Your dog loves to chew on things.
As always, the kind of chewing your dog likes to do depends on the kind of guy your dog is. Even lazy, easy-going chewers do need to fulfill this instinctive drive, and the more good options you give your dog, the less likely they are to pick up a slipper or latch on to the leg of your coffee table.
There are tons of pet store options for chewing. Some of them are not made out of things that dogs should eat. That’s fine—just be aware that if you give your dog a chew made out of nylon, they’re eating little bits of nylon while they gnaw. That’s where all that stuff goes as the bone-shape turns into a nub-shape and eventually a little gross plasticky blob.
We can give dogs much better things to eat than that.
Stuffed and Frozen Toys
Food-stuffed toys can change your dog’s life. For real.
It’s not just about your dog. It’s also about the human end of things. We all want our dogs to be happy, yes, but it can be hard to follow through on time-consuming commitments like building digging gardens for our dogs or playing nosework games for every meal.
Toys that you can stuff with food are easy. They’re often dishwasher safe. You can prepare them in advance and leave them in the freezer. They encourage the addition of “people food” into your dog’s diet, and the variety is good for our dogs. You can make them harder or less complicated based on your dog’s attention span and experience. They don’t require too much supervision. They can be elaborate or simple. They improve your dog’s day while requiring little from the human, and because of that they’re one of the most important additions to your repertoire.
The Kong is the go-to here, since they’re easy to find and come in a variety of sizes and chewing strengths. You might already even have one.
We already introduced the Kong in Chapter 2. Here’s where we get serious about them.
Kongs are great for stuffing with wet food and wet/dry concoctions, as well as leftovers, fruit and veggies, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Look at the Kong Stuffings Appendix for ideas, but really, anything that won’t make your dog sick and can be smushed through that hole is a good Kong candidate.
But wait, there’s more! If you put that peanut butter-and-kibble Kong into your freezer overnight, it goes from a five minute pastime to a fifteen minute puzzle. Frozen Kongs are where the game is really at, especially for determined, energetic, food-motivated or bored dogs. The great thing about these, too, is you can stuff them when you have time and then grab them when you need them—they’re just hanging out in the freezer, waiting.
After a week or so of using your dog’s Kong regularly, you’ll probably realize you want a couple of these things around so you can have them ready to go. Smart idea. Think of it this way: bully sticks are $5 each in many pet stores. A Kong is around $12, depending on what you’re getting and where you’re buying it. That’s two and a half bully sticks. The Kong will last a lot longer and get used a lot more than two and a half bully sticks.
I know this is only justifying my own madness. I have dozens of Kongs. I embrace it. I’m a Dog Person. There’s no fighting it.
Kongs are certainly not the only option. The Busy Buddy Squirrel makes a good large-capacity food toy for bigger dogs, and West Paw Designs makes what is undoubtedly the world’s best stuffable food toy, the Toppl (which costs almost twice what a Kong does). There are other commercial food-stuffing toys out there as well. You can try to stuff anything that’s either disposable (like a toilet paper tube) edible (like a hollow beef trachea chew) or washable. If you do use less-durable materials, supervise your dog to make sure they aren’t also eating the thing in addition to the food.
Be sure not to stuff anything your dog’s tongue might get stuck inside. There’s a reason there are holes in both ends of Kongs—it’s so the suction of the dog’s tongue doesn’t suck the Kong onto the dog’s face permanently. If as an idiot child you ever got your tongue or thumb stuck inside a bottle (hello, I did both) you will know how unpleasant this can be.
Half-chewed bones with hollows in them make good stuff-and-freeze options as well. Hang on to these when your dog’s done most of the work towards gnawing them down. A few spoonfuls of canned dog food and a couple hours in the freezer can make them interesting again.
During the summer, silicone ice cube trays make excellent frozen dinners for dogs. Scatter their food over the tray and add liquid—water, low-sodium stock, thinned-out yogurt or canned pumpkin—and then freeze. The silicone trays are better for this than hard plastic, as the plastic tends to crack if a dog picks it up and drops it more than a few times.
Pet stores are laden with edible chews with their own pros and cons. One of the main drawbacks of these items is that they aren’t cheap, and depending on how strong a chewer your dog is they might not last very long. Here’s my take on some of these items.
Smoked, roasted or baked bones are pretty durable and usually appealing to dogs. However, any cooked bone presents some danger. Cooked or dry bones break down into jagged, needle-like pieces that can puncture your dog’s mouth or, even worse, their throat or stomach. And even a gentle chewer can easily break a tooth on hard baked bone. That makes these fairly risky chew toys, and something I usually avoid.
Rawhide is inexpensive and somewhat durable. But if it’s ingested in large quantities, it can be pretty dangerous. Rawhide swells up in the dog’s stomach, and large enough chunks will need to be removed surgically. Additionally, most rawhide is pretty heavily processed with weird chemicals. Other rawhides that are thick, solid pieces and come from cattle raised in the USA are supposed to be much safer.
There are other options out there besides dry bones and rawhide. Bully sticks and deer and elk antlers are both great places to start. Natural pet stores are full of strange parts of animals dried out, braided, flattened, waffled and twisted to make dog chews. There are also somewhat less-creepy cheese and vegetable chews. The price tag on these can be a little high, but they’ve got some nutrition in them and they shouldn’t get stuck in your dog’s gut.
Remember, these have calories! Edible chews are a snack, not a meal, but you should factor them in if you’re watching your dog’s weight.
The basics of bones
Raw bones can be the most cost-effective chewing option, if pursued with an open mind. The cases of frozen raw bones in pet stores aren’t where you get the good deals, though. You need to go to the grocery store.
In my neighborhood, the Korean grocery is my favorite place. Not only do they have excellent housewares, a killer food court, and the best produce, but their meat department stocks all kinds of bones. The freezer section has sliced beef neckbones, and often the butchers will put out fresh beef knuckles in the morning. There’s also bone-in goat, pork feet, turkey necks, whole anchovies, gizzards, liver, and all sorts of other treasures.
You might be wary of feeding your dog raw beef kidneys. Really, I do not blame you. Those things stink, and the step between kibble and kidney is pretty big. Some of this stuff is smelly and not something you regularly put in your lasagne. I’ll admit, the first time I handed my dog a whole raw mackerel she looked at me like I was playing some awful trick on her. It takes some getting used to on both sides.
But raw bones are a good middle ground and worth trying. They’re incredibly good for your dog’s teeth and jaws. The extra calcium from the bones is a boon, and if you feed knuckle bones or anything with connective tissue, those soft tissues are good for YOUR dog’s soft tissues. Dogs will eat chunks of the bone, but as long as the pieces aren’t too large and aren’t sharp or splintered, this is fine. Coyotes don’t stop to pick the bones out of their bunnies.
If your dog eats a lot of bone, they might regurgitate some a few hours later. This is pretty normal. However, if your dog seems uncomfortable or distressed, pay attention to what they’re telling you. If they are in distress, take them to the vet. Their poops will also come out as little whitish nuggets after eating a good bone; that’s also normal.
Everyone has heard the lecture about giving dogs poultry bones, and how you should never ever ever do it, ever, never even once. This is true—of cooked poultry bones. If it’s raw, your dog can absolutely eat those bones. In fact, raw chicken and turkey necks are a great place to start if you’d like to let your dog try some raw meat. They’ve got a good deal of bone, but a lot of meat too, and make a nice crunchy dinner. Frozen turkey or chicken necks are a grade-A chewing project too.
You can thaw frozen bones if you like, but many dogs don’t care one way or the other. During hot weather, bones straight from the freezer can be a nice way to cool off.
While picking out bones, do consider the size of your dog. We have to think about their teeth. Maybe there’s some amazing alternative universe where packs of Yorkshire terriers take down elk, but in this universe, Yorkies are more suited to something the size of a chicken wing than a beef shank.
Exercise caution with the weight-bearing bones of large animals—things like the long bones from cattle, which are also often where cuts for marrow or stewing bones come from. A steer’s leg bones are designed to hold up more than a ton of weight. Your fifty-pound dog is unlikely to have teeth designed for bones that dense. Instead, choose vertebrae, ribs, or knuckle ends, which are less likely to have the same kind of density. If you can find lamb or goat bones, even better. Sometimes my super fancy local grocery co-op has frozen lamb bones packaged up for dogs. They aren’t cheap, so I save those for special occasions.
Always monitor bones for splintering. If a bone looks like it’s getting small or starting to shatter, toss your dog a handful of treats to distract them while you gather up the dangerous pieces, and then give them another cookie for good measure to thank them for letting you take their bone away.