If you your dog is a tail-wagging shredding machine, don’t despair. You can save your home (and your shoes) by understanding the root of the problem and by taking small steps to help your dog overcome it.
Dogs rarely destroy things out of spite. It’s tempting to take the annihilation of your favorite jacket personally, but in these moments one of the most important things to do is step back and breathe. Chances are, your dog is either bored or stressed—and they are destroying things as a coping mechanism.
Boredom sounds like a terrible reason to ruin your house, but it means that your dog has too much energy that they aren’t using. This is especially true of puppies, but the good news is they learn fast and settle down with time. All dogs need stimulation both mentally and physically, though. They need to play, walk, and learn. And when they don’t get that stimulation from you, they seek it elsewhere—in places like your wallet, your socks, or the legs of your coffee table.
A beagle’s nose leads it straight to the trash can–and trouble.
Not all dogs destroy things out of boredom. Some leave a path of wreckage because they are stressed. They might miss you and fear being alone. They might be hurt, or feel unsafe because of the people you invited over, or panic over the loud noises around them. For these dogs, destructive habits are a way to vent stress and comfort themselves.
Whether your dog is acting out due to stress or boredom, you can work toward better behavior together.
Although it might look like Gunther is acting out by hoarding his owner’s shoes and sock, he’s actually surrounding himself in the familiar scent as a coping mechanism.
1. Increase the Exercise
Whether your dog is stressed or bored, it’s important to make sure they are getting plenty of exercise. Exercise burns off excess energy that could otherwise be put toward destroying your furniture or digging up the yard. It releases endorphins which help to calm your dog down. Chewing releases endorphins as well, so by providing them through exercise, it will decrease their urge for destructive behavior. Try taking your dog for another walk (or two) per day or spend some extra time playing fetch.
2. Don’t Yell
Do not, I repeat, do not punish your dog for destructive behavior. This feeds the cycle by stressing your dog out. It may stop destructive behavior in the short term, but it will make it worse in the long run. More importantly, it destroys trust between you and your dog. Your dog’s destructive habits are a way of saying they need something. Comfort, stimulation, reassurance. They trust you to help them fill that void. If you punish them instead, they will only be confused and hurt and will be afraid to express themselves to you.
3. Keep A Tidy Home
Especially while you are ironing out bad habits with your dog, keep the house tidy. A rogue shoe or a fallen sock is pure temptation during these uncertain times. Don’t give your dog an excuse to slip back into bad behavior. Keep closets shut, put shoes away, and store toys when not in use.
4. Create A Safe Space
Give your dog somewhere comforting to retreat to. If they are stressed or overstimulated, having a safe space can prevent them from lashing out or seeking refuge in your couch or prized flowers. Crates can be a great solution to this. Just make sure they are big enough and are a source of comfort, not stress. A crate should be at least large enough for your dog to stand up and turn around in. It should be comfortable, with a soft bed, a favorite toy, and perhaps a blanket to burrow in. And it should be comforting—which means you can’t use the crate as a punishment. It should be a welcome retreat that your dog goes to on their own—not a prison that they dread.
A safe space can be anywhere. One of Gunther’s favorite spots is underneath the office desk in a nice, soft bed.
5. Offer Alternatives
When a dog wants to chew, they will chew. And really, this isn’t a problem as long as they chew on something appropriate. If you find your dog gnawing on something of yours try calmly taking it away and replacing it with something they can chew on instead, like a chew toy or long-lasting treat. Instead of punishing chewing, which is a natural behavior for dogs, it teaches them what is and is not okay to chew on. With patience, your dog will stop dragging out your boots and will pull a toy out instead when they need to gnaw.
Dogs will chew, and Joey is especially talented at it. Providing him with a steady supply of toys keeps him happy and keeps him from chewing on things he shouldn’t.
6. Challenge Your Dog
Your dog is incredibly smart. They are brimming with curiosity and want to learn. If they don’t get the opportunity to stretch those mental muscles, they look for stimulation in more destructive ways. Keeping your dog challenged helps to ensure a happy, well-behaved dog. Walks help with this, but walking the same route can get as repetitive for your canine companion as it can for you. Shake things up by walking a different way or by walking your usual route backward. Take your dog for walks in new places and parks. Teach them new tricks, or offer them treat-powered puzzles. Even a spoonful of yogurt frozen into a Kong toy with peanut butter on top will keep them occupied for long periods. Try rotating their toys to keep things fresh; keep a stash of dog toys in the closet but only bring a few out at a time. Switch them every couple days and you’ll see renewed interest and excitement in the toys—and less interest in your belongings.
Dogs are naturally curious, as Gunther demonstrates while investigating a package.
7. Tackle Environmental Triggers
Every dog is unique, and every dog is uniquely sensitive to their environment. One dog may fireworks in stride, but the same noise may trigger a full-blown panic attack for another. Watch your dog closely to check for signs of distress caused by external forces. If loud noises freak fido out, try turning on the TV or some music for background noise. You can also offer a blanket or Thundershirt. If visitors set your dog off, make sure they have that safe space to retreat to, whether it is a cozy crate with a comfortable bed or a spot under your desk with a nice soft blanket. If they are digging up your petunias—are they laying down in the hole afterward? This could be a sign that they are too warm and would like a cool place to rest outside. A shaded area with a blanket or mat may offer a better alternative. If your dog tears your house apart every time you leave, remember above all to be gentle and patient. This could be separation anxiety—which means your absence triggers a panic attack in your dog. Often, it is because they are afraid of abandonment and desperate to find you or surround themselves in your scent. To overcome separation anxiety, you must build trust. Your dog needs to trust that you will come back. The best way to do this is to start small. Try grabbing your keys and coat and step out the door for a few seconds. Come back inside, and reward them if they’ve been good. Offer them a treat, attention, and lots of reassurance and love. If they have not been good, don’t punish them. Stay calm. Yelling will only make the problem worse. As they get used to this, try leaving for slightly longer increments. Five minutes at a time. Then fifteen. Then a half an hour. Build your way up slowly and always reward good behavior. As you work on this together, make sure that your dog has that safe space they can go for comfort.
A simple blanket helps to comfort Joey when guests visit and anytime he’s stressed.
8. Search for Signs of Discomfort
Although stress is often triggered from outside sources like loud noises or strangers, it can also be a sign of internal discomfort. If your dog is in pain, they may take it out on your house in an attempt to comfort themselves. Keep a close eye on your dog and pet them often to check for sensitivity. If you think your dog is sick or in pain, take them to a vet right away. If it is a chronic condition such as arthritis, managing your dog’s pain may help curb the damage to your home as well.
9. Start Slow, Build Trust
Change takes time. Even with the best tips and tricks up your sleeve, your dog still has to learn good habits (and unlearn bad ones). Take things one step at a time and be patient while your dog adjusts. If your dog panics when you leave the house, don’t start by leaving for eight hours at a time. If you replace your slippers with a chew toy, it may take a few tries before your dog understands that one is okay to chew on and the other is not. Your dog is smart, and with your help, they will learn good behavior fast. In the meantime patience is golden.
10. Reward Good Behavior
Punishing a dog for destructive behaviors is one of the worst ways to resolve the problem, so it should come as no surprise that rewarding good behavior is one of the best ways to fix it. Every time your dog takes a step in the right direction, give a treat or a belly rub or some extra attention. Positive reinforcement is a powerful motivator and will encourage them to keep doing those good things—to keep chewing on their chew toy (instead of your shoes), to keep going to their safe space, to keep trusting you’ll come home every time you leave.
After a hard day’s work chewing on shoes, boxes, and rummaging through the trash, Gunther rests.
A bit of patience and understanding goes a long way with any dog. As you work with your dog to put bad habits to rest, they look to you for reassurance and guidance. Be kind, be gentle, and they will learn quickly. With these steps, you’ll save your house (and have a happier dog) in no time.