Destructive Behavior in Dogs

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Dogs are known to occasionally engage in destructive behaviors, such as chewing on shoes, scratching pillows, raiding the garbage, digging up plants, or stealing a sock from the laundry. There are ways to treat and prevent destructive behaviors, but first, you’ll need to determine what provokes these tendencies.

In this article:

What is destructive behavior in dogs?

It’s not uncommon for dogs to display destructive tendencies. The assortment of destructive behaviors includes any habits that destroy or impair items around the house. While infuriating, these behaviors are often an ordinary expression of boredom or loneliness. Other times, they may signify that your dog is experiencing a behavioral problem, such as separation anxiety, phobias, or obsessive tendencies. 

Types of destructive behavior in dogs

Destructive behaviors include digging, chewing, scratching, garbage-raiding, and stealing. As the Merck Veterinary Manual states, these unwelcome behaviors can be broadly categorized into three groups, based on severity and underlying causes:

  • “Normal” or mildly destructive behaviors. These actions may be destructive, but they are in line with the expected development or tendencies of the dog based on their breed and age. For example, most puppies are prone to chewing.  

  • Unmanageable destructive behaviors. In this category, the actions are particularly harmful, but they are somewhat expected based on the dog’s breed or other factors. 

  • Abnormal and clinically significant destructive behaviors. Some destructive behaviors are indicative of ingrained emotional issues or mental health disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Signs & symptoms of destructive behavior in dogs

Destructive tendencies can manifest in many ways. Below are some of the common signs: 

  • Digging

  • Chewing

  • Scratching

  • Raiding the garbage

  • Stealing 

There may be an emotional disorder behind these activities. Some of the potential signs of an emotional disorder or mental health issue include: 

  • Fear in response to certain stimuli, such as other dogs, people, sounds, objects, or places 

  • Abnormal barking, whining, or other vocalizations in certain situations 

  • Urinating or defecating in the house 

  • Pacing or other signs of restlessness 

  • Not eating enough food 

  • Repetitive or compulsive behaviors 

  • Intense attachment or dependence on the dog parents

This list is by no means exhaustive, and many of these issues also depend on the context. For example, barking is a very common and normal way for some dogs to express themselves. However, under certain circumstances, and when coupled with other symptoms, it may be indicative of a more serious problem.  

What causes destructive behavior in dogs?

Destructive behaviors are often a natural canine response to boredom or loneliness, but they can also be a manifestation of anxiety, fear, phobia, or other emotional problems.

Pinpointing the underlying motivations for your dog’s destructive behavior is crucial because it allows for a more targeted approach to treatment and prevention. The potential causes of destructive behavior range widely in severity and may include: 

Boredom or loneliness. Dogs are inherently social animals. They have a natural tendency to form strong ties with people and other dogs because they evolved to survive in packs. Without companionship and stimulation, some dogs are prone to developing emotional or behavioral issues, which may lead them to engage in destructive behaviors. Some breeds have more intense attachment styles and are more likely to act out when bored or lonely, including Dalmatians, terriers, and Irish setters.  

Separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is a more severe expression of boredom and loneliness that amounts to a diagnosable mental health issue. The signs that a dog is experiencing separation anxiety include: 

  • Engaging in anxious or destructive behaviors when you leave them home alone, such as destroying property, urinating or defecating around the house, self-mutilation (excessive self-licking), and persistent, high-pitched barking or whining 

  • Showing signs of anxiety when anticipating you leaving the house 

  • Directing destructive behavior (i.e., jumping or scratching) at the door through which you left

  • Displaying general neediness and attachment to you 

Other mental health issues. General anxiety, fear or phobias, and other mental health concerns can also make your dog more likely to engage in destructive behaviors. For example, a dog with a noise phobia may become destructive during a thunderstorm or fireworks. Similarly, a dog who experiences confinement anxiety may be motivated to destroy their surroundings when they are confined. Canine emotional disorders are brought on by a variety of potential factors, including:

  • Genetics

  • Trauma

  • Stressful events or environment

  • Isolation

  • Prematurely separating puppies from their mother and littermates

Diagnosing destructive behavior in dogs

If your dog is engaging in destructive behavior, the first step is to consult a veterinarian, who can help you determine the potential causes of their behavior and how to treat them. The main question the veterinarian will seek to answer is whether the underlying cause is a behavioral or emotional disorder, or an expected behavioral response to certain stimuli. 

Before landing on a diagnosis, your veterinarian will conduct a physical exam and order any tests needed to rule out medical problems. They will also collect information by asking questions about your dog’s behavior. It can help to be prepared to answer the following:

  • When and how frequently does your dog engage in destructive behavior?

  • Are there any apparent triggers for the behavior?

  • What attempts have been made to prevent the behavior? 

Your veterinarian will also consider the dog’s sex, breed, age, and medical history. 

One additional request that may or may not be necessary is video footage of your dog being destructive. If the behavior occurs when the dog is unsupervised, as is often the case, you may consider installing a camera in the house to capture your dog in action. 

How to treat destructive behavior in dogs

The treatments for destructive behavior in dogs will depend on the underlying causes and other factors. Generally, treatment involves instituting a new training strategy and modifying daily routines to change whatever conditions encourage the unwanted behavior. 

The goal of training is often to disrupt destructive patterns by encouraging your dog to change their response to whatever stimulus is causing them to act out. For example:

  • Dogs that display destructive behavior when unsupervised, often due to boredom, loneliness, or separation anxiety, can be slowly coaxed to find greater enjoyment in their alone time by giving them access to toys and other sources of stimulation. You may need to decrease your dog’s unsupervised alone time during the training process and then may be able to gradually leave the house more often once the training is more ingrained. 

  • Giving your dog access to more exercise and playtime with you or other dogs can also help decrease the chances of destructive behavior. 

  • Your veterinarian may also recommend medication to reduce anxiety or other emotional issues for more problematic cases.

If the underlying problem seems to be separation anxiety and your dog shows signs of hyper-attachment to you, it’s important to discourage these tendencies by deterring any attention-seeking behavior. Provide attention only if your dog is calm. When you must leave your dog unsupervised, try to do so discreetly and refrain from giving off any signals of your departure. Another option is to condition the dog to disassociate the usual signs with being left alone. For example, if your dog associates jingling keys with being left alone, you can make the same noise and not leave the house. 

You and your veterinarian will work together to learn more about your dog’s behaviors and devise an intervention for treatment.

How to correctly punish a dog for destroying things

In general, punishment should be avoided entirely because it typically only fosters anxiety and exacerbates any other underlying emotional issues. As a training technique, punishment is often performed incorrectly and is often unsuccessful. The only way that punishment may be effective is if the unpleasant act/reprimand is performed directly after or during the behavior you’re trying to prevent. Otherwise, your dog will be confused about what actions lead to punishment. 

How to prevent destructive behavior in dogs

The methods of preventing destructive behavior are connected to the treatment of destructive behavior. You’ll want to consider these things:

Summary of destructive behavior in dogs

Destructive behavior in dogs can be highly inconvenient. It may stem from simple boredom and loneliness or reflect a more serious mental health disorder. Fortunately, there are many options for pet parents who are struggling to manage a dog with destructive tendencies. You will need to consult your veterinarian to help determine what factors might motivate your dog to act out, and then devise a plan for training and preventing this behavior in the future.

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