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Pet Q&A: Our Dog Destroys Our Home When We’re Away

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Q: Our year-old Lab mix, Jessie, is a sweet dog…when we’re around. There's only one problem: She destroys our house when we’re not home! She’s chewed walls, dug holes in our mattress, chewed apart pillows, shoes, remotes, and books. She knows it’s wrong because when we come home, she puts her head down and runs away from us. We’re always afraid to leave because we don’t know what she will destroy next. Please help!

- Nestie Bridezilla to be.

A: Sounds like you’ve got one bored dog on your hands! Can you leave the Wii on for her when you go out? Really, this dog needs an occupation. I wouldn’t stay home all day with no wi-fi without going nutty myself. Your athletic, adolescent dog needs to be (1) exercised before you go out, (2) kept away from chewables in a doggie-proofed small room, crate, or pen, and (3) occupied with dog-safe entertainment. She might also need to be walked halfway through your absence. You don’t mention how long you’re out, but if it’s for more than four hours at a stretch, consider getting a neighbor to take Jessie out for a romp midday.

For now, you need to keep her away from the belongings you don’t want her to chew in order to get her out of the habit of wreaking havoc on your stuff and to get her into the habit of chewing appropriate dog toys. Continually putting her in an environment in which she does what you don’t want her to do is a sure way to ensure she’ll continue to do that -- regardless of how mad you get when you get home after the deed is done.

Toys that keep dogs’ interest are stuffed with food. Plain ol' plush toys don’t cut it when dogs are alone facing a long day of nothingness. Buy toys designed to be filled with treats or food and leave your dog with those. Instead of feeding her out of a bowl before you go out, use that food as entertainment in a food toy you give to her when you leave. She'll occupy herself by working to extract her meals from them. Ask for guidance at your local pet store or Google “dog treat toy.”

Again, if you continue to allow Jessie access to the things she’s chewing (and shouldn’t be), she’ll continue doing it, even if you think she feels bad afterwards. Feeling bad hasn’t stopped her yet! And really, that look on her face that you read as "guilt" is actually appeasement: She knows you’ll be mad when you get home, so she tries to keep you from yelling (or whatever you’ve been doing that isn’t working) by lowering her body and turning away from you. It doesn’t mean she knows you’re mad because she had fun with the remote three hours prior. It just means she knows you’re cranky when you get home. For all she knows, you were stuck in traffic and are taking it out on her!

Best of luck with Jessie. And remember, a dog who is occupied with a chew toy is too busy to occupy herself with your pillows.

Note: Some dogs destroy stuff when alone out of anxiety, usually directed at the doorway. If this is the case, you need professional help ASAP. It sounds from your brief description, however, that this is boredom- not anxiety-driven.

Erica Nance, MA, CPDT, makes dog training effective, fun, and stress-free for pets and their people at her New York training facility, Dogs of Hudson. She previously owned and operated DogStar Dog Training and Behavior Consulting and worked as the Manager of Operations of the Animal Behavior Department at the ASPCA in New York City. Erica has a master's degree in experimental psychology specializing in evolutionary psychology. She shares her home with a rescued husky named Nova, her husband, and her young son. The household is managed and directed by an 11-year-old border collie named Jack.

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