Dogs are social animals, for whom we are the pack or family. When we are absent, they become distressed. Most dogs cope with the inevitable separations from us, but some do not. Expressions of distress in dogs vary from one individual to another : some whine, others lose toilet control, still, others are destructive and regress to puppy-like random binges of chewing or scratching.
Destructive behaviours seem to provide a satisfying displacement activity or distraction in the anxious or upset dog. Treatment has a high probability of success. Accordingly, DO NOT expel your destructive dog onto the streets when you are out : there is a better way.
In the short term, a muzzle, crate or indoor kennel or an outdoor kennel/outbuilding allows you to side-step the problem for brief periods, whilst you apply the psychological strategy outlined below. Be sure to only use an adequately-sized indoor kennel (an indoor crate provides a secure ‘den’ associated with pleasure and security – it should not be used as a punishment cell) or well-fitting muzzle as recommended by your veterinary surgeon.
Most of us are especially affectionate and apologetic before leaving our dog alone with such words as “Be a good boy”, “I won’t be long” etc. Stop this, and be off-hand and rejecting, thereby reducing the contrast between your presence then imminent absence, otherwise the dog will feel desolate on your departure.
Be unpredictable so that your dog doesn’t know your next move. Sometimes leave the house wearing indoor clothes, by different routes, or return as though to collect a forgotten item. Having a routine before leaving simply heightens your dog’s anxiety to a crescendo.
Your dog needs reminding of your presence during your absence : leave items of your warm clothing, your usual radio or TV channel on, a light, local heat, perhaps access to a favourite chair or bed. Record family activity and leave it playing whilst you are out. The more normal, the better.
For some dogs, separation from you is like a phobia, irrational and dramatic. Damage usually occurs immediately after the departure of the owner, when anxiety is at its highest, both from suddenly being alone and in anticipation of a long separation. Formal desensitisation involves exposure to brief periods of separation, then of gradually increasing duration according to their degree of tolerance on the earlier trial. The theory is simple, but the practice more difficult, as their toleration of particular intervals of separation will vary from day to day. Keep careful records, noting the date, time and duration of tolerated versus non-tolerated separation. Build on small successes and don’t go too fast.
The worst single action by an owner of a destructive dog is to return and punish, or even scold the miscreant. Either do nothing or be your usual charming self.
Time in Contract
Try not to permit your dog to follow you from room to room when at home. Allocate some 30% of your time together, with the door closed between you and him. Always be cool or rejecting as you close the door, but warm on reunions.
The General Relationship
To an extent, you are to blame for creating the excessive dependence of your dog. Be less indulgent, have him on your knees less etc. This is known as cooling the relationship off. A good analogy is that of the 15-year-old schoolboy with a crush on his teacher. The best way to put him off is to be cool and distant. You want your dog to become more emotionally independent and confident, and less dependent on you.
Occasionally, anti-anxiety drugs are helpful in the short term treatment of destructive behaviour. However, this is rare, and you should consult your veterinary surgeon.
- Some complementary therapies are useful for anxiety.
- Bach Flower Remedies – Sweet Chestnut, Rock Rose
- Herbal Remedies – Skullcap – Valerian
- Homoeopathic Remedies – Aconite, Arsenicum Album, Pulsatilla, Nux Vomica, Phosphorous
If there is a sudden onset of destructive behaviour when separated from you in a dog that is usually tolerant and well-behaved, it may be in pain or physically unwell. Consult your veterinary surgeon.
Your dog should be trained to handle only toys of innocuous materials and not those constructed of textiles, wood or plastic. Ideally, orient your puppy to mouth only characteristic rubber-construction tough toys.
- Breed Selection. For reasons not entirely understood, Labradors and some other breeds are much more destructive than others. Cross breeds are also notably destructive : perhaps they are excessively loving or over-attached.
- Crate training a puppy is the single most effective avoidance procedure open to dog owners. The puppy is safe from dangerous equipment, whilst being forced to tolerate separation.
- Remember punishment ALWAYS exacerbates destructive behaviours.
The Good Life:
All dogs need ample exercise, food and a secure relationship with you. The absence of any one may provoke bizarre separation problems such as destructive behaviour.