Dogs are social animals. As such, they prefer to live in cohesive groups, called packs. It they were living in the wild, they would rarely, if ever, be alone. They would be looking for food or guarding their den in the company of other members of the pack. Dogs readily accept humans into their packs and treat them as functional members of this hierarchical structure. Pet dogs need social interaction with their packs that is their owners and families.
Extended periods alone will often cause them to become stressed because being alone is not natural and tends to make them feel isolated. As pets, however, dogs do spend a great deal of time alone. Being left alone can result in separation anxiety, which, in turn, results in destructive chewing and other objectionable behaviors, including excessive barking, digging, and self-mutilation.
Dogs continue to exhibit certain behaviors because these behaviors have become self-rewarding. Dogs engage in the above activities because they relieve the stress associated with being left alone. Therefore, the easiest way to solve separation problems is by dealing with the need underlying them, rather than trying to correct the behavior itself. Most destructive behavior occurs when the owner is not at home. Furthermore, it begins soon after the owner’s departure. Some people believe that their dogs are being spiteful and rebelling against being left alone. However, a dog is not capable of being vindictive or revengeful because these activities require the ability to plan. The dog does not have the forebrain required for planning.
Dogs do not understand disobedience or anti-social behavior. Despite what some owners think, dogs do not lie around all day, plotting ways to get back at their owners. Dogs live in the present. They tend to do what pleases them at any given moment, unless someone is directing them otherwise. Dogs do not contemplate how to single-handedly destroy the expensive leather sofa because their owners left them alone. They are simply reacting to their owners’ absences. Instead of feeling revengeful, the dogs feel anxious about being separated and to relieve stress they may become destructive.
Unfortunately, when people come home and find that the family dog has completely destroyed the sofa, it is difficult for them to refrain from using punishment. In actuality, however, punishment will magnify this problem. Old or young, dogs do not have the mental capacity to make the connection between their actions ten minutes or two hours ago with your current disposition. The dog does perceive that you are angry, but simply believe that you are angry because you arrived home. If your dog does a belly crawl across the room when you arrive and discover that he has gnawed off the leg of your antique dining table, it is not because he understands that he has done something wrong. He is simply reacting to your mannerisms and tone of voice. You may not realize it, but your facial expressions and body postures indicate that you are upset. Dogs have uncanny powers of observation and notice even the slightest changes in body language. The stronger your dog is bonded to you, the more in tune he will be to any subtle changes in your demeanor.
To effectively eliminate destructive behavior by using punishment, you must catch your dog in the destructive act. Otherwise, he will not understand exactly why he is being punished. Lack of understanding may lead to heightened anxiety and further destruction. How, then, do you stop destructive behavior?
Separation anxiety results when a dog is overly dependent upon the owner. Therefore, the key to alleviating anxiety is to make the dog feel secure and confident. Over several weeks you should train your dog to be left alone for longer periods of time. Do two or three practice absences each week. Used correctly, this technique will prevent stress and the destructive behavior related to separation anxiety.
During practice absences, do the following:
1. Go through your usual preparations to leave the house. The dog must be convinced that you are really leaving.
2. Turn on the radio. If the radio has been playing, noticeably increase the volume. The radio provides noise so that your dog won’t feel so alone.
3. Take your dog to the vicinity of the door and tell him to sit. Kneel next to him and pet him softly. Keep repeating, “I’ll be back.” You are trying to prepare the dog for your impending departure. If he seems anxious, soothe him until he is calm.
4. Leave. But, stay away only a few minutes, long enough to drive around the block. When you return, pretend you have been gone a long time. Greet your dog with enthusiasm; give him treats or a brief play period. Ignore any misbehavior. Make your arrival a momentous occasion.
5. Keep a record of your absences. Record the date, length of the absence, time of day, behavior of the dog prior to departure, and any destructive behavior.
6. Gradually increase the length of your training absences. Decrease their length if misbehavior occurs.
7. Continue to practice until you are satisfied that your dog is comfortable with your departures.
8. Incorporate the absence-training format into your regular absences.
9. Gradually fade out the radio.
In addition to practicing absences, do the following:
1. Stop punishing the dog. It does not work and may make him more dependent.
2. Develop a routine with your pet. Schedule a daily play period, walk, or training session. Devote one very “special time” to your pet late in the evening. Pet him softly, play his favorite games, or give him a luscious treat. Make “special time” something he looks forward to. This way, he will be less frustrated when he cannot be with you.
3. Exercise your pet on a regular basis. Often, dogs that are not exercised properly have a lot of pent up energy. Being cooped up in a house alone all day can also cause a dog to become destructive as he attempts to get rid of this energy.
4. Restrict him during regular absences to an area where he can do minimal damage until your dog has learned to be left alone. A dog crate is ideal.
Destructive behavior in response to being left alone is a common behavioral problem in pet dogs. Once understood, however, owners can eliminate it. The absence-training program outlined above has been successfully used to alleviate the stress, which causes destructive behavior. Your dog can become accustomed to and accept separation as a normal part of his day.