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Last week, I returned home to a huge surprise. My 11-year old dog Buster stood panting behind a baby gate, trapped by a door that had closed and latched behind it covered in plaster. Behind him, the door jam was ripped to shreds, the door handle bent and bitten, and the door streaked with blood from the tooth he’d broken in his frenzy.
Weirdly, Buster had clearly managed to escape from the baby-gate prison at some point while I was away—plaster was strewn throughout the house, mixed into a paste with thick strands of drool edging the house’s other doors—and yet, by the time I returned, he was back to the 18-inch wide “cage.” There are a lot of unknowns about what happened that day, but the why is clear: Buster had a severe panic attack when left alone.
There are many reasons a dog might cause destruction at home while the family is away but it can be confusing to figure out what may have motivated your dog to shred a couch, eat a shoe or, in my case, destroy a door. This guide to home destruction can help you determine whether you’ve got a party animal on your hands or a dog that suffers separation anxiety, and what to do to fix it. It’s also helpful for getting tips to prepare a pet sitter or other caregiver for your dog!
Dog Getting Into Trash, Destroying the Kitchen
Type of destruction: Garbage can knocked over, kitchen counters surfed, food wrappers littering the floor
What motivated your dog: Food related destruction is typically associated with a dog who is either bored or a super-smart opportunist.
What to do about it: The best defense against food-related destruction is better management of the space you leave your dog in when alone. This means taking food off of counters and putting it in cabinets or out of reach places like on top of the refrigerator.
For low cabinets that contain food, garbage or recycling, buy a simple set of child safety latches. Garbage bins that are too large to go in a cabinet can be secured with similar child safety latches or replaced with garbage cans with locking lids.
If making these adjustments to your kitchen is not right for you, another option is making the room off limits altogether when your dog is alone. A baby gate can easily block off the space if you can’t restrict your dog to a separate area of the house.
Dog Chewing Shoes, Destroying Beds
Type of destruction: Chewed up shoes, remote controls, and other small objects; pillows or dog beds eviscerated
What motivated your dog: Boredom is the most likely culprit.
What to do about it: While you can definitely put away some things, it’s pretty hard to puppy proof your home if your dog is destroying their own things in addition to yours.
What a bored dog needs is a job to do while you’re away. Leaving your best friend with stuffed puzzle toys, DIY enrichment objects (i.e., holes punched in a plastic bottle filled with kibble or treats), or goodies hidden for an old-fashioned treasure hunt (i.e., treats, puzzle toys or chewies tied in rags “hidden” throughout the home) can go a long way towards alleviating boredom.
It’s also important to make sure that your pup is receiving enough physical and mental stimulation when you are present: walks, toy play, dog-dog socialization, and training games are all ways to use up some of their energy before you leave the house.
Dog Chewing Door Frame, House Soiling
Type of destruction: Door jambs, doors and spots around exits dug or chewed up; urine or feces (from a housebroken dog) or puddles of drool or sweat; destruction in a specific place that smells heavily of you such as a bed or a favorite chair; blood, typically from teeth or paws
What motivated your dog: These forms of destruction stem from panic, fear, and anxiety
What to do about it: Of all types of destruction, this is the most severe and the one that should be taken most seriously. While there are some products on the market that can assist with anxiety experienced by a dog left alone—DAP collars, pressure wraps, white noise or classical music, holistic supplements or nutraceuticals—but they are unlikely to solve this problem on their own.
Currently, the gold standard in this type of behavior, symptoms of what we categorize as either isolation distress or separation anxiety, is slow desensitization to your absence.
After his episode last week, Buster is going through slow desensitization training. While my dog is lucky his mom is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, you don’t have to be an expert to help your dog work through destruction motivated by panic: books such as Treating Separation Anxiety by Malena DeMartini and I’ll Be Home Soon by Patricia McConnell can help guide you through the process, as can a positive-reinforcement dog trainer certified in the subject.
Make sure you’re doing the best thing for your dog by treating the problem, not the symptoms; buying an extra-strength crate, for example, may prevent destruction but it is also likely to make the anxiety manifest in other ways. Similarly, hiring a dog trainer that believes in punishing a dog for panic-related destruction may only make the situation worse.