Destructive behavior in dogs

Chewing, playing, and exploring are normal behaviors for dogs. But these behaviors can sometimes escalate, resulting in the destruction of household property — a frustrating problem for owners. Identifying the cause of your dog's behavior is key to correcting it.

Common causes of destructive behavior

Teething

When teething, puppies’ gums may be painful. Chewing appears to help relieve the discomfort of teething. The behavior usually stops after permanent teeth appear.

Separation anxiety

This is one of the most common causes of destructive behavior in dogs. Dogs with separation anxiety tend to have a strong attachment to their owners – following owners from room to room, displaying frantic greeting behaviors, and reacting to owners’ preparation to leave the house.

Separation anxiety can be caused by a change in your family’s schedule that results in your dog being left alone more often, a move to a new house, the death or loss of another family pet or a period at a boarding kennel.

Separation anxiety behaviors include excessive vocalizations, housesoiling, and destructive behavior. Because these behaviors are motivated by anxiety, punishment will make the problem worse. Separation anxiety can be resolved using counter conditioning and desensitization techniques under the supervision of a professional animal behaviorist.

Fears and phobias

Fearful responses to thunderstorms and loud noises often involve escape attempts that result in destructive behavior. Doors, doorframes, window trim, screens, and walls are often damaged. These problems can be especially dangerous because excessively fearful dogs may injure themselves attempting to break through windows or doors to escape a feared situation.

Social isolation or boredom

If dogs don't receive opportunities for social interaction with their owners, or if they don't have playmates or toys, they sometimes entertain themselves by engaging in destructive behavior.

Attention-seeking behavior

Without realizing it, owners may pay the most attention to their dogs when they are misbehaving. Dogs who don't receive attention and reinforcement for appropriate behavior may show destructive behavior as a way to attract attention, even if the attention is negative.

Play behavior

Normal play behavior can often result in destructive behavior, and often involves digging or chewing, shredding, and shaking of toy-like objects such as shoes, socks or paper objects. This is very common in young dogs and often happens when the dog is unsupervised or doesn't have enough outlets for appropriate play behavior.

Investigative behavior

Dogs may inadvertently damage items in their environment when they are exploring or investigating. Dogs investigate objects by pawing at them and exploring them with their mouths. Many dogs also like to fetch and carry objects. Novel or unfamiliar objects are often damaged this way, especially when dogs are left unsupervised for long periods of time.

Inappropriate punishment

Excessive punishment or punishment after the fact for any misbehavior can cause dogs to have anxiety around their owner. Anticipation of the owner’s return or arrival increases the dog’s anxiety level, and they might engage in destructive behavior to relieve the anxiety.

Medical problems

Upper gastrointestinal irritation, dental or gum pain may cause destructive chewing in adult dogs. Some diseases may cause excessive hunger (polyphagia), or eating of non-food items (pica). Consult your veterinarian if you suspect these problems.  

Inconsistent feeding routines

A hungry dog may go on a foraging spree and destroy the house searching for food.

Barrier frustrations

Some dogs become anxious, and therefore destructive, when confined in small areas such as crates (flight kennels) or small rooms (bathroom, laundry room). This may be associated with separation anxiety.

Predatory behavior

If dogs are attempting to chase rodents underneath floorboards or behind walls, destructive behavior may result.

Correcting destructive behavior

Punishment alone is rarely effective in resolving destructive behavior problems and can make them worse. Punish the behavior, not your pet. For assistance in resolving destructive and other behavior problems, contact a professional animal behaviorist or call our Pet Helpline at 952-HELP-PET.

Written by Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist,
Denver Dumb Friends League (Humane Society of Denver)
IF THIS MATERIAL IS REPRODUCED THE AUTHOR AND DDFL MUST BE CREDITED

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

Contact the Pet Helpline