Puppies put everything in their mouths. They all do it to some extent—it is perfectly normal for puppies to explore the world with their mouths. Most of the time it is not a big deal and no harm comes from pups learning about their environment in this manner. Puppies will pick things up, chew a little, spit them out, and go on their way. They will nibble a bit of grass or a leaf, pick up a stick, or grab a stray sock. But on occasion, pups can get themselves into serious trouble by eating the wrong thing. Pups can eat things that can be toxic such as mushrooms or marijuana, they can eat things that can’t be digested such as plastic or rocks, and even things that usually don’t cause problems such as sticks can cause splinters or even intestinal blockage. The following steps can help protect your pups and teach them not to chomp on everything in sight while they are growing up.
Prevention is your first line of defense.
- Puppy-proof your house. Shoes, socks, kid’s toys, even the TV remote should be picked up and put out of reach. Tidying up makes a big difference.
- Check out your yard for poisonous plants, mushrooms, colored mulches and other potentially toxic things. Temporary fencing around plants can go a long way toward protecting your pup.
- On walks and when exploring the neighborhood, keep your pup in safer areas. Pay attention to what is on the ground. Scan the environment first, then let them sniff and explore. Keeping them on leash can be helpful.
- When you can’t supervise your pup, have them in a puppy safe area such as behind a baby gate in the kitchen, in an exercise pen, or in a crate.
Don’t worry, these measures won’t last forever. Puppies do outgrow the “eat everything” stage, but until they do, keep them safe.
Channel their chewing and exploration.
Putting things in their mouths is almost a compulsion for some pups. And puppies go through various stages with this depending on where they are at in teething. Channeling their desire to sniff, explore, and chew will make it a little less likely that they will do so at other times.
Start by giving your pup lots of interesting things to chew. Rotate chews so they don’t get bored of them, use stuffed Kongs, and try other food-dispensing toys. When they have lots of chew options, they may be less likely to be putting things in them at other times.
You can also give them safe opportunities to sniff out things. Find it games with toys or treats can channel their natural need to “hunt” for those interesting things. For example, in a safe area of your home or garden, hide a few tasty treats and let your dog search for them. Join them on the search. Sharing their joy at finding cool stuff can help later if you ever do need to take something away.
Another great tool is a “snuffle mat.” This is a specially designed rug that you can hide kibble or treats in. Your pup will have a blast finding their food and it will help satisfy their natural desire to search for interesting things.
When they do pick something up, don’t panic.
If you rush in, grab your pup, and wrestle things out of their mouth on a regular basis, your pup will do their best to keep you from taking things away (usually by playing keep away!). Some pups may even swallow items so that you won’t take them away. Instead of rushing in, evaluate the situation. Did your puppy just munch a few blades of grass? Did they pick up a stick and chew for a moment? These types of explorations are not usually dangerous and taking them in stride will help you both when you do need to take something away.
Train for those times when your pup needs help.
Here are a few very important exercises everyone can practice with their pups and dogs. They will pay off big time when your pup does need some help.
Drop it. This is a “spit that thing out of your mouth” behavior. The steps to teach it are pretty easy, but do take some practice. Give your dog something that they like to put in their mouths. A toy, a chew, or something like a food toy. Say, “drop” and then offer your dog something better than what they already have—say some awesome fresh chicken. When they drop the item to eat the chicken, praise like crazy and reward super generously (for example with four or five pieces of chicken in a row). Then let them go back to whatever they had in their mouths. Start with easier stuff, and graduate to having them drop more exciting things. Always reward generously with something better than what they have and in practice always let them have the item they dropped back. Practice this every day with several items for two to three weeks, then once a week thereafter. I also reinforce this when I am playing with my dog. Drop the ball—then chase the ball, for example.
Trade. This is similar to the drop it, but it can be for things that may or may not be in the dogs mouth and involve an extra step of removing the item for a moment. For example, ask your dog to drop and item, reward generously. Then say, “Trade” and pick up the item. Reward generously again four or five pieces of a high value treat. Then give your dog the item back. When you are training, always return the item to your dog! This is important so your dog learns that they can give you something without losing it. If your dog doesn’t have the item in their mouths, you just start with the “trade.” Every now and then you can do a trade with an item, reward your dog (generously!), and then give them another more valuable item instead of giving the first one back to your dog. As with the drop, you can practice this with several items a day, starting with easy items then progressing to more challenging trades, for several weeks. Then keep it sharp by practicing once a week for the rest of your dog’s life.
It’s your choice (also called Doggy Zen because “If you leave the treat, you will get the treat”). This helps dogs learn impulse control around things that they are interested in getting. This entire exercise is done without giving a cue. Step One: Start with several treats in your closed fist. Present your fist to your dog palm side up, off to the side, and at least two feet away from your dog. Immediately start feeding your dog from the other hand. Feed 10 treats in a row at a rate of about one per second. Praise your pup’s brilliance! Do this several times or until you can present the closed treat-filled fist to your dog and he starts looking to you for his rapid rewards.
Step two: Present your fist full of treats to your pup the same way—palm side up, off to the side, about two feet from your pup. Your puppy should look to you for those rapid treats from the other hand. Before giving those rapid treats, open your fist to a flat hand so that the treats are now in view, then immediately start rapid treating from the other hand—once again, 10 treats in a row, at a rate of about one per second. Do this step until you pup is easily looking to you when you bring out your fist full of treats and open your hand so the treats are easily accessible. If at any point your pup goes for the treats in your open hand, just calmly close your hand back into a fist. Hold your fist perfectly still. Don’t pull it away. Don’t tell them no or leave it. Just wait patiently. When your pup back off away from your hand (they usually do this quickly because you have prepped them for it by doing step one above first), open your hand and try again. If your pup dives for the treats a second time, simple close your fist and go back to step one for a little longer. Once your pup aces step two, continue to step three.
Step three: Now that your pup waits while you present an open hand of treats, you will feed him the treats from your open hand, one at a time with your other hand. If your pup dives for the treats at any point, simply close your fist as above. If he does it a second time, go back a step. Soon your pup will back away and wait while you open your hand, and slowly feed him one treat at a time.
The automatic leave it. There are two types of “leave its” that you will want to practice with your dog. One is the automatic leave it—this is when your dog leaves something interesting alone without you saying anything—and the “it’s your choice” exercise above will help prep your puppy for the automatic leave it. The automatic leave it will pay off with things on the ground that you don’t notice, as well as with counter surfing, and dropped items in your kitchen.
Start with your dog on leash. Put an interesting item such as a small container of kibble on the ground out of your dog’s reach. Keep your dog away from the container with the leash, and as soon as you put the container down start rapidly treating your dog with a high value food. As with the “it’s your choice” exercise, feed about 10 pieces of food at a rate of about one per second. After a couple of repetitions of this, when you put the container of kibble down, your dog will quickly look at you expecting those 10 pieces of chicken! Capture this disengagement by marking with your “click” or “yes” and immediately reinforce with your rapid treating. Be sure to mark the second his head turns. Once your dog is easily and successfully turning away from the kibble, try with more interesting foods such as training treats or cheese. When your dog is successfully turning away from food with no prompting from you, move the food to other surfaces such as a coffee table or kitchen counters. Continue practicing this for several days. Reward every time your dog ignores the food. When your dog is a rock star at this exercise on leash, practice with your dog off leash, but always make sure the thing they are leaving is doable. If it is too tempting and your dog dives for the food, it will set you back. Gradual successes build reliability much faster than pushing your pup too quickly so he makes mistakes.
Leave it—the cued behavior. Train the automatic leave it above first for the quickest success. Then, once your pup is really good, it is pretty simple to add a word to the behavior. Simple say, “leave it” just before your pup is about to turn away. Reward generously. They will quickly learn that when they hear those words, turn away from whatever interests them and get a fantastic reward.
Reinforcing your pup consistently and generously when they don’t put things in their mouths or when they give you something back will pay off big time! Your reinforcement can be anything that is better or more valuable (in your dog’s eyes) than what they have. In most cases a super duper high value food works well, but sometimes giving multiple pieces of food one after another can make up for a food not being as good as what they are leaving. And for some dogs, a game of tug or a chase of a ball will be an awesome reward. Every dog is different on what is valuable to them, so choose carefully for your dog.
Following the above guidelines and teaching these skills will help your pup get through the “put everything in their mouths” stage of life, and give you impulse control tools that will serve you and your pup for a lifetime!