Ask Crystal: Investigating Destructive Crate Behavior

a small light brown puppy lays in a crate with the door open

Dear Crystal, 
 
What to do if my dog keeps pooping in her kennel? She is chewing the floor underneath her kennel and destroys the house at any chance she gets. She has big behavior issues and we have altered her kennel so she has a metal sheet under her kennel now. She now doesn’t eat after 1pm to prevent her pooping in her kennel and that has helped but yesterday she got out of her kennel and tore up the house. Should we be muzzling her when we kennel her up? It would prevent her from biting stuff up. 

Sincerely, 

Destructive Dog 

 

Dear Destructive,

There are a few possibilities of what is causing this destructive behavior. I don’t have all the details so it is impossible for me to determine the cause but I can tell you the reasons why this type of behavior may be occurring. It is not going to change overnight as with all behavior changes but there are some simple changes that you can make that may start to help.

Reasons for the Behavior
There are always reasons why a dog is performing a certain behavior. Every behavior serves some sort of function or they wouldn’t be doing it. What does the dog get out of chewing things up? We know that chewing things is a normal species-specific behavior for dogs for several reasons. When dogs are teething, they chew to relieve discomfort. When they are bored, they chew because it gives them something to do. When they are stressed or anxious, they chew because it relieves stress. To solve a behavior problem, you need to either remove the reinforcement or give the dog an appropriate outlet for the behavior.

Dogs that are distressed by being left alone or crated, may chew things up to relieve that anxiety and they also may have accidents when they would not normally. If your dog never has accidents when you are present or when she is not kenneled, that would be a helpful piece of information to determine the cause. Does she chew things up when you are home as well or only when left alone? Does she start to show stress behaviors like panting, pacing, whining, barking when she sees that you are about to leave home? This could indicate isolation or crate distress.

Observe
Consider installing a video camera so that you can watch her when she is left alone. Does she exhibit signs of anxiety at any point? How long does it take her to start displaying that anxiety? Does it take a certain amount of time alone before she starts chewing on items? If so, can you have someone come over to walk her and leave her with a stuffed Kong right before that usually happens?

Dogs that are fed irregularly can become destructive because they are hungry and looking for food. Are the items she tears up food related? Did the behavior start or worsen when you began the food restriction?

a grey dog plays with a stuffed pig toyThe other big reason why dogs are destructive is boredom and excess energy. You didn’t mention the dog’s breed or age but it is a really common problem for young dogs or dogs that never received the management and training that they needed as a young dog. Young dogs have so much more energy than people are expecting. Breeds that are especially high drive like herding breeds often have a lot of energy and the need for some sort of job or they will make up their own job and people usually don’t like the job they choose.

It can be a great idea to keep a diary of what she chews up every day and what her day looks like. I know my young dogs tend to behave worse on days when I don’t engage with them as much. Tracking will allow you to see what works and what doesn’t for improving her behavior.

Channeling Energy
Exercise is going to be a huge factor in helping curb her destructive behavior.  I like structured exercise that incorporates training as well so I am hitting two birds with one stone. It also prevents the dog from getting out of control and over stimulated because it incorporates breaks in play and training which uses their brain.

Many people believe that all a dog needs is a big yard if they have a lot of energy. I can tell you from talking to hundreds of people over the years that a yard alone does not solve this issue. Dogs left alone in a backyard will often chew on decks, gutters, siding and tear up landscaping. They also start digging out of the yard among other undesirable behaviors.  Dogs do not exercise themselves.  People have to be involved with structured play to tire a dog out.

Examples of structured play would be tug with rules, two toy fetches where you require a sit and drop it, flirt pole with sit, wait, drop it. Some examples of exercise without training might be running alongside a bike, jogging with a person, walks where the dog is on a long line and allowed to explore, play with another dog or a swim. I usually recommend 2-3 play sessions daily at about 15-20 minutes for the average dog. I find incorporating it at particular times of the day helps me cement it into routine.

A light brown puppy licks at a robber toy filled with a snackIncorporate a play session or walk right before you leave so she will be more likely to be tired. Give her a frozen kong or bone in her enclosure when you leave so she has something to do for a while when you first leave. That also helps create a more positive association with being crated.

If you can’t come home for lunch to let her out there are some different potential options; hire a pet sitter for a midday play session, have a neighbor come by to let her out or stay at the neighbor’s house or drop her off for doggie daycare. Dog daycare can go a long way even if you can only do it a couple times a week.

Enrichment Feeding
One of the easiest changes you can make is to switch over to feeding through training or enrichment toys. If you do nothing else yet, start with this tip. No more feeding from a bowl. A bowl is a wasted opportunity to occupy or mentally stimulate the dog.

Identify times when she is more likely to be destructive and give her a feeding toy at that time. My mornings are 100% calmer since I use frozen bones to feed my two high energy dogs, and same for the dinner routine. You can also use them for midday breaks.

You can use legal items for her to rip up for her feeding. My dogs love it when I put their food in cardboard boxes, paper rolls and bags for feeding. Dogs need an outlet for the natural need to dissect things. They also need outlets for chewing and licking which this also provides. If the behavior is caused by anxiety or stress, licking is a stress relieving behavior for dogs. You can top a frozen kong with peanut butter or yogurt. Sniffing is also a stress reliever. Toss kibble in the grass for a meal and let her sniff it out. It doesn’t have to cost anything, just some creativity and a little time.

Training
Training is a great way to mentally stimulate a dog and to teach them how to live in our world and communicate with them. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time every day. If you can train your dog 15 minutes a day that is all you really need. Most dogs can’t pay attention for much longer than 5 minutes at a time anyways. I personally recommend training that is just throughout the day. Commercial breaks are a great time to work on some training with your pup. Work on a down stay while you brush your teeth.

Other Confinement Options
I would suggest rethinking your confinement solution for her. It doesn’t sound like the crate is working very well for her. Maybe you have a room that you could dog proof and put up a baby gate instead of closing the door which stresses some dogs out. If it’s the crate that is stressing her out, that might help. If that isn’t an option, you could put an outdoor enclosure inside to keep her confined but give her more room than a crate. If she is a small dog, you could wrap a pen around the crate and put down potty pads in the pen so she can have an alternative to going inside the crate. The point of a crate being small is that the dog doesn’t want to eliminate where they sleep. She doesn’t seem to have that instinct any more so there is no point in keeping her in a small space at this point in time.

However, you decide to confine her, make sure she has some things to do while you are gone. That is a lot easier to do when the dog is confined to a room or enclosure versus a crate. You can leave boxes that have treats hidden inside, frozen kongs, toys that dispense kibble or treats. You have to provide acceptable alternatives for her to things that you don’t want to get chewed up.

Routines
Make sure that she has a daily routine that is pretty much the same every day as much as possible. Dogs thrive on routine especially if they have some anxiety. Knowing what comes next helps to relieve a lot of anxiety. Her routine should consist of enrichment feeding, 2-3 structured exercise sessions, 15 minutes of training and mental stimulation and time with the family relaxing.

Muzzles are designed for short term use only and not for times when the dog is not supervised. It is not going to change the dog’s behavior and can be very uncomfortable for the dog. Some muzzles don’t allow drinking or panting and a dog could die if left unsupervised in one. Muzzles definitely have their place as a tool but I wouldn’t suggest one in this situation.

It is going to continue to be challenging for a while. Changing our own behavior is required to change the dog’s behavior in most cases so we have the challenge of changing our own behavior on top of the dog’s. I really think you will see some improvement with these tips though. Good luck!

Until next time,

Crystal

 

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