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How to Stop Your Dog From Engaging in Destructive Behavior

Audrey has owned and trained Malamutes from puppyhood into adulthood for over 15 years. She has also rescued many other dog breeds.

A lonely dog is a setup for destructive behaviors.

A lonely dog is a setup for destructive behaviors.

Stop Destructive Behavior in Dogs

If you asked several people what they would describe as destructive behavior in dogs, you would get conflicting answers. The key to understanding dogs is to look at their natural behaviors and then figure out what reactionary behaviors they may have developed along the way.

As in most things in life, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between what a dog perceives and what a dog does. Most of the time, there is a very logical explanation as to why a dog has done what he or she has done. The dog owner who knows how to decipher the puzzle is the one who will have the most success in avoiding canine destructive behaviors. First, let's look at a few of the most common destructive behaviors.

The Most Common Destructive Behaviors in Dogs

  • Digging
  • Barking or howling
  • Inappropriate elimination of objects or in places not acceptable
  • Chewing and tearing things apart
  • Aggressiveness towards other dogs
  • Excessive fright or phobia of situations or noises
  • Biting—either themselves or humans
  • Eating plants or other objects
  • Other "neurotic" behaviors such as pacing or repetitive activities

Barking and Howling

Howling or barking for a dog is like speech for a human. When dogs bark, they're trying to communicate something.

Whether that something is a warning—hey, there's someone behind the fence—or a plea for attention—hey, it's time to eat!—it's important to realize why the dog is barking or making vocalizations.

When vocalizations become inappropriate or destructive in nature, that's where the problem arises. If a dog is left alone in a yard all day long with nothing to do, he or she may become overly bored and decide to bark at anything.

Dogs that are teased by children or bothered by excessive noise around them can become incessant barkers. The pattern, once established, can be a hard one to break.

The important thing to remember with dogs barking apparently needlessly or excessively is that they have learned this behavior somehow as a coping mechanism. Finding the trigger or reason is essential if you want to modify the behavior.

Key Questions to Ask About Your Dog

  • Is the dog feeling like his environment is too chaotic, too noisy, or too stimulating?
  • Is someone or something inciting the barking or howling? For instance, if cats are sitting on the fence "teasing" the dog all day long the dog's going to bark! Someone needs to remedy the situation by removing the cats! Or if kids are throwing things at the dog over the fence or antagonizing the dog by making howling noises, the kids need to stop their behavior!
  • Is the dog afraid of environmental factors such as thunder or hail? Some dogs bark instead of trying to get away when they're frightened.

Take the time to analyze when and why your dog is barking before assuming that it's just your dog's personality (or fault). Dogs usually bark for some reason. You have to figure out the antagonist before you can remedy the problem.

Barking and howling are considered destructive behaviors especially when done repetitively or without apparent reason.

Barking and howling are considered destructive behaviors especially when done repetitively or without apparent reason.

Separation Anxiety and Destructive Behaviors

If you leave your dog or dogs alone all day while you're at work, you should not be surprised if destructive behaviors are the end result. That may seem harsh, but few humans like being left alone all day long without human contact so why would we expect our dogs to survive this practice unscathed?

Dogs are social animals and some breeds even more so than others. Leaving a dog to his or her own resources for 8-10 or so hours a day is going to most likely have some repercussions.

Especially if you leave your dog in a confined space—or heaven forbid in a kennel for that length of time. I know someone with a small dog who left the dog in a kennel while she was at work all day long. She came home to let the dog out for potty breaks and back into the kennel she went. The dog, years later I might add, still has anxiety issues and is an extremely demanding dog. I can't say that I blame the dog—I blame the owner.

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Dogs are meant to be free to the extent that they have full use of their muscles. Traveling in a crate is a good thing—it's smart and it's safe. Being in a kennel for a short period of time for a time-out is smart—it's a disciplinary tool that works. Being in a kennel to protect a dog from himself or herself when a puppy is a good idea if you can't be right there paying attention.

However, leaving a dog of any age or any size in a small crate or kennel all day long is, in this author's eyes, animal cruelty. It's better than the dog being dead, yes, but the long-lasting side effects from this kind of life are overwhelming for most dogs. I can honestly say from my years of observing other people and their dogs that as much as there are not enough dog owners for all the dogs in the world, I think it's even worse to see someone with a dog who doesn't know how to care for it properly. Just like children—if you don't have the time or the energy to care for them properly—don't get them!

Being busy is not a good excuse for neglecting a dog by sticking it into a kennel. Even large outdoor kennels unless they allow running room are like doggie prisons. Without regular muscle stimulating exercise, dogs' muscles deteriorate and atrophy. They gain weight, can become ill and much more importantly, can become mentally unstable. Again, I believe in confining a dog in appropriate situations—but the keyword here is appropriate—not convenient for the owner as a babysitting tool.

Dogs spending lots of time in crates tend to demonstrate destructive behaviors.

Dogs spending lots of time in crates tend to demonstrate destructive behaviors.

Dogs and Chewing

When folks term chewing as destructive behavior, it's important to define what is meant in the individual situation before terming this a negative behavior. For instance, when a dog is a puppy, he or she has to chew. There is no way around it. If you don't want a dog who has to chew, you should never get a puppy!

Chewing is a dog's way of exploring the world around them. When dogs are puppies, they chew because they're cutting teeth and much as children do, they need something to make their gums feel better. Punishing a puppy for chewing is like punishing him or her for breathing.

When dogs mature, sometimes the chewing behavior stops completely by around age two never to be seen again. However, other dogs may have continued the behavior as a form of releasing anxiety. Some dogs in fact never stop chewing—sad but true. This author had one dog who until the day he died at ten would chew certain objects if left in his area of reach—like remote controls. For whatever reason, he had a remote control fetish and he never quit chewing them up.

If you don't want them chewing furniture, give them something else to chew!

If you don't want them chewing furniture, give them something else to chew!

Chewing on Pillows

The key again is to understanding why the dog is chewing. Furniture can be a tempting surface because it has wood or it has stuffing—or it smells a certain way—for instance down pillows. One of my dogs has a fetish about the smell of the pillow and if left alone with one, will chew the ends off and pull out the feathers.

Even the most well behaved dog can have destructive moments.

Even the most well behaved dog can have destructive moments.

Chewing on Plants

Chewing on plants and things in the yard may not seem like a big deal but they can have grave consequences—as in killing your dog. Certain plants are poisonous and allowing dogs to chew on them may result in a tragedy.

Even chewing on fabrics—like clothing, shoes, curtains, plastic chairs, etc. can all lead to disastrous results in terms of your dog's health. Pieces of unnatural fiber or even natural fiber can tangle in dogs' intestines and require surgery. Rocks or foreign objects can lodge in the dog's throat and cause them to choke to death—or pass into the stomach or intestine and need to be surgically removed.

If left to their own devices, dogs will even eat plants--which can be disastrous.

If left to their own devices, dogs will even eat plants--which can be disastrous.

What's the Solution?

What's the solution? The most intelligent solution is to make sure your dog is observable when he or she is chewing on anything. That includes rawhide (not recommended by this author), bones, antlers, and toys. Anything that has the potential of hurting your dog should be given to them under supervision.

Give them appropriate toys to play with—things that they can't destroy such as Kongs or balls that can't be chewed apart. A great adjunct to a Kong is putting a treat such as a raw carrot inside and letting the dog chew and chew until he or she gets it.

Most dogs will amuse themselves any way they can--even with a huge stick.

Most dogs will amuse themselves any way they can--even with a huge stick.

Dogs Become Bored

Much like children, dogs do become bored with the same old thing. Buy new toys periodically and put the older ones away—but cycle them all so the dog always has something new to chew on now and again. Ditch things that are past their prime or have loose parts—especially squeakers.