Problem Behaviours: destruction when home alone

Problem Behaviours: destruction when home alone

Have you ever gone out and come home to a scene of carnage? Got up and gone downstairs to find a canine midnight feast has taken place whilst you slept? Rubbish everywhere, bins upturned, cupboards open, flour prints all over the floor, things shredded? Christmas trees dismantled, sofas repurposed, stilettos refashioned as mules? Cowboy boots turned into moccasins, pillows destroyed, pills pilfered? This article will help you address all those times you realised that your dog had helpfully destroyed your stuff, raided the fridge or eaten your lino flooring.

My own dogs are not without sin. I once got home and this fine fellow – Ralf – had knocked everything off the shelves and used those teeth as an impromptu tin opener. Every single carton had been pulled off the shelves and torn open. There were lentils covered in flour mixed in with pasta and teabags. The joys of a twelve-year-old retiree! Ralf once won a competition for being an amazing Golden Oldie. He won a year’s supply of senior vitamins. The next day, he yoinked them off the shelf and had a vitamin party with about a month’s worth.

Hopefully, your dogs are only destroying things when you’re not there… I mean, they’re not making light work of your kitchen cabinets when you’re sitting reading this, or helping themselves to the contents of your bin while you’re actually watching them? If you have dogs that destroy stuff whilst you are actively watching them or when you intervene, you definitely need more help than this article can give you. If you’ve got an opportunistic counter surfer who takes advantage of a brief lapse in surveillance (or even right out steals in front of you) I’ll be doing a follow-up post on that another time.

But for owner-absence carnage, breathe easy… it’s fairly easy to sort out.

Before Ralf arrived, I’d had minor carnage. Tilly was so bad at leaving the bins alone that all bins were out of reach where she couldn’t get to them. Funnily enough, she never used to be like that – it was only the introduction of puppy Heston that sent her seeking out remnants of goodness in the bins. And Heston had had some minor incidents as he grew up – he went through a fair few books in his youth, chewed an electric blanket and ate my toothbrush. Anyone who’s lived with a puppy will no doubt have a tale to tell.

Destruction is a common reason for abandoned dogs or failed adoptions. Sometimes, it’s complete carnage. Other times, it was largely avoidable. Sometimes, it’s downright silly. In fact, a guy sent a dog back once for chewing his slipper. I was quite cross really. I explained why dogs chew or destroy things, and the owner was adamant that they had done what they needed to to protect the slippers. He saw nothing wrong with leaving slippers out and leaving a young dog unsupervised in the house. Clearly the dog should have been able to distinguish between those cured hide bits of animal skin we give them to chew on, and those cured hide bits of animal skin we wear on our feet and have been left in range of a dog, you know, like you do, as a test to see if they know the difference. Slippers or dog chews – you’d think a dog would appreciate the difference.

I’ve got news for you, people. It’s all chewtoys to a dog.

Out of reach? Just a chewtoy in need of liberation. Cardboard? Why the hell not? Walls? If there’s nothing else. Doors? Just things that stop me getting to potential chewtoys beyond. What dogs can dismantle in ten minutes never ceases to amaze me.

So why do dogs chew?

First, because they are creatures of the mouth. You know those signs that say in shops ‘If you break it, you bought it’ or ‘Please don’t touch with your hands’, or downright simple ‘Don’t Touch!’ signs… humans are creatures of the hand. We touch stuff. We do stuff with our hands. We’ve got a gazillion expressions like The Devil Makes Work for Idle Hands and if you’ve ever sat with a hyperactive child, it’s the hands that cause chaos.

But dogs are creatures of the mouth (and nose!) Where we might take up knitting or compulsive fidgeting, sorting out Rubix Cubes or endlessly flicking through posts on Facebook, dogs don’t. Paws are pretty rubbish at that kind of thing. A mouth, on the other hand, well it’s good for big stuff like bringing back a hare, and it’s good for detail stuff like getting the marrow out of a bone.

Mouths are a good way to engage with the world if you’re a dog.

There are age-related reasons why dogs might enjoy chewing and destruction as well. Young puppies will enjoy chewing and destruction because it helps with teething. Older adolescents will enjoy it because it gets rid of a bit of that excess dog energy, especially if your owners don’t let you do other fun dog stuff like digging, barkin, jumping and biting. And like humping, once you’ve got the habit, it’s psychological too. If you chewed something or destroyed something and it was really fun, well, you’re going to want to do it again.

There are other emotional reasons too why a dog might chew or destroy stuff. First is that it was fun. I’m sure there are people out there like me who love a bit of therapeutic bottle bin time. I just love throwing the glass into the bin and smashing it. Don’t get me started on Minecraft and the whole psychology of people who like to build stuff only to destroy it… ripping stuff, tearing it up, smashing it and obliterating things is enormously rewarding if you are a dog too.

It’s especially fun if you are a bit frustrated or if you need to burn off steam. Ever gone boxing or done ten rounds with a punchbag when you’re frustrated at work? It’s the same for your dog. At moments where they are frustrated, anxious or worked up, you may find they turn to destruction to blow off steam. Yesterday, walking a malinois at the shelter, I’d navigated three cats. Three things she really, really wanted to chase. And coming out of the gate (all that barrier frustration too) she jumped up, grabbed a guy’s sleeve and started tug-of-war. She was hard work yesterday. And that frustration is enormously pleasurable to take out in a bit of destruction. When we prevent dogs from doing what they want to do (like leaving on a walk with you) then don’t be surprised if they find their own outlet for that energy.

That’s why, when walking Heston and not Effel (who has stalking issues…) Effel developed this nice habit of going to the food cupboard and helping himself. Talk about eating your emotions.

What happened when it went under lock and key? He learned to try the handle to check.

A one-off Jackpot is surprisingly hard for a dog to forget. A Jackpot that keeps paying out is one to keep doing.

Another emotion that can lead to destruction is distress… isolation distress and separation anxiety can also lead to destructiveness or chewing. But that is a post for another day. If your dog is not exhibiting other signs of anxiety, most likely that destruction is just a great diversion in your absence, a way to manage your frustration and sometimes – if food is involved – an occasional Jackpot.

Destruction can also be a social thing. We call it social learning or social facilitation – one dog is doing it, so I will join in or behave differently than I normally would because, well, those other dogs are doing it. If Ralf’s kindly knocked all the things off the shelf, am I just going to let him enjoy that picnic himself?! If my best friend dog starts to tear apart a blanket, why that looks like an amazing game of tug!

Finally, boredom can be a factor in destruction. If you find it’s happening at the end of the absence rather than the beginning, it may be a sign that your dog just can’t handle too long without occupation.

The best way to know what is happening exactly is to video it or watch it in real time via Skype or Facetime. Put your speakers on mute, keep your microphone on and video your dogs. I just did it with mine. What did I see? Higher energy when I leave, they all watch me go, watch me lock up, watch me get in the car, watch me drive off… Effel paced very slowly for 20 seconds, looked on the table (for loot!) seemed to think about where he was going to lie down, shook off and climbed on to the couch where he sleeps. Tilly relaxed as soon as the car drove off. She self-groomed for about a minute then went to sleep. Heston was on guard for about a minute, watchful, but then went to lie down. I’d thought Amigo hadn’t woken up at all (he’s deaf) but he lifted his head and put it right back down again. Within a minute after I left, all the dogs were in their beds and relaxed. Absolutely zero happens until I pulled up again. The very occasional destruction in my home certainly doesn’t happen in a 15-minute absence. They’re not all super-charged the moment I leave. That points to boredom and curiosity for mine in longer absences.

And once you can see the video, you can decide if it’s boredom, frustration, anxiety (or if you’re just like a prison warden when you’re about, and when you leave, it’s time to PAAAAARRRTTAAAAAAAYYYYYYYY!)

When you can see what is happening, you can think about why it’s happening. Then you can think about how to stop it happening. Obviously for my dogs, a fifteen-minute absence is no cause for excitement. My leaving and re-entry are the most emotional bits, and Effel whimpered twice when my car pulled up outside. Heston got into a perch position to see who it was and all of the dogs were relatively calm when I got back. Not a very good example of why Effel might decide to go and help himself to the empty box from a tube of toothpaste as he did last week (I found the evidence once he’d passed it through his bodily systems) but a reassurance there is no anxiety or distress. It’s a great way to see what is really going on. I also know that for longer absences, what they need is something when that time is stretching out too long. A Kong or chew is not going to help here, but someone coming round to let them out and give them a break sure will.

But what else can you do with a destructive dog, especially one who takes the first opportunity to go and dismantle stuff or chew things?

First, you need to manage the environment. You need to find ways to stop them getting to the things they are destroying. In Tilly’s case, that meant all bins and yellow recycling sacks are outside. In Heston’s case, it meant putting all books out of reach. In Ralf’s, it meant putting food under lock and key. Confinement is great if you have time to crate-train your dog (and you can see why crates are a popular way of managing problems as they help with many other unwanted behaviours) although if you have a big, rambunctious dog, you might need more than a crate. Doors are your friend. Crates and pens are your friend. Baby gates are your friend. Dog-friendly rooms with closed doors are your friend. If you lock your dog in the kitchen, you are taking a big risk because there is sooooo much in there that is fun to destroy. If you can open a cupboard, there’s chocolate to be had as well as other foodstuffs. If you can get in the bins, there’s juicy leftovers. If you can manage the fridge, that’s a smorgasbord of dog feasting. But there’s also a lot of household chemicals, poisonous or toxic foods, dangerous plastics… would you leave a toddler unsupervised in a kitchen? And just because dogs don’t have opposable thumbs doesn’t mean they can’t use their paws or jaws to get stuff open. No tin opener? No problem, as far as Ralf was concerned. Although a kitchen may be easy to clean, it is not a good place to leave an unsupervised dog. Find a room where there is nothing that can be interpreted as a lovely puzzle box for your dog, a room that doesn’t smell of food or have any associations with food.

Then, because your dog has a need to let off that energy somehow, you need to make sure the only things they can access are good things. The room should be filled with fun stuff and absolutely zero access to other things. That might include carpets and rugs or chewable dog beds too. But it might not necessarily need to be a room inside, and the things you think a dog might chew shouldn’t be limited to what you think they might like to chew. A lady last week said her dog was eating stones in the yard. The easiest solution is a stone-free enclosed play area. But you can’t take away a dog’s occupation and expect it to be happy. Other behaviours will emerge… excessive barking, tail-chasing, circling. That safe space has to be filled with things you have pre-approved as acceptable for a dog to chew or destroy safely when you are absent. You can’t just expect a dog who finds your absence to be arousing for one reason or another to suddenly lie down calmly when you are not there, simply because you’ve put them in a chew-free prison. Be sensible though, and make sure the toys or chews you leave aren’t likely to present a choking risk.

If you have a multi-dog household, be careful of what you leave for the dogs – the last thing you want is a fight over a toy or food treat in your absence. In those circumstances, it would be far better for your destructive dog to be left separately or crated so that no fighting will break out. Be mindful of the fact that dogs are a social species and may find it more frustrating or distressing to be alone.

If energy or boredom is a factor, you can also make sure you have planned in exercise before you leave your dogs. If they’ve had a good run, if they’ve had an hour’s walk or a half-hour of agility, they’re going to be more likely to use that time to catch up on the zees. That said, the last thing you want to do is ramp up your dog’s energy and then leave them in your home. That’s like filling a child with Haribo and coca-cola and letting them loose in a china shop. Leave a good thirty minutes after exercise or stimulation to ensure your dog has time to calm down after that exercise.

If lengthy absences pose a problem when short ones do not (like my dogs), asking a neighbour or family member to pop in and let your dogs out might be just what is needed. A dog walker can easily break up the monotony of long periods at home and ensure you don’t return to carnage.

If you manage the space that your dog can access, make sure they are adequately exercised before absences, minimise exit fuss and stop expecting them to ‘be good’ when you aren’t home, there will be fewer opportunities or reasons for them to get into your underwear drawer and scoff your socks. No amount of dog training can make a dog into the perfectly-behaved canine when they are on their own in a giant room filled with stuff that might need chewing or when nerves get the better of them and they need a little comfort from chewing your shoes. When it comes to being home alone, it’s better safe than sorry.

In next week’s post, I’ll look at two outdoor unwanted behaviours, digging and escaping.