You come home after a long day at work to a wagging tail and sloppy dog kisses. You smile, thankful for your furry friend. And then you look past him. The throw pillows you bought last week are shredded, and the stuffing is all over the floor. Your new sneakers have been torn apart, and your favorite sweater is in pieces in and amongst the wreckage. If you find this tragic scene familiar, you are in good company. Many dog owners have lost belonging sof all kinds in this way, because many dogs tend to destroy things when left to their own devices. But why? The reason will vary depending on the needs and temperament of the dog, but loneliness and boredom are the most common motivating factors.
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The Root of the Behavior
According to Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia,dogs have the emotional and intellectual capacity of a small human child. They are capable of feeling love and the attachment that goes with it, but they may not be able to understand that when you leave the house, you will be back soon. Overwhelmed by their stress, they act out by tearing and biting at whatever is in their reach. Not all dogs react this way, and veterinarians are unsure as to why some dogs are more able to tolerate being alone than others. Statistics show that dogs from shelters are more prone to separation anxiety than those who have never been separated from their first human families, which suggests that the loss of a human "pack" can make a dog nervous. Likewise, if a family member moves away or passes away, separation from the remaining family members can trigger worries about another loss. Separation anxiety can also occur following a change in physical home or even a significant alteration in schedule, such as a new job that extends the owner's hours away from home. It is also possible that your dog is simply bored. All dogs, even small breeds, require mental and physical activity on a regular basis. Dogs thrive when they have a regular schedule that involves plenty of play, exercise, and socialization. What constitutes "plenty" can vary by breed, but as a general rule, dogs that are bred for work or sport tend to need more exertion. Retrievers, herding dogs, and hunting dogs, for example, need to either engage in the activities for which they were bred or participate in games that mimic those activities. A dog that hasn't had enough of these things may try to get what he needs in less constructive ways.
Encouraging the Behavior
Your dog won't tell you if he's bored or anxious, so your first job as his owner is to try to figure out what his behavior is trying to communicate. If you think that his schedule needs more activity, try that first. If he is plenty active while you are home but still chews while you are gone, try providing him with chew toys. Be sure to direct him toward the toys while you are present, so that he knows that those are acceptable for him to chew. Of course, you may think that you are already doing everything you can to keep your dog from destroying the house while you are away. You take her for a long walk, give her a big breakfast, and play with her and her tug-of-war toy before you leave. Then you grab your keys and head out the door. But might this routine be signaling your departure and thus encouraging her behavior? Professional dog trainer Caryn Liles of Toronto suggests that dogs look for cues that their owners are about to leave, and these cues cause the dog to start feeling anxious. Sometimes, something as simple as picking up your keys or putting on your shoes when you go to another room in the house can stop your dog from associating those actions with your departure. You can also help your dog to get used to your absence by leaving her for shorter periods of time during the day. At first, this may be as simple as leaving her inside when you go to get the mail. Then, you can leave her for five, 10, or 15 minutes at a time, so that she can get used to you walking out the door and walking back in later.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Even if you are sure you know what is causing your dog to be destructive in your absence, your addressing of the issue should involve a conversation with your veterinarian. His or her professional expertise can help you to understand whether his behavior indicates the likelihood of anxiety or boredom, and if he might need more exercise based on his breed. A vet can also determine whether there is another medical problem, such as a thyroid imbalance, that may be contributing to the issue. Whatever the problem, however, remember that correcting a problematic behavior does take time. Most owners can't stay home with their dog until the problem is resolved. If your dog is crate trained, you may have more success if you crate him while you are out. That way, he may be less likely to fall back into old habits, and your belongings will be safer. Just remember that your dog is not destroying things maliciously. He is trying to communicate his boredom or his anxiety, neither one of which will be less if you punish him. Redirect, give him alternatives, but try not to yell or try to make him feel bad.
Dogs engage in many different behaviors that confuse and even frustrate their owners, but outright destruction can be one of the most difficult, especially when it happens while you are away. Be patient with yourself and with your dog as you find a solution that works for both of you. Remember, you can teach an old dog new tricks!