From animal shelter suspected 2 yrs old, May was a stray all her life. Very watchful, loving but extremely destructive. She potties outside, same spots. She takes curtains down and she seems remorseful after. I got her toys and bones. I want to keep her but…. Don’t suggest training, I don’t have the resources.
Dear Doggie Destructor,
Thank you so much for adopting from an animal shelter. That is great that you are giving her a second chance at a loving home. Behavior always serves a function. Determining what the function is can help us to help the dog change its behavior. Once we know why the dog is behaving a certain way, we need to change our own behavior to change theirs. There are usually a few different causes of destructive behavior which may be at play here. There can also be a combination of the different causes. Luckily, this type of behavior is more about management than it is a training issue, so you can change this behavior without spending a lot of money.
When you need to leave her alone, the easiest solution for most dogs is to crate train them. Most dogs can be trained to accept the crate within a couple of weeks of training. Remember that you do have to train the dog to accept the crate, it is not a natural thing for a dog to want to be in a small box. There are a number of articles in our library about crate training you can refer to: https://www.blueridgehumane.org/?s=crate+training.
If she becomes very anxious about being crated, it could be that she has not had sufficient training. It could also be that she has a negative association with the crate from a bad experience. It could be anxiety about being in a small space. If you have tried crate training with no success, you may need to find a dog-proof room she can be left in rather than a crate. A baby gate in front of the door is a better option for some dogs that are anxious when the door is closed.
The most likely cause of her behavior is boredom. There are a few different ways to address boredom. I find that a balanced plan of exercise, mental stimulation and rest is the healthiest way for structuring a dog’s daily life. It isn’t all about one thing, focusing too much on one thing can lead to an unhealthy imbalance.
Dogs have individual exercise needs but in general 2-3 structured exercise sessions of around 15 minutes each day tend to be sufficient for most dogs. Structured means that we are incorporating training into the exercise for a double punch of mental stimulation and physical exercise.
There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding dogs and exercise that I have heard many times over the years and found to be not true. The number one misconception is that you need a big backyard for a dog to run around in. People seem to think a big backyard is the answer to every dog behavior problem. Dogs need exercise with a human. Dogs do not exercise themselves when left alone outside. What they do tend to do are things that people consider nuisance behaviors like barking, digging and tearing up things outside.
- Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous, especially when we are including mental stimulation with it. One of my absolute favorite things to do with my dogs is a sniffy walk. We take a long leash which is about 15 feet long and find a school or an open field and just let the dog sniff to their heart’s content. Sniffing lowers a dog’s pulse and is a great mental stimulation exercise. I find 30-45 minutes of this type of walk really tires my dogs out for the majority of the day.Exercise also helps with stress and anxiety so if the behavior is being caused by stress, it should help regardless. A dog that has had a good amount of exercise will be too tired to get into trouble.
- Teach your dog to tug with rules. Tug burns a lot of energy and teaches your dog to get a little bit worked up and then calm back down. It should be done in several short sessions throughout the day. Hold the rope. Wait for a few seconds of calm behavior. Ask your dog to take the toy by wagging it in front of her face while saying “take it” as long as the dog is behaving calmly. Tug for a couple of seconds. Make your arm go limp. The arm going limp signifies the game is over. Place a treat in front of the dog’s nose. When the dog drops the toy, say “yes” and toss the treat away from the dog. As your dog begins to progress, you will allow her to get a little more aroused by playing longer. You may begin to make the toy more enticing by wagging it around before telling the dog “Take it”. Eventually you will not need to feed the dog a treat for letting go of the toy, if the game is more reinforcing to the dog than the treat.
- Dogs are opportunistic scavengers. In the wild, locating food would consume most of their day. We give our dogs a 20-minute walk and expect that to be enough to entertain the animal living in our house. We come home to see items ripped up and wonder, “What is wrong with this dog?”. To put it in human terms, a day or two lying around on the couch can be nice but if that is all you have to do for the rest of your life, I am pretty sure you would get bored too. A well-balanced dog needs a mixture of physical exercise, mental exercise and quiet times.
- Most of us are familiar with that exhausted feeling after a test or a mentally challenging day. Mental exercise for a dog can be achieved by short training sessions throughout the day and making your dog work for her meals by feeding from food dispensing toys. Food enrichment toys have additional benefits besides burning energy. If you crate train your dog, give her a Kong in the crate to help create a more positive association with being in the crate. When you need to leave the house, offer your dog a food toy. She may not even notice that you have left and it will help entertain her when you are gone. You can make toys from things around the house like used food boxes. You can put a little kibble in one box and then put that it another box like a nesting box.
There is also a progression to follow as to how to fill the toys. You should start out by making the toy as easy as possible so that the dog can get the concept that there is food in the toy and interacting with it makes the food come out. Start out by filling the toy with just dry kibble so that it easily falls out of the toy. The next step might be to fill it with kibble and then top with a little peanut butter or cream cheese to make it a little harder. Next, you might try freezing that mixture so that it becomes a little more difficult. The most difficult level for your dog to master is to either soak the kibble in water or mix it with can food. Put that mixture in the Kong and freeze.
Her behavior could also be caused by stress. Does the behavior only occur when she is left alone or when you are there? Is she demonstrating stress behaviors prior to your departure just as drooling, pacing or panting? Study up on dog body language so that you can better know what your dog is trying to tell you. Check out this website on dog body language and behavior: www.ispeakdog.org.
If it is stress related, some of the aforementioned tips will help with the behavior somewhat. If you know what it is specifically that is stressing her, you need to reduce her exposure to the stressors so that her stress hormones can calm down.Dogs that have generalized anxiety often use chewing as a way to self-soothe themselves. Does the dog display anxious behavior when you are present? This may include pacing, whining, barking, shaking, and drooling, among other behaviors. These dogs may need a behavior plan to address the root of the anxious behavior. If she has separation related behaviors, desensitization to your leaving by only leaving her alone for only the amount of time she can tolerate at this point. If you need to leave her longer than that, she needs to be left with someone who can watch her. Hopefully, her destructive behavior is not related to being separated from you.
Dogs that are not supervised and interrupted while chewing an inappropriate item, will develop a habit of this behavior. Dogs need to have appropriate chew toys to exercise their jaws and keep their teeth healthy. This is a need that is innate in dogs as it stems from their ancestry. This is why we sometimes see this behavior in older dogs that we would not expect because they were never taught better.Keep a large supply of appropriate chew toys on hand. In general, appropriate inedible chew toys are made of hard rubber. Edible chew toys include bully sticks, Himalayan yak sticks, and rawhide-free chews. You can fill Kong toys and sterilized bones with food and freeze them for a long-lasting chew. These also provide an opportunity for the dog to lick, which is soothing. If you can consistently provide your pup with a supply of desirable chew toys, he will develop a preference for chewing on these toys. When she chews on something inappropriate, we want to avoid yelling at her which may cause her more stress. Work on teaching her name recall with a training game we call the Name Game. We call the dog’s name to interrupt the behavior and when the dog comes over, we redirect onto an appropriate toy.
The name game is the most basic form of attention training. If you practice this exercise. you can establish a solid response to calling your dog’s name. Call your dog’s name when they are not paying attention to you. When their head turns in your direction, say “yes”. The dog should come all the way to you to get the treat. You aren’t a doggie butler. Start inside at a low distraction level and at a short distance away. You can start to work in more distracting environments gradually. If your dog is having a hard time, then try to find ways to make it easier for them. Is there too much going on? Can you try a better treat? Remember only call your dog’s name once. If they don’t respond, can you make a noise to get their attention? Wait at least 10 seconds before repeating the dog’s name.
Do not leave anything out that you care about. Having a dog that chews things up help us to keep a clean house! If a dog grabs something you left out, it is your fault for leaving it out. Keep the doors to the rooms shut so that she is always in eye sight.
When you come home and the dog seems to be acting guilty, this behavior is what we refer to as appeasement signals. The dog may have her ears back, averting their eyes, crawling on their belly, tail tucked, etc. The dog has learned either to read your expression or that when you come into a room where she has ripped up something, you are usually upset. It’s a dog’s way to avoid punishment when they know you are upset.Dogs do not feel guilty. They do not have a moral code which implies good or bad behaviors. They have environmental cues which they associate with positive or negative outcomes. Even if they had their own sense of morals, they have no way of knowing what human morals are.
Personally, I find that understanding that the dog is not purposely being bad is helpful. It helps lessen the anger that comes when the dog does something we don’t like. They don’t know any better and we made a mistake by leaving something out or leaving the dog out. Hopefully, your dog’s behavior is caused by a lack of exercise and mental stimulation. It’s a really common problem and can be solved with some effort and time. Be patient with her, she hasn’t had the best start in life and it takes time to change behaviors.
Until next time,
Submit your own pet behavior question for Crystal here: