Destructive Behaviour in Dogs

Grab it, shake it, rip it up and chew. Why do dogs show destructive behaviour?

“Please can you stop my dog ripping up the cushions, chewing my socks and running off with my pants!” is a plea I often hear when I answer the phone in my role as a clinical companion animal behaviourist dealing with another much-loved family pet showing destructive behaviour.

destructive dogs

Destructive dogs…please don’t shout at me!

As humans we generally like to keep a clean and tidy nest in which to raise our human brood and don’t much like our matching cushions scattered to the four winds and covered in saliva and soggy grass. We also have no desire to pay out huge sums of money for sock retrieval operations and cringe at the thought of our lingerie flapping about our dog’s head as it runs gleefully about the garden in full view of the neighbours. It is no wonder that some humans feel they need help.

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Of course I offer to help these distraught and exasperated owners, but not in the way you might imagine and I will explain why. The owners of such canine vandals often describe them as ‘unruly and behaving badly’ and judge them as ‘naughty’, ‘wilful’ or ‘dominant’. As a consequence they often address the problem by telling their dogs off to try and stop them doing what they are doing. However, even after repeated pleas and shouts of ‘NO’ and ‘STOP THAT’ this behaviour often continues and may intensify. So why doesn’t shouting and getting cross work and why do dogs just keep on doing it?

Why do dogs destroy our stuff?

The answer lies in the subtitle of this article, ‘grab it, shake it, rip it up and chew’. It nicely describes stages of the eating sequence. It is therefore natural for dogs to practise this sequence of events. Imagine if you were to put a stop to your baby learning how to manipulate a spoon, playing tea parties or peeling a banana because it is too messy, noisy or dirty. We all have to learn and practise new skills to help us survive and often have an intrinsic desire to do so.

There are other reasons why dogs continue to show this behaviour of course. Grabbing a sock from the laundry basket gains attention and may result in an exciting chase around the garden. Chewing something may alleviate boredom or the ache of emerging teeth and ripping up the sofa may help lessen the feeling of loss when left alone. It is therefore, important that we fully understand the reasons why the behaviour is occurring and that appropriate advice is sought through veterinary referral to someone suitably qualified.

What can we do to stop destructive behaviour and save our stuff?

Telling a dog off and using aversive techniques when they are showing destructive behaviour may actually result in fearful and aggressive behaviour

Telling a dog off and using aversive techniques when they are showing destructive behaviour may actually result in fearful and aggressive behaviour

Shouting ‘NO’ and the use of other aversive techniques such as a smack on the nose, a rolled up newspaper or an electric shock from a collar may suppress the behaviour in the short term but it will not address the underlying cause of the problem and may result in fearful and aggressive behaviour. Therefore, we do not tell the dog off but allow this learning experience to occur towards something more appropriate instead.

We begin by teaching our dog a solid ‘leave’ signal where if he releases an object he gains a reward. We can then direct him onto something he can have such as specially designed dog toys and teething chews.

To teach a ‘leave’ all you have to do is use two items of reward. These can be favourite toys or treats that your dog really enjoys. If it’s a toy you can throw one excitedly and when your dog picks it up, show him the other one and when he drops the toy you can throw the second and retrieve the first. Keep repeating this until your dog is dropping the toy to receive the other reliably then you begin to say ‘Ta’ as he drops it.

If you are using food you can hold a small treat in both hands and offer the treat in a closed fist and as soon as your dog stops trying to get at it and moves her head away offer her the treat from the other hand. Repeat this until she is leaving reliably and then say ‘Ta’ as she is doing this.

Your dog will learn that if they leave they are rewarded for doing so and are more likely to want to leave in the future. Therefore, when they pick up a cushion or a sock and you say ’Ta’ they will do so happily and you can offer them something more appropriate in its place such as a canine puzzle toy that will keep them engaged.

To help keep toys interesting rotate them weekly and wash off the saliva.

It is important that your dog is gaining sufficient exercise and you can incorporate fun training and go seek games where your dog has to show some self-control before being told they can have the reward such as sit and wait. Also allow games they can play with independently that are safe and dog appropriate.

Put the stuff you don’t want chewing away until your dog is ready. It is also a great idea to praise your dog when they are showing calm behaviour rather than constantly telling them what they can’t do.

Thus we are still allowing our dogs to fulfil their natural behaviours but in a calm, safe and sociably acceptable manner and peace will be restored, at least for the time being.