Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
If your dog destroys things when left alone, you're most likely a working puppy parent who is fed up with this behavior. You've likely come home to find your house in disarray, with the couch cushions destroyed or your favorite pair of shoes chewed up by your fur baby.
Before considering switching your dog's name to Beast, Diablo, Storm or Chewbacca, it may help to take a deep breath and understand what is causing Rover to act out. Because truthfully, only by thinking like a dog and looking at what the latest canine research tells us can we deduce some things and better grasp what's going on with our friends.
Firstly, It's Not What it Looks Like!
If I could put a dollar in my piggy bank for every time dog owners tell me their dogs destroyed stuff when left alone because they were angry/spiteful/seeking revenge—or my favorite, "As a way of getting back at humans," as if dogs are plotting astute strategies to drive us nuts—I would probably be one of the richest persons on earth.
When I shake my head in disagreement and start to explain, I am sometimes abruptly interrupted because some dog owners are truly deeply convinced their dogs are acting out of spite because the dog's body language upon opening the door seems to say it all...
With the dog looking away, ears back and slowly slinking away with his body low, they truly believe the proof is in the pudding. The dogs seem to have the word "guilty" printed all over their face. Yet, there are different dynamics going on.
Guilt Is a Human Emotion
Here's the thing: Guilt is ultimately a human emotion. It takes some complex thinking to feel guilty as guilt requires the adherence of a moral code necessary to make the act of destroying things unethical for dogs, a species that instead tends to merely act out of instincts.
So that "guilty look" your pooch gives you when you storm in and scold him doesn’t equate to actual guilt. Dogs aren’t able to manifest that level of cognitive emotion. Rather they are responding instinctively to your body language.
According to recent research, a dogs' "guilty look" isn't therefore “an official admission of guilt,” but rather an instinctive response to what's perceived as threatening behavior.
If you exhibit hostile body language, dogs are going to make themselves as small and unassuming as possible to avoid your wrath. This is more an appeasing gesture than anything else.
So, before you go blaming your pup for his or her behavior, consider what might be causing the destruction in the first place. Below you'll be finding various causes for destructive behavior in dogs when left alone.
The guilty look is actually an attempt to appease the human, because the pet can predict punishment is forthcoming. However, this is not the same as acknowledgment of wrongdoing. In short, the dog is saying please stop yelling, hitting or punishing me. This is not the same as admission of guilt, remorse or understanding what deed has caused the punishment.
— Dr. Debra Horwitz and Gary Landsberg, board-certified veterinary behaviorists
Four Reasons Dogs Destroys Things When Let Alone
So if spite or revenge isn't on your dog's agenda, what is causing him to act destructively when left alone in the first place? The following are several potential causes.
1) Separation Anxiety
If you have a dog who is relatively calm when you’re around, but goes nuts when you leave or about to leave the house, even if it's just for a brief time, it might be due to anxiety.
Some dogs will experience strong separation anxiety from their owners, and you may find bite marks, scratch marks or chew marks on areas such as windows or doors.
It may be worth it to record your dog's behavior when you leave the home and see whether he gets panicky. Watch for signs such as constant pacing, whining, barking, howling, drooling, scratching and chewing windows and doors and having accidents around the house.
2) Coping Mechanism
Likewise, some dogs may be triggered by certain sounds or sights. Normally with their human around, dogs are less likely to react to the stimuli. But left to their own devices, the sights and sounds going on in the world beyond the house may be too much for them to handle.
And some dogs just can’t handle the added pressure of keeping watch over the whole home in your absence. After all, no matter how big your fur baby is, the space they occupy is always going to seem much larger when they aren’t sharing it with you.
In reality, dogs at their core are social animals. Being left alone, especially when they ran wild, meant danger. A larger predator could snatch up even the quickest dog if they were by their lonesome. There was safety in numbers so being left on their own still can rub dogs the wrong way.
Stress can therefore play a number on dogs, and chewing can be their preferred way to cope with these unpleasant emotions.
3) A Dog's Work-Life Balance
Not surprisingly, many dogs were domesticated and later bred for a particular purpose. Hounds were bred to track. Collies were bred to herd and dogs like Malamutes and American Eskimos were bred to be sled dogs.
Chances are, if you’ve got one of these breeds and you live in the suburbs or a city, your pup’s main job is to be adorable and family-friendly, rather than working at the task they’d been bred for.
Now, that’s not a slight against you. They are your fur babies, and you love them, but they still have pent up energy they need to expend it in some way. So, oftentimes, they will amuse themselves by messing up the house.
This also ties into the general sense of boredom when left unstimulated at home. When they are destroying the couch cushions or your pillows, or even a favorite child’s toy, they aren’t doing it to spite you. They just wish they were playing with you and this is the only way they can express their desire and frustration.
4) Hard-Wired Instincts
Even though your dog is domesticated and fed food from bags and cans served in shiny bowls, he still retains some ancient instincts. Let's just say that he has remained still a hunter at heart.
Those stuffed couch pillows are therefore super tempting as they remind him of prey animals. Just as dogs shake their toys and tear them apart to get to the squeaker, dogs will have a blast chewing through pillows so as to "de-gut" them, removing the internal "entrails" under the stuffing.
Boredom or play/exploratory behavior is another cause of destruction when home alone. I commonly think of this when dogs younger than one year of age present to me for separation anxiety. A video tape reveals that these dogs are calm, but destructive. They may destroy the couch or papers left out, but not usually the door the owner exited through.
— Dr. Meredith Stepita, board-certified veterinary behaviorist
How to Stop This Behavior
As seen, dogs have some valid reasons to destroy things when left alone, and in most cases, they are a dog's plea for help.
Managing your pup’s behavior when you aren’t around is a big part of being a fur parent. You want to be able to live your life without worrying that your pooch is going to ruin everything in the house. Here are some tips to consider when dealing with this issue.
- Not everyone can afford to send their pooch to doggie daycare or hire a pet sitter, so, if you have to be away from the house for long periods of time for work, consider giving your pup the best possible chance to make you proud. Setting your pooch up for success will make everyone’s lives easier.
- If your pup is prone to barking at everything person and sound that passes by the window, consider shutting the curtains and putting on some calming music to keep your dog occupied. Or even better, maybe consider corralling them somewhere without front-facing windows.
- Be sure the leave your dog chew toys and other treats that can keep them stay occupied for long periods of time that don’t involve destroying your personal belongings.
- It’s also a smart move to remove all of the tempting stuffing-filled items or shoes from your pup’s area before you leave. They can’t rip into them if they can’t reach them!
- Otherwise, consider keeping your pup in a smaller, enclosed area of the house to limit their destructive capacity. Erect a baby gate, set up a playpen or crate your dog if you aren't leaving for too long.
- Be sure to walk your dog and play with them before you have to leave. This helps keep them engaged, but also tires them out enough that they won’t need to expend that energy being "naughty."
- Consider remote monitoring to keep tabs on what your dog is doing when left alone. The Furbo Camera allows you to watch your dog, talk to him and is even capable of dispensing treats to keep your dog busy at the touch of a button.
- If you find that your dog is becoming overly stressed or suffering from separation anxiety when left alone, please consult your vet on ways to manage this behavior. You can get a referral to a behavioral specialist. But you’ll both be glad you did. Seeing your pup under such stress is never fun for you either. Your behavior specialist can provide ways to help your dog overcome this fear of being left alone.
- VCA Animal Hospitals, Why Punishment Should be Avoided By Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM
- Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of behaviors associated with guilt in dogs Julie Hecht a,b,∗, Ádám Miklósi a, Márta Gácsi,
- The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Meredith Stepita DACVB, Separation Anxiety: The Great Imitator, Part 1
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 03, 2021:
Hi Peggy, yes, they can come to love the crate. We also used crates to keep our pups safe when we left the home. Once they were good in not getting into trouble, we left the crates with the door open and they would "autocrate" themselves.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on December 23, 2020:
I always feel sorry for dogs that are left alone by themselves all day. I can see why they might misbehave while home alone. But your suggestions are good I never heard about the Furbo Camera before, that is such a useful device.
FlourishAnyway from USA on December 22, 2020:
I could just imagine returning home to find the place ransacked by an anxious or bored doggo. Your explanations make absolute sense, and I like that you disabuse people of the notion that their dogs are admitting guilt The faces they make are cute though. I like the dog shaming photos. They often involve destructive acts.
The logician on December 20, 2020:
Excellent analysis and advice!!
One thing you might add is to use a doggy treadmill. Dogs love them, the exercise is good for them in so many ways and a good run everyday can be done while you are getting ready for work or doing something the dog can’t participate in. It will calm them down to the point that they won’t want to look for mischievous things to do and you’ll find you won’t be able to keep them off the mill!
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 20, 2020:
You made a lot of excellent suggestions in this article, Adrienne. I always thought my dog did feel guilty, but obviously they don't want us to be mad at them. There sure are a lot of reasons why your dog acts up, but it seems like there is a way to deal with most of them. Great information!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 20, 2020:
I have to admit that we had several things destroyed by various dogs over the years. We finally got a large crate in which to keep one of our last dogs when we would leave the house.
After we decided that we no longer had to use the crate, our Trudy would go to the same spot where the crate had been when we would leave the house. She actually liked being in it!