Tooth marks on the garden furniture, scratches on the door, de-fluffed plush toys, chewed up sandals, craters in the garden… Sounds familiar? If you come home every day worrying about what surprise your dog has for you, then this article is for you.
One of the most annoying dog behavioural problems is destructiveness. It causes a lot of headaches for pet owners, especially if beloved or expensive items fall victim to our dogs’ destructive habit. Not to mention the mess and all the cleaning up to do! But why do dogs feel the urge to shred toys into pieces or chew on shoes left unattended by unsuspecting pet parents?
There are several reasons behind the behaviour, but one thing is for sure: dogs don’t mean to cause damage or upset their owners on purpose. Chewing is part of normal dog behaviour, however, excessive destructiveness can be a sign of a more serious behavioural problem.
Chewing is perfectly natural for young pups. Just like teething babies go through pain, puppies need to alleviate the discomfort when their adult teeth push out their milk teeth. This usually happens at the age of 5-6 months, so it is really important to provide suitable chew items for developing puppies. Durable rubber or plastic toys, rope toys, appropriate sized raw bones, but even an empty cardboard box or plastic bottle can keep pups busy for hours. (Make sure that your puppy doesn’t swallow pieces of the toys.)
Destructiveness in adult dogs
As a dog trainer I often come across signs of destruction. Some owners don’t even bother replacing chewed up dog beds and bedding because their dogs kept destroying them so they must not need it… Hm, are you sure?
Adult and even senior dogs need to chew. They engage with their environment through their mouths – it is the human equivalent of hands. If there are no appropriate chew toys around, they will find one. This is why it is so important to provide dogs with a variety of toys to choose from. There is no point leaving out hundreds of soft toys or balls at the same time. Rotating toys every few weeks will keep your dog interested and the old toy will be “new” again.
If your furry friend shreds stuffed or plastic toys – perhaps swallows the squeakers – it is recommended to invest the money you would spend on another plush toy on natural, long-lasting, edible chew items. A dried pig’s or cow’s ear is safer and less expensive than a teddy bear stuffed with cotton, polyester or plastic beads. Raw beef bones can be a good alternative, but it is important to avoid raw pork bones to prevent potentially dangerous infections.
Many dogs have stepped foot in my home over the past years and they taught me one thing: the importance of tidiness. If we don’t want our dogs to destroy something, put it away, just like you would do it if you had a curious toddler at home. There are also some safety risks for dogs inside and outside the house such as electrical cords, chemicals, poisonous plants or even the plastic squeaker inside squeaky toys which can cause complications if accidentally swallowed.
Excessive chewing of toys can be due to frustration. In this case, the aim of the game is to dissect the toy, pull out the filling, destroy the squeaker inside. For power chewers, extra durable toys with reinforced stitching and no stuffing or squeaker are recommended. Chewing of wooden furniture can be great fun for dogs but can also indicate a lack of mental or physical stimulation. This can be addressed by increasing the daily activity of the dog, doing more training and adding environmental enrichment to their living area. Providing several resting places, varying the way the dog is fed and using interactive toys can help save your furniture.
Boredom or separation distress?
How do we know if the destruction is caused by simple boredom or whether our dog is having a panic attack when home alone? Separation anxiety is a heartbreaking condition in which dogs display signs of stress in the absence of their loved ones. There are several stages of separation distress and not all signs are visible to owners. Some dogs silently sit by the door for hours waiting for their owners to come home. The other end of the spectrum is when you see obvious signs of destruction or escape upon arriving home. Unfortunately, separation distress is quite common nowadays and I come across new cases on a daily basis. It is a complex illness and can develop in any breed or mixed breed, but I have seen a lot of dogs affected who come from backyard breeders or shelters.
If you notice scratching on the entrance, balcony door or window frame, it is recommended to video what your dog is up to in your absence. You can easily set up an average camera, tablet or any device that can record at least 30 minutes of footage. There are several free phone apps with which owners can watch live what their dogs are up to. When you set up the camera and are about to leave home, give your dog a long lasting edible chew item such as a bully stick or a dental chew. If your dog takes the chew item and starts to munch on it happily and then goes to sleep on his bed, there is most likely nothing to worry about.
Red flags are if a dog does not engage with a high value treat or stops eating as soon as the owner leaves the house. Worrying signs include pacing, barking or howling, staring or scratching at the door. In more severe cases, some dogs actually go into a full-on panic attach and try to escape (usually to go after their owners). In such cases you see destruction on door frames, windows and I have seen some dogs try to eat their way through the door. Dogs with separation distress might bark or howl continually or in a specific pattern. If they are kept in the backyard, escaping attempts or successful escapes are also red flags. Some dogs stress initially and then settle after a while. I once fostered a shelter dog who was scratching the door for 4 hours straight even though she had a bonded dog friend with her.
Separation anxiety is a serious illness which impacts both the dog’s and its owner’s life so getting help from an appropriately qualified professional as soon as possible is paramount as it won’t resolve by itself.
Digging a hole to China?
Many pet parents complain about their dogs digging up the backyard. Digging is also part of normal dog behaviour and it varies by individual dogs and some breeds may be prone to dig more than others. Although we can’t generalise based on breeds, a Dachshund or a Jack Russell Terrier is more likely to dig than a Shih Tzu, because the original purpose of sausage dogs and Jack Russels was to dig out rodents from the ground. However, if digging is excessive or it is limited to certain areas of the garden, then it can be a sign of stress.
If the digging is concentrated along the fence line, it is worth considering whether our dog actually enjoys being left alone. Escaping can be due to several reasons such as fireworks, thunderstorms, a nearby bitch on heat. In these cases dogs will escape even when the owners are home.
Providing a specific area of the garden where your dog is allowed to dig can help save the manicured lawn from falling victim to dog paws. A plastic kids’ pool filled with soil or sand can serve the purpose of a designated digging area. With some encouragement and hiding some treats in the digging pit, dogs can soon learn where to express those natural doggie behaviours.
If we know what causes our dogs to stress or panic, it is far better to prevent the problem rather than increasing the height of the fence or feel sorry afterwards. Allow your dogs inside, turn the TV or radio on to mask the sound of the storm or fireworks. You can even play comforting music that is designed to calm stressed pets (“Through a Dog’s Ear” CD). Desexing your dogs can prevent them from escaping (both males and females). In many countries, it is a legal requirement to have an ID tag with the name of the dog and the owner’s contact details attached to collars – making the reuniting process of lost pets so much easier.
It is also important to investigate the reason behind our pet’s destructive habit from an animal welfare point of view. As a highly social species, dogs need appropriate stimulation and time spent with their humans – even if they are kept as backyard dogs. If we suspect that out pets’ destructive behaviour is not a result of lack of stimulation or exercise, but it is due to stress, it is recommended to consult with a behaviour vet about possible treatment options.
Chewing is considered normal behaviour to a certain extent, however, if your furry friend constantly awaits you with newer surprises, look into what’s causing the behaviour instead of punishing it. Once you find out the reason behind the destructive behaviour, you are one step closer to the solution. So come on, let’s get the cameras rolling, and watch what your pets do while they are home alone.
Accredited Dog Behavioural Consultant and Trainer