Education Center

DESTRUCTIVE DOGS: creating destructive behavior

Dog problems are people problems, solve these by learning:

• Why your dog behaves this way

• How to avoid or remove the cause

• Positive methods to retrain your dog

Most of the destructive behavior which your dog displays is directly related to the amount of time the dog spends alone. Dogs can get bored, restless, and frustrated… just like you can. It is your responsibility to teach Rascal acceptable behaviors.

That doesn’t mean the problems cannot be solved, nor that you can never leave your dog alone. However, it does mean that you must examine the situation closely to find the cause and the solution for your problem. When you have identified the reason for a dog’s behavior, you can then take steps toward changing the behavior.

The more time dogs spend alone, the harder it is for them to understand and remember the rules.

You may need to make minor adjustments to your own lifestyle to help solve your “dog problems.” If your dog spends the majority of the day and night outdoors, away from your companionship and guidance, then your problems will be especially difficult – if not impossible – to solve.

Whether your destruction problems occur indoors or outdoors, these forms of behavior will not change unless your dog’s living situation changes.

Thinking like a dog

To understand why Rascal behaves (or misbehaves) in certain ways, you must first realize what is important to your dog. Dogs need rules, direction, and praise. Rascal cannot know how to behave if you don’t teach your dog alternatives to the inappropriate behavior.

Rascal naturally seeks a loving leader to provide guidance. Before you can address your specific problems, you must settle that primary issue: who’s in charge? You are!

If you’re uncertain how to establish yourself as leader, enroll in an obedience class. The time you spend learning together, and the social experience with people and with other dogs, are as important as the training you will both receive. Meanwhile:

  • Be positive and patient.
  • Be consistent; stick to the rules you make.
  • Be a leader.
  • Be attentive.

Keep Rascal’s mind and body interested and occupied. A bored dog is much more likely to be destructive and antisocial.

Making the most of your time together

The time you spend with your dog is limited, so make it count. But don’t overdo it. If you smother your dog with attention whenever you’re home, Rascal will find it even more difficult to relax when you aren’t there. Do the best you can, calmly and happily, to avoid anxiety for you both.

Routine is important to your dog. Rascal can’t really relax unless he knows what to expect and when. Decide on a schedule for Rascal’s feeding, bathroom duty, exercise, and grooming. Stick to the schedule.

It’s extra important to make a positive routine of your departures and arrivals. Grab your keys and gear, smile at your dog, and tell Rascal “goodbye” in a cheerful voice. Don’t linger. Return with the same confident manner and voice… without a dramatic reunion scene!

Spending time together – playing, petting, exercising, cuddling, talking, grooming — should not be considered a luxury. These activities are necessary to a healthy relationship with your dog.

Where does your dog sleep? If possible, Rascal should sleep in your bedroom at night (if not, how about just outside the open bedroom door?). Give Rascal a place of his own in your room – a cushion, an open crate, or a blanket.

Your scent, the sound of your breathing, and your presence are all very comforting for Rascal – especially if you haven’t had much time together during the day. That’s quality time for your dog with no effort from you!

However, allowing Rascal onto your bed should be your choice, not your dog’s decision. When your dog sleeps on your bed whenever he wants to, you lose some of your leadership status.

Using energy efficiently

How much exercise does Rascal get? Excess energy is a major reason for destructive and/or hyperactive behavior. Simply putting the dog in a yard is not adequate. Even the most inventive dog will seldom work off that energy alone. Rascal needs plenty of opportunities for exercise with you…both off-leash play and on-leash walks.

Play with Rascal in a legal, safely fenced area. (Even a tennis court is large enough for effective exercise if you use the space wisely.) To provide mental as well as physical exercise, give your dog a game to focus on – like chasing a toy and returning it to you. If your arm gets tired before Rascal does, you can increase your stamina and distance with an inexpensive tennis racket.

Avoid playing tug-of-war games with your dog. These types of games teach Rascal to “battle” with you and can foster aggression. Play fetch instead or teach Rascal fun tricks with food and praise as rewards.

Are your on-leash walks just “bathroom time”? Do you rush impatiently to get back home? Do walks become battles between you and your dog? On-leash walks are important opportunities for you and Rascal to be together. That time should be positive for you both.

Remember that Rascal needs mental exercise as well as physical. Allow time for sniffing and exploring, instruction, and praise. It’s also time for subtle reinforcement that you are in charge. Your dog doesn’t have to sniff every fence post; YOU decide which ones Rascal can linger over.

Stay in control of all situations, including playtime. If Rascal becomes overly excited and jumps up or bites, freeze and firmly say “NO!” Gently remove yourself from the situation, and ignore your dog for about five minutes.

If Rascal continues to nip (or growl, which is worse), be even more firm and increase the time-out to fifteen minutes.

A dog who doesn’t have enough outlets for excess energy or is starved for attention can become overly excited when finally given the opportunity to be with people. A dog who jumps, barks, or nips due to excitement is not a bad dog. You can prevent these problems by spending more quality time with your dog and by teaching alternative behavior.

Choices for chewing

Inappropriate chewing will be greatly reduced if you use up Rascal’s excess energy in other ways (see above). However, you should also use your own common sense. By keeping inappropriate chewable toys out of reach and keeping appropriate chewable toys handy, you should solve most chewing problems before they become too serious.

Take responsibility for your own belongings. If you don’t want it in Rascal’s mouth, don’t make it available! Keep clothing, shoes, books, and other tasty morsels out of Rascal’s reach. Don’t confuse Rascal by offering him shoes and socks as toys and then expecting him to distinguish between HIS shoe and YOURS. Your dog’s toys should be obviously different from household goods!

Teach Rascal from the very beginning what should and should not be picked up. Whenever anything inappropriate is in Rascal’s mouth, remove it with a firm “DROP IT!” Immediately praise Rascal with enthusiasm and offer a toy which is allowed in your dog’s mouth.

Rascal should always have handy at least two safe toys specifically for chewing: one of very hard rubber and a hard plastic or sterilized bone. Don’t overwhelm your dog by always leaving out dozens of toys; rotate favorites to refresh Rascal’s interest.

Be certain that all toys are the appropriate size for your dog. A too-large toy cannot be chewed comfortably and a too-small toy can be swallowed or become jammed in Rascal’s mouth or throat.

Encourage your dog to chew these toys by introducing them during interactive play (or by smearing them with a little peanut butter). Once Rascal’s saliva and scent are on the toy, your dog will identify it as his own property. Always praise your dog enthusiastically for chewing his toys.

Chew toys made of rawhide and other organic matter are not intended to be durable or permanent. Pieces of these toys chip off; the size of the pieces can vary depending upon your dog’s size and enthusiasm. Such pieces can be sharp and can cause serious damage to your dog’s mouth, throat, and digestive tract.

Please make these toys available under supervision only. When the chips start to fly, that toy should be retired.

Rascal may experience teething discomfort until he’s about six months old, and you can make a pacifier to help soothe those sore gums. Soak a washcloth in water; twist and freeze. Keep a few in a plastic bag in the freezer and take one out to give to your dog to gnaw several times each day. It may leave a puddle, but that’s better than a shredded couch. Supervise your pet to be sure he doesn’t shred or eat the washcloth.

If Rascal continues to chew objects which cannot be removed from temptation (walls, the back steps, heavy furniture, the deck), you have two choices: make the objects unattractive, or make the objects inaccessible.

Remember: Rascal doesn’t know right from wrong; you must teach him what behaviors are acceptable

To make objects unattractive to your dog, cover exposed wood with heavy plastic, aluminum foil, hot pepper sauce, or commercial “anti-chew” products. (To check for staining or fading, test a small area that doesn’t show.)

If your dog has attractive, acceptable chew-toys handy, and is rewarded by you for chewing them, then Rascal shouldn’t want to chew on anything else… in theory! But if you cannot remove temptation, sometimes the only alternative is to restrict the dog’s access to the danger zones (see below).

Battling boredom

Dogs are social, intelligent animals and need to occupy their time and attention. If you spend your time together wisely, using up your dog’s excess physical and mental energy, then Rascal will nap during much of his time alone. But sleep doesn’t fill every moment. What can a dog do with idle time? Unless you provide alternatives, Rascal will find plenty to do — including redecorating your home or relandscaping your yard!

Does Rascal have a place of his own? If your dog’s energy comes from anxiety at being left alone, you may need to confine Rascal when you are away. A “den” can boost your dog’s self- confidence and can also keep Rascal in a safe place until you can work off that extra energy! But don’t isolate your dog without the right preparation and training. Choose the right confinement, teach Rascal properly and kindly, and your dog will have a positive perspective of his den. (For information on indoor dens, see SmartHeart pamphlet on crate training).

Confining your dog while you are away from home does NOT mean that your dog will live in a cage. Your dog’s den can be an entire room, part of a room, or a crate. You can even include a “nest” – something from the dirty laundry pile that will smell like you! Temporary confinement gives Rascal a place where he can feel secure.

For your dog’s time outdoors, a doghouse is necessary protection from the elements and is also a secure den. Located in a protected corner of the yard, a doghouse should be large enough for your full-grown dog to stand erect, turn, and lie down comfortably. Bedding can be a clean blanket or a cushion. (The AHS library has further information about proper doghouse design and construction.) Please don’t leave your dog unsupervised in the yard for long periods!

Try to break up the day for a very young or very high-energy dog. If your typical day leaves Rascal alone from 7:30am to 7:00pm, for example, why not recruit a responsible student to visit Rascal after school? Even thirty minutes of attention and exercise can make a great “recess.” If you work close to home, take an occasional lunch break with Rascal (you’ll appreciate it, too.)

In the meantime, your dog might appreciate the background noise of a radio. Avoid stations which might include harsh or blaring sounds; try an “all-talk” or “easy-listening” format.

Because dogs enjoy the company of others (especially humans), consider providing a buddy for Rascal. Pets with playmates generally have more stimulation, more exercise, and less boredom.

However, don’t assume that a companion will automatically solve your problems. The newcomer may copy Rascal’s behavior, giving you double the trouble! You must still address the reasons behind the inappropriate behavior through training (for more information, see SmartHeartsm pamphlet on introducing new pets into the home).

This information is part of the Atlanta Humane Society’s SmartHeart Educational Series.

The AHS depends on friends to provide funding for our services and programs of animal aid, support for individuals with animal related problems, and community animal issues.

The Atlanta Humane Society and Society For Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals, Inc. is a private nonprofit organization for the purpose of preventing cruelty, relieving suffering, and providing humane treatment of animals. The Society’s mission is to eliminate causes of animal suffering with an emphasis on education and the human/animal bond.