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Understanding your dog's destructive behaviour & how to fix it

Why are some dogs so prone to destroying things, yet others never chew or shred anything in their whole life? If you’ve got a dog who routinely destroys things, you probably find it incredibly frustrating, not to mention expensive.

Without understanding WHY the behaviour is happening, it’s almost impossible to solve the problem and stop your dog destroying things. Before you even think about trying to ‘fix’ the problem, you need to look closely at the behaviour and work out the reasons behind it.

There will be many reasons why destructive behaviours occur, in some dogs there will be multiple factors to consider and for some there may be truly obscure reasons, but in general we can narrow it down to a few common causes. The behaviour may start for one reason but be continually reinforced, even when the original reason has subsided, this is particularly relevant for dogs who begin destructive behaviours due to teething, boredom or stress.

An Anxious Dog

The idea of ‘separation anxiety’ has become much more widely known and understood, and destructive behaviours are now more commonly linked to this. Where previously, people would default to assume a dog was bored when left alone, we tend to be aware of how a dog who is anxious when left alone, can become destructive.

For a dog who is anxious, rather than bored, you are likely to see other signs of worry in your dog as well as them destroying things. For example, they become agitated and unsettled when they realise you’re leaving them, they’re vocal while you’re out or even defecate in your absence.

Separation anxiety isn’t the only anxiety which can lead to destructive behaviours, a dog who is in a more anxious or fearful state day-to-day, may use destructive behaviours as an attempt to relieve some stress.

Stress is a big factor in these behaviours, if your dog is experiencing high levels of stress, they will be seeking ways to find relief from this and lower their stress levels. Being destructive can be an intrinsically rewarding behaviour to many dogs, the act of chewing, shredding, licking or digging can bring stress relief and a release of endorphins.

In some dogs it can become a way to cope with a stressful situation, take for example a dog who finds it hard to switch off and settle in the evening, they are possibly feeling over-tired from the activity of the day but unable to regulate their rest and switch-off.

In these moments, chewing their bed, your sofa or digging a hole in the carpet may serve as an outlet for this stress. It can become a vicious cycle, a dog who can’t settle because they’re feeling over-tired and can’t relax, then uses destructive behaviours to release some relaxing hormones, yet their body is still alert and unable to relax.

Whether it’s separation anxiety, general anxiety, or high levels of stress, it’s vital to tackle these underlying emotions before you can expect the destructive behaviours to stop.

In separation anxiety, it’s important to build confidence with time alone, this can take months or years depending on the dog and their level of anxiety. While you’re building their confidence, you need to make sure they’re not put in situations which reinforce their anxiety further (i.e. don’t leave them alone), hiring a dog sitter or adapting to ensure they aren’t alone, is absolutely key to making progress. It’s then a gradual process of pairing alone time with positive experiences and slowly building up the duration, all while keeping them relaxed and stress-free. It’s by no means easy to do, but without carefully building confidence, the destructive behaviours are unlikely to stop, and more importantly your dog will be remaining in a highly anxious and stressed state, which no one wants!

If other areas of anxiety are leading to destructive behaviours, perhaps your dog returns from a stressful walk and attacks their bed, or in a state of fear from hearing fireworks your dog is digging the floor or chewing the doorframes. Whatever the cause of anxiety, you need to pinpoint where it’s coming from and work to build confidence and positive associations.

While working on this, allowing your dog a safe, fear-free zone, is really vital. For example, avoiding stressful walks, setting up a cosy den area to reduce the impact of fireworks or other noises, and not exposing them to things which cause fear and anxiety.

With this in place, you can slowly build their confidence or use your management strategies to avoid repeated exposure to stressful situations.

Dogs who live in high-stress states or lack the ability to switch-off and relax, often need guidance and support to help them cope better. For some dogs, using a crate or safe room to enforce regular rest through the day will transform their destructive behaviours by reducing their stress levels and avoiding states of over-tiredness. We so often assume destructive dogs are bored, when it’s commonly the other way round, destructive dogs are over-tired and unable to switch-off.

Having appropriate outlets can help channel these behaviours, such as offering a long-lasting chew after a stressful or exciting walk, this can help lower stress levels and enable your dog to relax more quickly.

The Bored Dog

Dogs have different needs and motivations to us, while we may not see the value in de-stuffing a toy or chewing a doorframe, to our dogs these can be highly reinforcing behaviours. A dog who lacks suitable outlets to meet their needs, either physical activity or mental stimulation, may seek their own sources of satisfaction and this may involve some inappropriate choices.

While we must never disregard over-tiredness as a factor in destructive behaviour, there will be some cases where a dog is genuinely bored and desperately seeking some form of activity.

For some dogs, a walk around the block or a quick run the park will never be enough, they need outlets for their natural behaviours and ways of using up physical and mental energy.

There is a balance here, trying to occupy your dog all day, every day will lead to a dog who is unable to switch-off and possibly swings the other way, struggling to rest and relax. Finding the right balance between activity and rest time is really key for every dog. If your dog isn’t getting enough stimulation in their day, it’s important to provide them with more appropriate opportunities:

  • Prioritise more physical exercise, not just launching a ball across the park which is unlikely to tire your dog in a beneficial way, instead look for ways to encourage them to sniff and explore on their walks. Use walks to engage with your dog, practicing calling them back, interact with them and enjoy the walk together

  • Add enrichment activities into their day, channel the activities they enjoy … if they like to dig, create a sandpit for digging, provide them with suitable chews, if they shred and de-stuff everything, provide them with clear opportunities like treats hidden in cardboard boxes for them to shred or a holee-roller ball stuffed with newspaper rolled around treats

  • Teach some new skills, we all know how tiring learning can be, so incorporating training into your dog’s day can be a great way to tire them while also teaching fun behaviours or important skills

The Teething Youngster

We must not rule out other factors which can contribute to destructive behaviours, teething is a common cause in puppies and adolescent dogs. They will be seeking ways to relieve pain from teething, and chewing is often an effective pain reliever, so providing appropriate outlets is essential.

If your puppy does chew something inappropriate, try not to react negatively because this will only lead to confusion and worry your puppy. After all, they don’t know the wooden chair leg isn’t there for them to chew! Calmly offer an alternative option and praise them when they choose to chew their own toys. It's easy to get into the habit of telling them off for chewing their bed, but then ignoring them when they make good choices such as picking up their own bone to chew on.

Pay attention to the good choices your dog makes and ensure to praise them and give them attention when they pick the right items to chew. It's also important to provide a variety of options for your dog's chewing needs so that your dog is more likely to chew their own things.

Provide a variety of long and short lasting chews, shred boxes, raw bones, toys to destuff etc and regularly mix it up so they don't have the same ones out all the time.

If your puppy or young dog is struggling to understand what is and isn’t appropriate, you need to help them out by managing their environment more closely. This may mean limiting their access to certain rooms, putting away valuable items and tidying up shoes, making sure you’re always supervising them, and using a crate or safe room to prevent them practicing inappropriate chewing when you’re unable to guide them onto suitable chews.

When teething occurs again in adolescence, it’s easy to mistake this for ‘naughty adolescent behaviour’, and we often forget the dog may be feeling discomfort from their teeth. Repeatedly telling them off or getting frustrated with their chewing can really damage your relationship with your dog and it fails to teach them what they should be chewing on.

In addition to teething, we must always bear in mind other underlying medical causes for destructive behaviours. If it’s a new behaviour or there’s a sudden change in behaviour, having a thorough vet check to rule out pain is always advisable. Dogs can’t tell us when something is hurting, so we have to try and notice the signs in their behaviour, pain will cause considerable stress for your dog, meaning they may use destructive behaviours in an attempt to relieve pain or stress.

The Cycle of Punishment

When we react negatively to our dog's behaviours, it’s hard for them to make the connections and understand why we’re suddenly upset with them, this can quickly cause stress and anxiety. If you come home to a shredded sofa or you leave the room and return to a chewed chair, it’s hard not to tell your dog off or react negatively to the situation.

But ultimately, the only connection your dog is likely to make is that sometimes you come home happy and sometimes you come home and you're angry … they are unlikely to understand that chewing the sofa = angry human.

When a dog is living in this state of uncertainty, 'is my human going to suddenly get angry', it creates anxiety and a constant edge of worry. This in turn increases stress levels, which as we’ve already worked out, can increase destructive behaviours.

Cue a vicious cycle:

You punish destructive behaviours, your dog get more stressed in anticipation of your return home, so they chew to relieve anxiety, you come home and get angry and it confirms their anxiety.... so they become more destructive … and so on.

Rather than punishing or reacting to destructive behaviours, it’s crucial that we understand the underlying causes and motivations. Only by addressing these do we stand any chance of improving the behaviour and keeping our dogs in a positive mental state. We may find punishing them stops the behaviour in some way, but it’s likely to either manifest somewhere else, or it leaves our dogs in a constantly stressed state.

Ultimately, destructive behaviours suggest our dogs are lacking something in their lives, whether that’s not enough rest, not enough activity, or a lack of appropriate outlets and guidance, we have to find ways to fulfil their needs appropriately in order to resolve destructive behaviours.

Written by Naomi White

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