Shoe Carnage, Impulse Control, and Redirection

For four months, Mindy ignored shoes in our house. I thought it was because I was carefully observing and reinforcing choice of her own toys, but actually it was because she was saving up all her shoe-chewing to unleash at once as she turned six months old.

black puppy lying beside hiking boots and a stuffed dragon toy

“I found my toy behind the tempting distractions, but the search was exhausting.”

Okay, actually there was a lot of training involved — I even would set up scenarios where she had to make a choice between a legal toy and a household object, and then I would praise and pet when she made the right choice. She got very good at searching out her stuffed dragon toy among hiking boots, for example. (Though in this particular pic she’d opted for a nap, instead.)

All that changed at six months, when developmentally she’s driven to explore and experiment more. And let’s be honest, impulse control takes a dive in our own species too as adolescence approaches! Now she’s developed a whole new fascination with shoes. Carrying them around is annoying, but sometimes she’s chewing on them as well, and that can’t happen, puppy, sorry. No shoes lost yet, but that’s not a road I want to go down. So it’s been a lot of picking up shoes and trading for shoes already collected by the puppy and redirection.

This morning, I heard the telltale thump of a shoe bouncing off the floor as it was carried (she’s a short puppy) and I called, “Don’t do it!” And she stopped and looked at me.

“I’m just going to have to confiscate it,” I said in a singsong voice. “Don’t do it.”

black Labrador puppy lying on bed with purple stuffed octopus toy alongside herMindy dropped the shoe and went to her crate to fetch her new squeaky octopus toy.


Behaviorally, this is one of those muddy areas to define. Did I punish the picking up of a shoe? Was my little singsong a Delta signal warning of impending negative punishment? I think these are very plausible explanations in this type of scenario, but I don’t think that’s what was happening here; there’s been nothing really aversive for Mindy. I suspect my voice simply interrupted her present course of action (“I found a shoe! I must have it!”) and gave her enough time to think of alternate reinforcing behaviors (“Oh, yeah, I have that new octopus toy”).

It’s kind of like me facing down a cookie. Do I mindlessly grab and eat it? Or, if I take a moment to think about it, would I rather eat the cookie or have something else, or save the calories for later? Nothing bad happens when I pick up the cookie, but I can consider other options.

And when she paused to consider, Mindy made the choice with a history of reinforcement. As she matures and gains more impulse control, that history should take over for reliable behavior!

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.

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One Comment

  1. Yeah Mindy. My “suggestions” that my parents calmly play trade when their chewing demon Annika picks up a shoe that was not placed in the closet have fallen on deaf ears. Of course Annika is going to go after shoes because 1) they are stinky and smell good (to a dog) and 2) it gets my mom all worked up and she gets attention. I just look at Annika and say, “Oh, really?”, calmly go to the kibble bin and leave a trail of kibble that Annika checks out… after dropping the shoe. I try to make it a non-event (and keep my shoes in the closet!). I look at these as “crimes of opportunity” when the shoes are left in unsecured locations and you know you have a dog that loves to chew on stuff. Stinky human shoes or non-stinky squeaky toy? We have never had a dog that was so into chewing and toys. This dog has a whole laundry basket full of toys! If Mindy’s urge to chew escalates, I highly recommend the Tuffie toys “Mega -10”, they have lasted 5 months and counting (Annika usually destroys most toys within a week).

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