Kneading objects is typically associated with cats, but many dogs knead as well. Often the action is also accompanied with sucking, and tends to occur when your pet is winding down, anxious or preparing for sleep. Digging is a form of kneading in dogs. It can be part instinct and part habit, and it will last his lifetime. Often it is seen as cute and is not bothersome, but if your pup’s routine is trashing your home or garden you can seek the assistance of a licensed dog trainer to limit your dog’s destructive behavior. While many believe it is more common in dogs who have not properly weaned, it is almost just as common among pups who were kept with their mothers for the appropriate amount of time.
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The Root of the Behavior
Dogs will knead the ground, furniture, rug or bedding prior to lying down. This is instinctive and comes from both a territorial and safety need. In the wild, dogs will dig their dens or gather leaves and grasses to form their beds. In digging, they are transferring their scent from glands in their paw pads to the area and marking it as theirs as well as eliminating the possibility of laying on an object or other animal that could harm them. Female dogs, even ones that are neither in heat nor pregnant, will knead their bedding to form a nest as part of their maternal instinct. Your dog is mimicking this instinctive and ingrained behavior when he is kneading. He does not necessarily value the materials he is kneading, and does not realize in creating holes in your yard or tears in your furniture that he is doing something wrong. He cannot help himself. He may also be kneading in an effort to control the temperature. Dogs do not have sweat glands like we do, so he needs to knead to increase surface area to cool off. If he is too cold, he will knead to arrange his surface area to shape his body to form a warming cocoon.
Often dogs will be seen sucking on something while they knead, whether it be a favorite lovie or blanket. Many theorize that this is primal need to act like he is getting milk from his mother. All breeds can exhibit this behavior, but it is most commonly seen in cross breeds, working breeds like Border Collies, hounds like Dachshunds, gun breeds like Springer Spaniels and terriers like Westies. Sweet and sensitive natured dogs are also more prone to kneading and sucking behavior. Dogs who become anxious when left alone may gather items that smell like their owners to surround themselves and knead. This soothes their anxiety and allows them to feel less alone. Experts make the analogy to human thumb sucking that starts early in life and is often continued throughout life. Humans often replace the thumb with other objects such as gum or pencil chewing while dogs simply stay with what they started.
Encouraging the Behavior
Cat owners buy their cats scratch pads yet dog owners do not provide anything similar to their pets. If your dog is tearing up your yard you may want to limit his access to a small section where he can dig to his content or limit his time in the yard. Keeping your dog’s nails short and trimmed can help limit his ability to puncture and tear while he kneads so a regular trim will help. When you first get your pet, offer him a variety of toys, lovies and bedding with which he can bond. Also train him to remain in areas where he can be the least destructive. Dogs also prefer older and scented items so allow them access to their favorite areas and things. Limiting access or removing favorite items will not curb the habit, it will only lead them to seek out new items to knead and suck. Often these are the things that have a lot of your scent and could potentially be a favorite of yours. If you feel your dog is kneading to increase his surface area and cool himself off, consider lowering the temperature in your home and offering him more water. If he seems chilly, you can offer him additional blankets and bedding to deter him from kneading into your hardwoods, carpets or furniture. If your dog typically spends most of his time alone and indoors, he may also be kneading out of boredom and a need to explore. Increasing his outdoor time, on walks or playing in the yard with you, will go a long way in limiting his need to knead. If your dog’s kneading is destroying your property, consider hiring an experienced trainer who can provide alternative ways for your pet to find comfort and establish his territory.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Dogs who are weaned from their mother too soon may exhibit several odd or undesirable behaviors. Sucking on an object while kneading may be one of them. If adopting a puppy, it is generally recommended to wait until he is at least 8 weeks and properly weaned before bringing him to your home. When you bring him home, offer him some of your old clothes and bedding to create a comforting nest, as well as some soft animals with which he can cuddle. In creating items that are his, it can help eliminate the chances of him destroying other objects, flooring or green areas in your home. It is important to note that sucking while kneading is not an obsessive behavior. Obsessive behaviors, such as flank sucking in Dobermans, can cause damage to the dog’s skin and are done more and more often while object sucking is not harmful.
Kneading is common among dogs and has instinctual and behavioral roots. It is most common in crossbred, working, gun, hound and terrier breeds as well as sensitive and anxious dogs. Dogs will knead to claim territory, as part of a wind down ritual, to adjust their temperature or to self soothe. Kneading is not meant to be a behavioral problem. Keep your dogs nails short, offer him plenty of materials and lovies to form a safe place, and spend quality time with him outdoors to limit his amount of destruction.