The "destructo" Dog

Written & Submitted by: Julie C. Bond, M.S., Animal Behaviorist

Sam is a young, exuberant Labrador Retriever mix. Her family refers to her as "Destructo Dog." If left alone for more than an hour, Sam turns the house and yard upside down. She's destroyed a sofa, several rugs, numerous pairs of shoes, most of a rose garden, and every sprinkler head in the yard. I received a call regarding Sam the day she tore up the new comforter and pillows her owners had purchased for their master bedroom. Sam's family was at their wit's end; they loved their dog and didn't want to give her up, but they couldn't be home with her all the time and her destructive behavior was becoming extremely expensive. What could they do?

When animals exhibit symptoms of anxiety or excessive distress when they are left alone, the condition is called separation anxiety. The most commonly exhibited behaviors associated with separation anxiety are inappropriate elimination, destruction, pacing, and excessive vocalization. Drooling and excessive panting may also occur. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety may display one or more of these problems and they will not go away on their own. Punishment is ineffective in the treatment of this problem and often results in a more anxious dog. Providing a second dog as a companion usually backfires as well; the second dog only increases the first's anxiety level. Dogs at the highest risk for separation anxiety are those rescued from shelters who have been kenneled for extended periods and have unknown early histories. Sam was, in fact, a shelter dog.

In order to solve this problem, we had to teach Sam that she did not have to be anxious or fearful about being left alone. For Sam's own safety and the sanity of her owners, we began by teaching Sam to den using an airline-style carrier. This carrier or crate was readily visible to Sam and her bed was inside. She was given verbal rewards and treats for exploring the crate on her own. Once she was comfortable with the crate, we could begin shutting the door and leaving her in the crate while the owners were home. Once she was used to being in the crate while her owners were home, we could move on to crating her for short periods of time when they were gone. For Sam, the crate represented a safe haven or den for her to escape her anxiety and feel secure. This isn't the case for all dogs with separation anxiety. For some dogs, the crate increases anxiety because of a fear of confinement. For these dogs, it is best to either hire a pet-sitter to watch the dog when you can't or board the dog during the day while you are gone. If you are able to take the dog to work with you, even better. The point here is not to leave the dog in a situation which will cause it to be anxious and destructive.

The next step involves basic obedience work. Sam needed to re-learn her basic commands; this time, she only received attention when she executed the commands in a calm, relaxed manner. Sam's family had to learn not to reinforce her or reward her for anxious behavior by telling her it was OK. This just wound her up even more. It was also important to teach Sam that people come and go and this is not a reason to be anxious. Leaving on the radio or television, combined with her owners not making a big deal about leaving the house, helped Sam overcome her anxiety about being home alone. I showed Sam's owners how changing their routines would help Sam overcome her problem. Sam would often begin pacing and whining as her owners collected their car keys and brief cases in preparation for leaving the house. As part of her treatment, Sam's owners began collecting their keys and brief cases even when they weren't going anywhere. Sam had to learn that these items didn't signal that she would be left behind.

Fortunately for Sam and her family, these behavioral modification techniques were successful in resolving her separation anxiety. This is not always the case. For some dogs, pharmacological intervention (i.e. anti-anxiety medication) is necessary. This type of treatment is only available through your veterinarian and is most beneficial when combined with a behavioral modification protocol like the one outlined here.

Not all dogs that are destructive suffer from separation anxiety, so it is important to consult with your veterinarian or a certified behaviorist before you embark on any treatment plan. For many dogs, destructive behavior is a means of getting attention, not a manifestation of an underlying anxiety.