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How to prevent your dog from being destructive when left alone: A Comprehensive Guide

Welcoming a dog into your home is a heartwarming experience — the boundless joy a pup brings into the everyday routine is often immeasurable. However, as with any shared living situation, understanding your dog’s behaviours is key to fostering a happy cohabitation. One common struggle among pet owners is the havoc a dog can wreak when left alone. Whilst dogs have an innate need to destroy and shred things, excessive destructive behaviours should be managed.

Understanding why your beloved pet is behaving in such a manner is crucial. By drilling down to the root cause of the destructive behaviour, you might discover underlying issues that when resolved, will improve the quality of life of your dog. Win-win, fixing your dog’s destructive behaviour and saving your favourite shoe, and sofa but also providing a more pleasant environment for your dog to live in. 

Below, we explore the intricacies of why destructive dog behaviour are expressed, from the underlying reasons to the dos and don’ts of managing it. Our goal? To make accurate evidence-based information accessible. This would empower pet parents to better understand their dog’s behaviour and further improve the harmony between you and the dog.

The Nature of Canine Destruction

Before diving into the solution that can be applied, it’s crucial to have a deep understanding behind the reason of your dog’s destructive behaviour. Canines express themselves through their actions, often as a direct response to their environment and emotions. Although chewing, shredding are common behaviours in dogs, excessive display of these behaviours signals that there could be other triggers that is causing it.

Here’s a glance at the possible reasons:

Lack of Physical Stimulation

Dogs, especially high-energy breeds, require a high amount of simulation. When left alone without enough exercise, they have a built up of surplus energy and nothing to direct it towards. This could result in multiple undesirable behaviours, one of which is destructive behaviours such as inappropriate chewing of your couch cushion.

To counteract this, providing your dog with sufficient daily exercise is paramount. Engaging in activities that fulfill their breed-specific needs can significantly reduce their motivation to find less appropriate outlets for their energy. For mental stimulation, consider introducing a variety of toys into their routine. Chew toys, puzzle toys, and general interactive dog toys are excellent for keeping their minds engaged. These toys not only offer a productive outlet for their energy but can also keep them entertained for hours, reducing the likelihood of destructive behavior.

Creating a stimulating environment with enough enrichment activities is key. This could involve anything from hide-and-seek games with treats, rotating different toys to keep things fresh, to structured playtime with you. The aim is to ensure that your dog has enough outlets for their excess energy and cognitive challenges that keep boredom at bay. Remember, a tired dog is a happy dog, and a clear strategic approach to tackling boredom can lead to a harmonious living situation for both you and your furry friend.

Bored Dogs

Boredom in dogs is far more than just a temporary inconvenience; it’s a sign of a deeper need for mental and physical stimulation that isn’t being met. Lack of stimulation can lead to a variety of problematic behaviors, including the destructive tendencies we aim to manage. When dogs are bored, they don’t have the means to intellectually or physically engage themselves, leading to the manifestation of excess energy in ways that are far from ideal for pet parents.

For dogs that are highly intelligent and requires constant mental stimulation, ensure that you are constantly interacting with them multiple times a day. Do not use the same old toys, instead introduce new toys and games that will be mentally engaging for them. That way, their needs are met and they would stop chewing on inappropriate items. It’s also worth noting that although a puzzle toy or chew toy could temporarily keep them engaged, dogs that requires high mental stimulation would soon get bored, and we would need to switch around the games and toys that are provided to them.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a very common root cause of destructive behaviours. Separation anxiety can induce a dog to claw, chew, or even ingest things in an attempt to escape, locate their owner, or simply soothe their raw nerves.

Separation anxiety in dogs is a serious emotional distress that manifests when they are separated from their owners. Contrary to common misconceptions, this condition is not a behavioral issue that can be easily corrected with more crate training or physical exercise alone. These strategies, while potentially beneficial for other reasons, do not address the underlying emotional turmoil that fuels a dog’s anxiety-driven destruction.

At its core, separation anxiety is characterized by an intense fear of being left alone. Dogs suffering from this condition may display a range of symptoms, including incessant barking, destructive behavior, and attempting to escape. It’s a profound emotional response that requires a nuanced understanding and a compassionate, systematic approach to manage effectively.

Treating separation anxiety in dogs demands an empathetic, educated approach that focuses on gradually accustoming the dog to being alone and creating a safe, calm environment. This can include desensitization exercises, training sessions to build independence. Separation anxiety would normally require intense behaviour modification protocols and owners are strongly advised to reach out to CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Training) certified trainers to guide them through the implementation of these protocols. In severe cases, we may need to prescribe medication to help manage the anxiety alongside the implementation of other fear-based desensitization protocol.

If you ever suspect that your dog suffers from separation anxiety, please reach out to a certified professional dog trainer for an assessment. That way, you can rule out that separation anxiety is the cause of your dog’s destructive behaviour.

Teething

Teething is a critical phase in the life of young dogs, marked by the emergence of new teeth pushing through their gums, which can be noticeably uncomfortable for them. This discomfort often translates into a natural inclination to chew on anything they can get their mouths on in an attempt to relieve the pain. Consequently, this stage of a dog’s development can result in destructive behavior if not properly managed. During this period, it’s essential for pet parents to understand that the inclination to chew is not a spiteful act but a necessary relief for the discomfort in the dog’s mouth. Providing puppies with suitable chew toys can redirect their need to gnaw from household items to more appropriate items. It’s also a prime opportunity to begin instilling good habits in young dogs, teaching them what is acceptable to chew on and what is not, forming the foundation for a well-behaved adult dog. Recognizing the signs of teething and responding with empathy and appropriate interventions can significantly mitigate the impact of this natural process on a dog’s behavior and the well-being of the household.

What Not to Do When Your Dog Destroys

Responding to your dog’s antics can be an emotional gauntlet. Here are the definite “don’ts” of addressing destructive behaviors:

Never Punish Your Dog

Punishing a dog for destructive behavior, particularly when it’s anxiety-related, can compound their distress and worsen the issue.

Understanding that punishing a dog for destroying things can lead to a worsening of behavior issues is crucial for any responsible pet owner. When a dog is punished, particularly for actions stemming from anxiety or distress, this can exacerbate their underlying emotional turmoil. It can lead to a vicious cycle where the dog, instead of learning from the punishment, becomes more anxious and fearful, potentially leading to an increase in the very behaviour you’re trying to eliminate. This is where the expertise of a positive reinforcement trainer comes into play, offering a stark contrast to punitive measures.

Positive reinforcement trainers emphasize rewarding good behavior rather than punishing the bad, which nurtures a positive association and encourages repetition of desirable actions. This approach not just sidesteps the negative impacts associated with punishment but actively promotes a healthier, trust-based relationship between you and your dog. Conversely, punishment can erode that trust, lead to fearfulness towards the owner, and, in some cases, trigger aggressive behavior as a defensive mechanism.

The critical takeaway for pet parents is that while it might be instinctive to respond to destructive behavior with punishment, such a response is likely to be counterproductive. Behavioural issues tend to regress, not progress, when dealt with harshly. Implementing strategies that address the root causes of a dog’s distress—be it through positive reinforcement, behavioral enrichment, or professional guidance—stands as the most effective way to foster a well-adjusted, happy canine companion.

Don’t Ignore the Problem

Attempting to skirt the issue might work if it’s a fleeting behavior. Otherwise, the problem will likely persist and possibly intensify.

The pathway to successful treatment of a dog’s destructive tendencies hinges on understanding and addressing the problem rather than turning a blind eye. When dogs are destroying things, it is a clear signal that their emotional or physical needs are not being fully met. Engaging the services of a positive reinforcement trainer is a proactive step toward rectifying this issue, ensuring that the dog’s behavior is corrected in a manner that is both effective and compassionate. Ignoring the problem not only exacerbates the situation but also risks damaging the bond between pet and owner. Proactively seeking solutions and understanding the root causes of destructive behaviors is imperative for fostering a healthy, happy relationship with your canine companion.

No to Extended Crating

Contrary to popular belief, confinement doesn’t remedy anxiety. It may inhibit the destruction temporarily, but at a mental health cost to your pet.

Crating, while it might seem like a solution, often fails to tackle the underlying issues of dog boredom and a lack of mental stimulation. Furthermore, there are additional management measures that can be performed such as installing baby gates, and storing valuable objects safely that do minimal hard to the dog’s wellbeing. Dogs are intelligent, social animals that require regular interaction, exercise, and mental challenges to thrive; without these, they can become restless and anxious, potentially leading to more intense destructive behaviors. In essence, the perceived “solution” of extended crating can inadvertently exacerbate the very problems it seeks to mitigate, highlighting the importance of addressing a dog’s holistic needs rather than opting for superficial fixes.

Constructive Approaches to Destructive Behavior

What can you do? Thankfully, there are solutions to addressing destructive behaviours depending on the root cause. Prior to implementing the solution, it’s important to understand that the behaviour modification technique should be tailored for each individual dog because each dog is unique and has a different set of history. If unclear, please do not hesitate to reach out to a certified professional dog trainer for an assessment.

Discourage Destructive Chewing with Redirection

Directing your dog toward appropriate items to chew on when caught in the act of destruction can be a game-changer.

One effective behaviour modification strategy is to actively redirect a dog’s focus away from inappropriate chewing and towards more acceptable alternatives. For instance, if a dog begins chewing on furniture, valuable objects or personal belongings, introducing a sturdy, dog-safe toy can draw their attention away from the prohibited items. Following this redirection with positive reinforcement, such as praise or a treat, can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the behaviour modification. This combination of redirection and positive reinforcement not only addresses the immediate concern of inappropriate chewing but also promotes a healthier, more constructive outlet for a dog’s natural chewing instincts.

Monitor and Identify Triggers

Monitoring your dog’s body language closely can provide invaluable insights into their emotional state and help you identify what triggers their destructive behaviour, including inappropriate chewing of things or attempts to destroy items in the home. By observing when your dog tends to engage in these behaviours, you can ascertain patterns — perhaps it’s during times of increased household activity or when they’re left alone. This detailed observation is a critical component of dog training that focuses on addressing and mitigating unwanted behaviors. With a clearer understanding of the triggers, if you decide to enlist the help of a professional dog trainer, you’ll be equipped with specific instances and conditions that provoke your dog. This information is crucial for tailoring a training program that effectively redirects your dog’s focus and encourages more desirable behaviors.

Seek Professional Help

Sometimes, the situation is above our paygrade. Professional trainers and behaviorists specialize in decoding doggy distress signals.

It’s crucial to understand that when destructive behaviour escalates beyond occasional episodes, it may be time to consult someone with the expertise to diagnose and address these challenges. Dog trainers and behaviorists possess a deep reservoir of knowledge and are adept at employing behaviour modification techniques tailored to each unique situation. Their experience allows them to analyze the root cause of dog chewing or other destructive tendencies and implement strategies proven to foster positive change. Remember, seeking professional help is not an admission of failure but a proactive step towards solving a complex issue. Dog training professionals use evidence-based approaches to modify behaviour effectively, ensuring a harmonious living environment for both you and your pet. If you find yourself struggling to manage your dog’s behaviour, reaching out for professional assistance can be a valuable investment in your pet’s well-being and your peace of mind.

Conclusion

Dog behaviour is a complex topic. What works for one dog won’t necessarily work for another. But by adopting an informed and empathetic approach, you’ll not only preserve your possessions but also improve your relationship with your canine companion.

If you’re struggling with persistent destructive behaviors, it’s crucial to understand that this is a well-solved problem. Depending on the dog, there are proven behaviour modification protocols that can be implemented to eliminate the destructive dog syndrome. We hope you find this article helpful in navigating your dog journey – if you ever need more advise, you can always reach out to us for a behaviour assessment!

Picture of Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster has trained various species in zoos, rehabilitated companion animals, and championed animal welfare standards. He represented Singapore in the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group, focusing on amphibian care and conservation. Now, his main focus is in canine fitness and conditioning as well as essential canine skills.

Picture of Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

With over a decade of study in the animal behaviour and welfare sciences, Qiai earned her Masters from the University of Edinburgh and has since devoted herself to the welfare and behaviour of pets. She has worked as an animal behaviourist since, and her expertise lies in addressing pet behavioural issues such as fears, phobias, anxiety and aggression.

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