
Don’t forget that de-crating needs to be done in stages, and there is a de-crating plan in this article to help you.
It will help you get your puppy off to a great start with potty training, socialisation and early obedience.
The Happy Puppy Handbook is available worldwide.
Do you have a chewer?
Is or was your Labrador a chewer? What is the most expensive / precious thing your dog ever destroyed? Tell us your story and share your pain with us in the comments box below!
This article has been extensively revised and updated for 2015