What is Destructive Behavior?
Chewing is a natural and normal dog behavior and can often be confined to appropriate outlets, such as toys and bones. However, chewing and scratching that is destructive to your home and property is unhealthy behavior and unsafe for your dog. Destructive behavior may be caused by lack of exercise or training, or it may be a sign of a larger psychological problem.Destructive behavior in dogs is fairly common and can be normal behavior (playing/exploring) or associated with anxiety due to boredom from lack of exercise and/or confinement, being separated from a family member, loud noises (thunder, fireworks), and being an obsessive-compulsive individual. As implied, destructive behavior includes any action that is harmful to the dog or the household. That can include self chewing/licking, chewing/digging household items or structures (doors, furniture, drapes, clothing etc.) and soiling in the house.
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Symptoms of Destructive Behavior in Dogs
- Chewing on furniture
- Chewing on carpet, rugs, flooring, and/or baseboard
- Chewing on items left around the home
- Digging holes in the yard
- Barking and howling persistently when left alone
- Urinating and defecting inappropriately or in the wrong area
- Pica, or eating objects that are not food, such as dirt or rocks
- Excessively licking self or objects
- Destruction accompanied by symptoms of fear such as pacing, hiding and shivering
- Escaping from a confined area or chewing through doors or windows
- Pacing in a circular fashion or walking back and forth in a straight line
- Destroying door frames or window sills
- Scratching doors, windows
- Coprophagia - the act of defecting and then consuming all or some of the excrement
Causes of Destructive Behavior in Dogs
- Lack of exercise or proper training can result in a dog with excess energy and/or the inability to resist destroying property.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder manifests itself in excessively repetitive behaviors that serve no function and can often be destructive. These include excessive licking, pacing, staring, self-mutilation, tail-chasing, and pica. OCD in dogs may be caused by discomfort due to an illness, excessive periods of kenneling and confinement, environmental stress, or a neurochemical imbalance.
- Separation anxiety anxiety is a result of hyper-attachment of the dog to its owner and is often seen in dogs adopted from rescue groups that have previously experienced trauma, or adult dogs accustomed to spending all of their time with their owner adjusting to a new schedule. Anxiety over being left alone is manifested in destruction of the owners’ property (clothes, shoes), incessant barking or howling, housesoiling, and damage to door or crate in an attempt to escape.
- Phobias such as fear of thunderstorms or fear of loud noises can lead to destructive behavior in the dog’s attempt to cope. When the fear is triggered, the dog may pace, shiver, hide, or pant and subsequently destroy property in an attempt to calm itself or get to a spot it perceives as safe (knocking over a lamp to get to a certain corner of the room, etc.).
Diagnosis of Destructive Behavior in Dogs
As with any behavioral issue, you will need to provide the veterinarian with your dog’s health history as well as comprehensive descriptions of your dog’s activity level, environment, training history, and behavioral issues. It is important to inform the veterinarian how long the behavior has been an issue, if it has been getting better or worse, and whether is happens when you are present, when you are not, or at all times. Many times a Veterinary Behaviorist (a certified specialist in animal behavior) is needed to diagnose and recommend treatments.
The veterinarian will conduct a comprehensive round of tests in order to identify possible underlying causes of your dog’s behavior. These include a blood sample to be analyzed for a complete blood count, which checks for abnormalities in red and white blood cell count as well as platelet and hemoglobin; a chemical blood profile, which measures blood sugar, blood proteins, electrolytes, and thyroid hormone level; and a urinalysis.
Additional testing will depend on the results of the initial tests and your dog’s situation. If your dog is older and the behavior problems began recently, a CT or MRI will be taken and your dog’s brain functioning will be analyzed for the presence of a tumor or brain disease that could be causing the behavior. If your dog is exhibiting symptoms of pica, such as eating non-food items, a fecal sample will be taken and analyzed to determine if the behavior is caused by a nutritional deficiency.
Treatment of Destructive Behavior in Dogs
If your dog is determined to have a tumor, brain disease, or pica, these problems will be treated instead of the behavior. Conversely, if no underlying cause is found, the behavior will be treated according to symptoms. Treatment of destructive behavior in dogs will include specific training or behavioral modification techniques and may include drug therapy. All training for destructive behavior is based in positive, rather than negative, reinforcement.Strictly Behavioral
If there are no underlying medical causes and the veterinarian determines the behavior to be a result of lack of training or exercise, a new training and exercise regime will be advised. This will include replacing negative destructive behavior with appropriate destructive behavior, such as providing your dog with and encouraging him to focus on chew toys. As with any training, it is important to stick to guidelines and remain consistent.Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
With a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the veterinarian will prescribe medication and a behavior modification regimen designed to help your dog relax. Tricyclic anti-depressants or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are the most commonly prescribed medications. These can relax the dog enough to enable you to focus on appropriate training; however, they cannot do the work of behavioral training. You will learn to encourage your dog to replace compulsive behaviors with healthy, relaxed behaviors, such as chewing instead of licking itself, lying down instead of pacing, or playing fetch instead of chasing her tail. Follow all of the guidance of the veterinarian, which may include avoiding crates or other possible sources of stress.Separation Anxiety Disorder
If the veterinarian determines the behavior to be a result of separation anxiety disorder, your dog will be prescribed a behavioral management regimen and possibly medications such as tricyclic anti-depressants or benzodiazepines. Behavioral management includes discontinuing to reward or exacerbate anxious behavior, i.e., behaving calmly when you leave and return home; providing the dog with a distraction such as treat or a bone when you leave; practicing isolating the dog for short periods in another room with comfortable bedding while you are still home; providing comforting stimuli when the dog is alone such as leaving on the radio or using synthetic dog appeasing pheromone. This regimen will depend upon your dog’s specific anxiety; for example, in some cases the veterinarian will encourage you to use a crate, while in some it will be advised against.Phobia
If the destructive behavior is caused by a phobia, the veterinarian will prescribe a combination of training, behavioral modification, environmental changes, and possibly benzodiazepines, tricyclic anti-depressants or tranquilizers. Anti-depressants will be used consistently, while benzodiazepines or tranquilizers will be given before a stressful event to target the dog’s behavior only when necessary. These are most helpful for a phobia of thunderstorms, or other predictable events. You will learn to reward your dog for not acting fearfully and reward him for listening to calming commands in a stressful situation. Dogs with mild fear may be encouraged to associate fear-triggering noises with playtime, while dogs with a severe fear may be comforted by being placed in a covered crate and played loud, soothing sounds.
Recovery of Destructive Behavior in Dogs
Behavior monitoring and follow-up appointments are necessary for the treatment of destructive behavior in dogs. Monitor any progress or regression in your dog’s behavior; if possible, videotape behavior and show your veterinarian. No matter the cause of the behavior, your dog’s recovery depends on consistent work and dedication to the veterinarian’s training and behavioral management instructions. You may be referred to a behavioral specialist (Veterinary Behaviorist) or professional training program.
In addition to focusing on positive reinforcement training, follow the veterinarian’s instructions on changes to your dog’s space that may improve behavior, as well as exercise recommendations. Above all, be patient with your dog, as frustration will be upsetting, and recovery will be a gradual process.
Destructive Behavior Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
Hi, I have a shetland sheepdog age 4 years old who has become increasingly destructive over the past few weeks. She stays at my balcony during the day and comes indoor in the evening. She started chewing my flyscreen and jumping/pushing on it. She also has jumped over furnitures (table, shoeracks) but fortunately did not destroy them. She is exercised everyday in the afternoon for about an hour long, but I have not been exercising her in the morning as I noticed that she becomes more destructive after exercise (which is odd). The behaviour only happens when I'm not home. I took a video but it doesnt seem that she is distress, more like being super playful. What do you think is the issue?
Nothing has changed (food, people, furniture), and the problem seems to get worse if I exercise her in the morning. Thanks for your help
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