Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Assessing Chewing Style

I usually have a foster, transport, hospice, or dogsitting charge in my care, and this means that I get to work with at least a couple of new dogs every year. I use crates, xpens, and baby gates to keep the new guys from destroying my house while they learn where to potty and how to not eat my mentally deficient cats. Since it would be unsafe to leave a new dog loose in the house, I like to give them plenty of things to do while they are crated or otherwise confined.

Photo by Erin Koski
For most dogs, the safest place to leave them is in a wire crate in the center of the room with nothing touching it, no bedding, and no collar or anything else left on the dog. This way there is no blanket or bedding for them to eat, no toys to chew and swallow, nothing to choke on, and nothing that will get caught and cause strangulation. It is also incredibly boring for the dog, and one with separation anxiety may panic if left like this. An easily bored or under-exercised dog might eat the plastic crate pan, though a metal pan will prevent this. Still, the bare crate with nothing close enough to be dragged inside is low on comfort and far from ideal. My first priority is to find a toy or chew that the new dog can enjoy with a minimal chance of getting hurt.

Here's my process for determining what my dogs can play with safely:

It is absolutely vital to supervise a dog whenever they are given a new kind of toy. After nine years I feel fairly confident that Brisbane is not going to eat anything that is not food, but I still watch him carefully whenever I give him a new product to test, like the Kong Marathon. I can be confident in a company and their products, but until I see my dog use it, I have no way of knowing if this product lives up to the advertising. There can be bad batches of rubber, design flaws, and sometimes a dog is just plain good at defeating a particular toy which is why we no longer have an Everlasting Fire Plug.
Photo by Erin Koski

Watching closely for danger signs helps, often rubber toys begin to split before the dog can actually pull pieces free. Playtime ends when the rubber splits, cracks, or otherwise loses integrity. Just watching isn't enough though, I also need to be able to get the toy away from the dog, preferably without getting bit or justifying a dog's fears that I am out to steal their precious. A new dog could be a serious resource guarder, and a dog with an unknown history may have been punished for warning before a bite. When I first give a toy to a new dog, I like to leave a leash on them so I can move the dog without putting any of my body parts in biting range. I also like to have some smelly treats nearby.

The procedure for taking a toy away from a new dog should go something like this: Notice the toy has developed a tear, toss treats on floor away from dog, happily point out treats, use the leash to lead the dog away from the toy and prevent him from returning to it, heavily reward the dog for putting up with all this weirdness, secure the dog before retrieving the toy. At no point will I be putting my hands near the dog's mouth while it has a toy. It is a serious breach of Dog Etiquette to take a resource by force when someone else has it, and even non-guarders deserve to get praised and treated for tolerating this rudeness.

What if the dog is hellbent on consuming that Extreme Kong even when the floor is littered with steak and hot dogs? If I've done everything right, I should have a little bit of wiggle room between "toy looks questionable" and "surgery to remove toy pieces". I could start dragging the dog around by the leash and force him to walk until he drops the toy. I could potentially use a shake can, vacuum cleaner, or anything else that makes a scary noise to frighten him into dropping the toy. I could use the leash to drag the dog outside and turn the hose on him. Obviously scaring the dog s is going to severely damage our relationship, and could teach him to resource guard even if he didn't before. It's only worth it to use punitive tactics if I've run out of healthier options and truly need to save him from serious harm, and most dogs won't be able to continue demolishing a toy while walking.

Bigger is Better (Except When It's Not)
The larger the toy, the more durable it will be. This means the safest option is almost always the largest toy. The exception is when the largest toy has a hole large enough to trap the dog's lower jaw. I do not have XXL Kongs because Brisbane and Ulysses could probably get them stuck on their faces. Ru cannot play with a large TreatStik for the same reason. This type of entrapment isn't common, but it can result in a broken jaw, emergency vet visit, or worse if the dog is left unattended long enough.
Photo by Erin Koski

Plenty of toys don't carry that entrapment risk, but few are as tough as the black Extreme Kong I give my new dogs as their first test. The only thing tougher than a black Kong that I am aware of is the Goughnuts product line. If I worked with bully breeds and hosted power chewers often, I would actually own some of these as they are well and truly indestructible, guaranteed.

Know the Toys
Is the dog going to town on the XL or XXL Extreme Kong and putting puncture marks in it? We have a power chewer, time to skip the peanut butter and invest in some Goughnuts. If the Kong isn't showing any signs of weakness, I will make it more exciting by stuffing it with peanut butter and maybe a biscuit or two and see how it holds up. If the dog is only interested in the food and not the gnawing, or it clearly no match for the Kong, I feel safe leaving him unattended with it and introducing something less extreme. If the dog is showing signs of nervousness, tensing up or chewing faster when I get near him and his toy, I will work on building his confidence via high value treats. This is a good idea anyway, it really pays to have a dog that happily and readily gives up his treasures because he is confident he will get something even better.

The next toys I use to assess chewing style include the Bionic Urban Stick, blue Kong, and Starmark Everlasting Treat Ball. After the Extreme Kong test I should have a pretty good idea what a dog is going to do with a toy, but I still need to keep supervising and getting ready to intervene. Watching a dog eat is also helpful, inhaling food or swallowing biscuits whole is a red flag for toy swallowing. A dog that is willing to eat things that aren't food is at greater risk for ingesting toy parts. Ru happily eats beads and other craft supplies, it is safe to assume that he would swallow pieces of a toy if he managed to chew them off. Ulysses very clearly enjoys removing food from toys, but not gnawing the toys themselves. I feel safe giving him a red Kong, anything from Starmark, and a variety of other stuffable toys.
Photo by Erin Koski

Introduce Edible Toys
Some dogs are completely uninterested in toys they can't eat, and rawhides and bully sticks make great entertainment for these guys. These require similar precautions though, as they can still present hazards. Bully sticks are a great place to start because they are completely digestible, I like to give the new guy a large one to see whether he gnaws slowly or takes bites off and swallows them. Large, unchewed chunks of anything present a choking hazard, so I am unlikely to give a gulper any more edible stuff.

If a dog gnaws a bully stick down rapidly but doesn't actually take bites off, I might introduce him Wholesome Hides rawhides. These are extremely difficult to take big bites off, but could present a choking hazard when chewed down small enough to swallow. Whole, swallowed chunks are also more likely to upset tummies, and I am careful to monitor how much rawhide my dogs are ingesting.

Bottom Line (Too long; Didn't read)
I want every dog in my care to be safe, and this means knowing which toys can be safely used to entertain them when unsupervised. Provided there isn't a hole large enough to trap the dog's lower jaw, the biggest and toughest toys are the most durable and best to start with. I begin by introducing big, tough toys like the black Kong with no food in them, then with peanut butter inside, and then I gradually allow the dog more destructible playthings. I supervise dogs with new toys until I am confident that they aren't going to destroy it, eat it, or choke on it. I not only need to supervise, I also need to know the signs that a toy is under too much stress, and have a plan to get it away from the dog without teaching him that I cannot be trusted.

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