Features March 2004 Issue

Understanding Destructive Dog Behavior

Don’t get mad when your dog destroys your stuff; get busy!

by Pat Miller

You arrive home from work, dreading what you are going to find. Your fears are realized as you walk through the door and discover tufts of sofa cushion stuffing scattered in snow-like drifts across your living room floor. Your 10-month-old Border Collie, Darby, grovels at your feet, obviously aware that she’s been a very bad dog. You knew she was going to get even with you for leaving her home alone all day. Right?


Destructive Dog Behavior

Left outside during the day, Carly digs huge holes and trenches, and actively seeks out items from around the yard to chew on and play with. Her owners might have been tempted to think she was “angry” or “punishing them” for leaving her alone all day. Actually, these activities relieve her boredom and anxiety at being home alone.

Owners often misunderstand their dogs’ motives for destructive behavior and misinterpret their dogs’ responses when the damage is discovered. The result of this lack of understanding is often the inappropriate application of verbal and/or physical punishment, which, ironically, can make the problem even worse.

Dogs are normally destructive for one or more of five reasons, none of which involve spite, malice, or “getting even.” The five reasons are:

Stress: Physical activity relieves stress. A stressed human may pace the floor, go jogging, chew her fingernails, or tap a pencil on the table or a foot on the floor. Chewing, digging, and other destructive behaviors are stress relievers for dogs. Stress-related destructive behavior can be relatively mild, or turn into full-blown separation anxiety.

Teething: A young dog can be in mild to somewhat severe discomfort when his new teeth are pushing through the gums, and until they are fully emerged at 18-24 months. Chewing helps relieve teething pain, which is one of the reasons puppies and adolescent dogs are such dedicated chewers.

High jinks: Dogs explore the world with their mouths, and young dogs are particularly driven to explore the world around them, as so much of it is new and exciting. Does this taste good? Does this feel good? Is this fun to play with? In addition, baby dogs and juveniles tend to have high energy levels, and sometimes go on a rampage in a burst of feel-good energy, similar to a teenager who trashes the house with a beer party when his parents unwisely leave him home alone for a weekend.

Boredom: Busy dogs need something to do. The herding breeds especially can be workaholics; if you don’t give them a job, they’ll create one, and it may not be one that meets with your approval.

Habit: If a dog is poorly managed and allowed to repeatedly engage in destructive behavior during his formative months (the first one to two years) he may develop destructive behavior habits that can continue throughout his life. In contrast, if he is well managed for his first two years, he is unlikely to pick up destructive behaviors later in life – unless his environment changes drastically and causes him undue stress.

Not guilty
Whatever the underlying cause of your dog’s destructive behavior, it’s important to realize that dogs don’t do things out of spite. Their brains simply don’t work that way.

When you come home to a dog-trashed house and your dog grovels at your feet, the most likely explanation is that she can see by your body language that you’re upset, and offers deferent signals – ears back, submissive grin, crawling on the floor, rolling on her back – in an attempt to divert your wrath away from her. She doesn’t know why you’re upset, but she can tell that you’re about to be dangerous.

Even if you haven’t seen the damage yet, your tension over the anticipated destruction you might find could well be enough to induce her to go belly-up, especially if she is a “soft,” non-assertive dog.

Occasionally a client will insist that her dog knows better. She may offer the garbage can scenario as proof that her dog knows he’s done wrong.

“I get up in the morning, haven’t even gone into the kitchen yet, have no reason to think there’s a problem, so there’s no way I’m giving body language signals,” she’ll say. “Yet Rowdy walks into my bedroom with that guilty look on his face, and I know immediately that he’s been in the garbage.”

Dogs don’t feel guilt. To think they do implies a belief that they have a moral code with an intrinsic sense of right and wrong. They can learn that certain behaviors have good consequences and others have bad consequences. They can learn to have positive associations with certain environmental cues, and negative associations with others. But they simply don’t have the capacity to make moral judgments about human values.

In the garbage scenario, chances are that Rowdy has come to associate the presence of garbage on the floor and your arrival in the kitchen with some level of owner disapproval, and he’s already sending submissive signals in the hope that your disapproval won’t land on him. I can pretty much bet he wasn’t thinking about moral behavior when he was spreading garbage around the kitchen – he was probably fully engaged in garbage play. Nor was he likely thinking, “My owner is going to be really mad later, but it’s worth it!” Dogs live in the moment, and in the moment that he got in the garbage, Rowdy was just making good stuff happen. The simple solution? Put the garbage can where he can’t get to it, or get a covered garbage can that he can’t open.

If you are convinced your dog “knows” he is guilty of wrongdoing when he gets into the garbage, try this experiment: Strew trash around the kitchen yourself, out of your dog’s sight. Then let him into the kitchen and ask him if he made the mess. Chances are he’ll display his classic “guilty” behaviors, even though he had nothing to do with the garbage on the floor.

Self control

Destructive Dog Behavior

Dogs don’t know it’s “bad” to dig up the planters or get in the garbage, but they are hardwired to behave in a deferent manner in an effort to appease pack leaders who appear angry or tense.

It’s understandable to feel frustrated and angry if you come home after a hard day at work to a house that looks like it’s been hit by a tornado. However, any punishment you issue at this point is totally useless and ineffective in altering your dog’s behavior. She probably ripped up the sofa cushions hours ago. Dirty looks and stern words may make you feel better in the moment, but will do nothing to change your dog’s behavior, other than teaching her to associate your return home with bad stuff.

I won’t even mention how physical punishment is inappropriate. If you’re going to use it (which I don’t suggest) it must happen within a few seconds of the undesirable behavior in order for the dog to be able to make the connection. You can’t do that when the behavior occurred hours earlier.

At worst, you might calmly invite Darby into her crate so she is out of harm’s way while you clean up the mess and vent your wrath with broom and mop on the unfeeling kitchen floor.

Tame the tornado
The solution to Darby’s destructive behavior is management, not punishment. As always, prevention is far simpler than cure, so crate training is an invaluable puppy lesson that can help your dog avoid destruction that arises from stress, teething, and high jinks, and prevent her from having the opportunity to develop destructive habits. (See “Crate Training Made Easy,” August 2000.)

If you missed the opportunity to crate-train your dog as a pup, it may not be too late. Many adult dogs can easily learn to love their crates. I first ventured hesitantly into crating when I got an Australian Kelpie puppy in 1981. On her third night in our home, as I carried Keli to her crate, I heard an odd thumping noise emanating from its depths. I peered in, and there was Caper, my three-year-old Bull Terrier, wagging her tail loudly against the plastic crate wall, asking me in clear canine vocabulary to get her a crate too. I did, and have been a firm crate disciple ever since.

It may take your adult dog longer to accept the crate than a puppy, but if you take the time to convince her that the crate is a wonderful place to be, she will probably decide that being crated is okay.

There are exceptions. Many dogs with separation anxiety (SA) cannot tolerate being crated – the confinement causes them to panic, and they often injure themselves in their desperate and sometimes successful attempts to escape. If your dog is easily stressed but not displaying classic signs of SA, be extra careful about not adding to her stress with forceful crating techniques. (See “Learning to Be Alone,” July 2001, and “Relieving Anxiety,” August 2001.) In addition, any displays of your displeasure can move a moderately stressed dog toward the “full-blown” end of the SA scale.

Some adult dogs who don’t suffer from anxiety are also unwilling to experience the joys of crating. Options for destructive dogs who can’t be crated include dog-proofing a room or kennel run for her to stay in where she can’t do damage; taking her to a doggie daycare center; or leaving her in the custody of a friend, neighbor, or family member who is home all day and willing to dog-sit. Some lucky owners are able to take their dogs to work with them. If you are one of these, be sure to supervise your canine shark closely at work so she doesn’t destroy things at the office – or you may lose your dog privileges.

Dogs with SA can often be helped with behavior modification in combination with Clomicalm, a drug used to lower their stress levels and help them be more able to cope. Check with your behavior consultant and/or veterinarian if you think this might be appropriate for your dog.

Work it out
Along with management, exercise can be an important element of your destruction reduction program. Exercise reduces stress and eliminates one of the primary causes of high jinks behavior – those high energy levels. Even teething and habit-related chewing can be diminished with a good exercise program. A tired dog is a well-behaved dog.

Structured exercise of some kind is best; it keeps the dog focused and minimizes out-of-control arousal. Play fetch with a ball, toy, stick, or Frisbee, and require that she sit politely each time before you throw. Play tug of war, and insist that she play by the rules, which include that she give the tug toy to you when requested, and not grab it again until invited. (See “Play and Train by Tugging,” March 1999.)

Destructive Dog Behavior

Paws doesn’t look “guilty” for chewing up whatever it is that he’s chewed up, because he’s never been yelled at or frightened for chewing stuff up. His owners understand that anything left in reach of an active puppy is fair game. If they didn’t “puppyproof” or supervise him adequately, it’s their fault, not his.

Remember that a walk around the block on leash is not sufficient exercise for any young dog; it’s a mere exercise hors d’oeuvre. Try a long hike in the hills – off-leash if legal and your dog is under control, and on a long line if he’s not yet ready for off-leash hikes. As you watch your dog run circles around you, you’ll realize why a leashed walk barely puts a dent in his energy. Other people may find it’s easier to find a professional dog walker to exercise and thoroughly tire out the dog. Some dog walkers offer half- or full-day outings to the beach or other open spaces.

My first Kelpie and I would hike to the top of a hill, and I’d throw the ball down the hill for her to retrieve, over and over, taking advantage of the incline to give her even more of an exercise benefit.

Mind games
Boredom chewing can often be resolved by giving the dog something to do. Our current Kelpie, Katie, has decided that her house job is to gently herd our youngest cat, Viva. Her attention span is phenomenal. Watching Viva can occupy Katie for hours on end. If Viva is sleeping on the back of the sofa, Katie sits and stares at her. If the cat walks through the house, Katie follows her, nose to tail. Outside, Katie herds Tucker, our Cattle Dog mix, and when we go to the barn she thinks she herds the horses, although they mostly ignore her.

If you don’t have a dog who obsesses on herding all creatures great and small, you can create games that will exercise her mind. The Buster Cube and the Roll-A-Treat Ball, available from most pet supply stores and catalogs, are perfect for this. Treats are placed inside the ball or cube, and your dog must push the object around the room to make the treats fall out.

Training is another way to exercise your dog’s brain. A good positive training class makes dogs think, and they have to think hard. Dogs generally come home from a training class and sleep like logs – and then you practice at home all week, encouraging him to work that brain every day. If you are looking for fun training ideas, purchase a copy of the “My Dog Can Do That” game, which will keep you and your dog occupied for hours on end learning creative new behaviors.

“Find It” is another great brain game to play. Before you leave, hide treats all over the house, in reasonably easy-to-reach places. Don’t hide them under the sofa cushions or in other in places that will encourage your dog to dig or chew – you’re trying to make that behavior go away, remember? Your dog can spend hours looking for all the treats!

Some dogs make up their own games. I know of at least two Border Collies who will carry a tennis ball to the top of the stairs and push it off, watch it bounce down and then chase after it and do it all over again.

Final tips
If your dog is under the age of two and still doing teething-related chewing, you’ll be wise to keep valuable objects out of her reach and supply her with plenty of chewable objects. (See “Challenged by a Chewer,” March 1998.) A stuffed Kong is my Scottie’s favorite chew toy. Even adult dogs enjoy a good chew now and then, so keep that Kong around – or several, if you have a multi-dog household.

If destructive behavior happens while you are home with your dog, you need to ratchet up your supervision program so she doesn’t have the opportunity to get into things she shouldn’t. Crates, leashes, tethers, and baby gates are all useful management tools.

There are lots of Demolition Darbies out there. With good management, your dog doesn’t need to be one of them.


Also With This Article
"What You Can Do."

-Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, and past president of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. She is also the author of The Power of Positive Dog Training and the just-released book Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog. See “Resources” for contact and purchasing information.

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