Dogs are often destructive chewers when suffering from Separation Anxiety. Owners, and many dog trainers, tend to use a variety of punishments to attempt to stop the chewing. But these punishments never work. That’s because they misunderstand what is going on.
One of the most important traits of a good dog owner is empathy for their dog. Good dog owners exercise understanding, kindness, care, respect, and firmness instead of harsh punishment.
As an experienced dog trainer, I understand that owners are upset and irritable when they discover their dogs are tearing up the home. The emotional and financial toll of the destruction can also put a significant strain on the family. Most households in America don’t even have a month’s worth of expenses saved up in the bank, so a costly repair can’t be sloughed off as nothing. And if the home life is also hectic or strained, a dog owner will sometimes damage their relationship with their dog by withholding personal time, affection, and emotional security, or becoming childishly emotional and hostile, or both, which will in turn make their dog even more prone to future destructiveness. For some people, they will take the easy way out, and just get rid of the dog or banish it to the backyard. That doesn’t solve the problem, it just displaces the problem to someone else or for the dog to now tear up the back yard and makes the dog even more dependent and insecure.
I teach owners the value of having a good relationship with their dogs. If the relationship is wrong, then the fallout can result in many undesirable behaviors. It is all too easy to reject the dog, when we are the ones setting the dogs up for failure. Dogs need more than just a food bowl. Dogs need quality time, shared activities, affection, praise, training, supervision, encouragement, a regular routine, safety, and comfort. Dogs can be eased into growing up to be emotionally stable and reasonably independent if the owners put in thoughtful effort.
A dog that has not been equipped to be comfortably alone will become overly aroused and vigilant, and they will go into search mode to find their owners. That searching will activate exploratory, investigatory, and foraging behavioral systems. Dogs will then vent their frustration on the easiest available targets, most typically the furniture, walls, clothing, escape points, wood railings, and such. This destructiveness is usually in the form of chewing, but sometimes it can also result in inappropriate urination, defecation, or even provoking fights with other animals in the home. They can’t help it and they can’t control their impulse to find you, and when that doesn’t work, they will vent all that emotional arousal on something else. The destructiveness can be mild, or sometimes appear to be compulsive.
I experienced this kind of flabbergasting destructiveness with my first dog. I have several memories of destruction. A plush chair torn completely in half. A one-foot-wide patch of carpet missing right down to the plywood flooring. A one-foot-wide hole chewed in a wall. A hotel room in which she had torn and pulled off some wallpaper and chewed around the base of the bed. And numerous shredded Sunday newspapers. Back then, I didn’t know what to do. I never punished her, because I knew it was my fault and I instinctively knew it would get worse if I made a big deal about it. I had empathy for her, even though I did not have any answers. Back then, I wasn’t a trainer and there weren’t any good answers other than harsh punishment.
Punishing this kind of destructive behavior will not work. There are trainers out there with any number of devices and methods to attempt to make dogs not want to chew on your stuff. I won’t list them here because I don’t want to give out bad ideas that someone might try out. Simply put, making the chewing, or any other such destructiveness, aversive doesn’t make the dog stop seeking you when you are gone and then venting their frustration by destroying your stuff.
Dogs will endure unbelievable pain and adversity when they are in a highly aroused and distressed state. I know of a dog that pressed himself out of a crate, bending back the entire door, just to attempt to get at a female in heat. I heard of two dogs that ate through a thick meshed wire wall to attack and kill a dog in an adjacent kennel at a vet’s office. I know of a St Bernard that broke and squeezed through a very small opening to attack another dog in the home. I know of a dog that jumped out of a second story window, and another dog that jumped through a sliding glass door, because of separation anxiety. And this is only a partial list of examples of what dogs are capable of when highly motivated.
The solution to this kind of destructiveness is to solve the separation anxiety problem. That is the root problem. If any learned chewing behavior remains, which the dog is using just for the satisfaction of chewing, then there are methods for teaching alternative chewing targets.
In the end, a separation anxiety problem is a relationship problem with the owner. If you put a dog in an uncontrollable aversive situation, then don’t be surprised if that dog develops undesirable emotional changes resulting in harmful and neurotic behaviors. All of this is up to you to either prevent or solve. Professional help is available.