Why Do Dogs Destroy Things When You're Not Around?

Adrienne Farricelli

Dogs destroy things when you're not around most likely for two main reasons: negative associations and anxiety. No, despite what you may think, Rover doesn't chew on your favorite rug out of spite or because he seeks revenge for not taking him along for the car ride. Forget about that guilty look on his face being undeniable proof of his wrongdoing,  truth is, he's just reacting to your emotions.

If your dog destroys things when you're not around, most likely you're very frustrated and tired of dealing with this situation. Perhaps, you may be even thinking of ridding yourself of your dog. Take a deep breath. Dog's don't strategically plot a secret plan to destroy your valuable belonging and drive you nuts. Dog instead act more out of instinct or because of unmet needs. Fortunately, there are several strategies to tackle this problem. 

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The guilty look we see in dogs is an anthropomorphic view 

A Word About the Guilty Look

So you come home from work only to find a mess in your home: Rover has managed to chew on the couch and there's stuffing everywhere from a disemboweled pillow. You stare at the mess with an angered look on your face and then start talking to your dog in stern tone of voice.

 Your dog, being a master in reading your body language understands your state of mind which emits anger, frustration and all sorts of negative emotions, so what does he do? He responds by using body language that many dog owners classify under the "guilty" category.

 The slinking away, tucking the tail, keeping the ears back is therefore readily interpreted as a dog who got caught red-handed and is feeling ashamed for his wrong-doing, but this is a big misinterpretation. 

In reality, the "guilty look" turned out being a myth. Research has shown that dogs show behaviors that are interpreted as ‘guilty’as a response to their owner's behavior rather than an appreciation of his own misdeeds. 

In other words, Rover isn't acting "guilty" because he purposely plotted to destroy your furnishings to seek revenge. Just recognizing that your dog's behaviors aren't motivated by spite, vengeance, or guilt can at least ease some of your frustration, suggest Stanley Coren and Sarah Hodgson in the book: "Understanding Your Dog For Dummies."

A Matter of Separation Anxiety 

Sometimes understanding what is going on in Rover's mind takes putting on an investigative hat and turning into a pet detective. What is your dog destroying exactly? What is he doing precisely during your absence?

Often dogs who destroy things when you're not around are dogs who are suffering from separation anxiety. Now, this requires a careful assessment considering that there may be other causes and separation anxiety is prone to being over diagnosed. For a good reason, veterinary behaviorists often refer to separation anxiety as "the great imitator."

So what are some telltale signs of separation anxiety in dogs? Expect to see panting, pacing, drooling, inappropriate elimination (pee and poop accidents), barking, whining and howling and some level of destruction.

 The the type of destruction taking place is also important. Expect for it to especially affect the door from which the owner exited through, points out veterinary behaviorist Dr. Meredith Stepita.

Interestingly, in the case of separation anxiety the problem behaviors emerge only when the dog is left alone. In the presence of their owners, affected dogs may never exhibit any  anxiety-related behaviors.  Indeed, many times owner are unaware of their dog's anxiety disorder and may attribute their destructiveness as a sign of spite explains veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Barbara Sherman.

In general, signs of separation anxiety begin to occur within the first 15 to 20 minutes of your dog being alone. It helps a lot to video tape your dog when left alone. Afterward, have a professional review the recording and help determine the motivation. 

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Dogs with separation anxiety vocalize and tend to focus on windows and doors

A Matter of Phobias 

Sometimes dogs may destroy things when left alone because they have some phobias that cause them panic and deep anxiety. 

An example are dogs suffering from thunderstorm phobias or other sound phobias. Out of panic, these dogs may start scratching doors or other enclosures in hopes of finding an area to escape the noise and hide. 

An important consideration though is that, dogs with phobias tend to show this behavior as well in presence of the owner. So the behavior should remain the same regardless of whether the dog is left alone when a storm rolls or is in presence of the owner. 

However, something to consider as well is the fact that many dogs are better able to cope with their fears when in presence of their owner who has a reassuring, mitigating effect. So the owner's presence may help reduce their distress.   

A Matter of Reactivity 

Another form of destruction is seen in dogs who are reactive (aggressive, frustrated or excited) upon noticing triggers by windows. Common triggers may encompass other dogs, people,  cars and wildlife. 

These dogs may act destructive towards windows and doors, however, as in the case of phobias, these dogs would show their reactive behaviors during their owner's presence as well.

A Matter of Lack of Stimulation 

In present times, with dog owners leading busy lifestyles and with the advent of technology leading to spending more time and more time on the computer, T.V. and phone, many dogs fail to receive enough exercise and mental stimulation. 

An important differential to consider is therefore the bored dog who engages in destructive behaviors as a form of play and exploratory behavior or just out of frustration because of their unmet needs. 

When recorded, these dogs when left alone engage in destructive behaviors, but they are for the most part calm. The items these dogs focus on are often couches, pillows or rolled up papers from the waste basket rather than the door from which the owner has exited from. 

Bored, under-stimulated dogs may be prone to exhibiting destructive behaviors even in presence of the owner, however, they may engage in these behaviors more often when the owner leaves the room or leaves for work for the simple fact that they have started to associate their owner's presence with punishment. 

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Puppies and young dogs tend to often chew things when left alone especially if bored and if they associate their owner's presence with punishment

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs may destroy things when left alone for a variety of reasons. Telling one reason from another is not always clear-cut. Following are several tips if you own a dog who turns destructive when left alone. 

  • Record your dog's behavior when you head out of the door.
  • Have a professional take a look at your recording for an insightful assessment. 
  • If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, expect to engage in an extensive behavior modification protocol entailing environmental management, desensitizing your dog to pre-departure cues, encouraging independence, practicing low-key arrivals.
  • Dogs suffering from phobias benefit from behavior modification methods using desensitization and counterconditioning. Playing calming music, keeping the TV or radio on or running some white noise may help buffer sounds. Severe cases may require calming aids and anxiety-relieving prescription medication from the vet. 
  • Reactive dogs should be kept away from windows and doors. Window film can reduce visibility, lowering the dog's arousal levels. 
  • For bored dogs, provide more enrichment and mental stimulation on top of physical exercise. Young, bored dogs may benefit from doggie daycare or hiring a dog walker.
  • Leaving long lasting edibles that can be safely consumed during your absence  (bully sticks, food-dispensing toys, frozen peanut butter Kongs) can help your dog make good choices and focus on these rather than other items. 
  • Keep items your dog can destroy out of hand. Consider though that bored dogs can get quite creative and may choose to chew the baseboards or drywall.
  • Consider that ingesting items left around the home may lead to costly veterinary visits and even surgeries for intestinal blockages. 
  • Particularly destructive dogs may benefit from being crate trained or restricted to an area and left with safe, long-lasting edibles. 
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