How to Stop Destructive Behavior

Destructive behavior can be extremely frustrating for dog owners to experience. As a trainer that works with clients in their homes, I have seen first-hand how creative puppies can be with their mouths. I have witnessed decimated couches, Labrador size holes in walls, shoe collections obliterated, and many more unfortunate destructive feats. 

The fact is that puppies naturally explore the world with their mouths. Sticks, chair legs, kid’s toys, toilet paper, shoes, bedding, rugs are just a few items most puppies will eagerly seek out. A dog’s desire to chew is generally at its peak from around 8 weeks until around 9 months, however many dogs may continue to be destructive until a year and a half or longer if prevention and training protocols are not taken. Your job is to teach your dog which objects are acceptable to chew on and which objects are off limits.

Before we get to the reasons and solutions for destructive behavior, it is important to understand why your dog desires to chew on objects in the first place.

The top 3 reasons most puppies chew on various objects:

  1. It is soothing- Puppies are teething up to around 7-8 months. They lose their baby teeth around 4 months of age to make room for their adult teeth. Chewing on objects helps provide comfort to their sore gums.
  2. It’s natural- Puppies and dogs have a natural instinct to dissect prey. Your dog is a predator by nature and although they no longer need to hunt for food, the instinctive desire to chase and dissect prey is still there. This is why so many dogs love to pull apart paper towels and the $10 dog toy you just bought. They will usually place their foot on the object and then begin shredding.
  3. Burn off energy- When puppies are bored they will usually participate in one of two behaviors. They either begin to zoom around the house with their rear ends tucked or they seek out something to chew on. Chewing on objects is very natural for a canine and it can help relieve stress and burn off excess energy.

Of course, it becomes a major problem when the dog decides to burn off that excess energy on the outdoor patio furniture.  Let’s look at the 3 main causes of Destructive behavior and then I will provide you with some solutions.

The 3 Main Causes of Destructive Behavior                 

  1. Lack of supervision and prevention techniques
  2. Lack of exercise and mental stimulation
  3. Lack of toys that the dog views appealing

Solutions for Destructive Behavior:

Your puppy does not intrinsically understand that you prefer them to chew on a rope toy rather than the kitchen rug. Supervision allows you to give instant feedback to the puppy when they put something inappropriate in their mouth.

If your puppy begins to chew on an inappropriate item, you should instantly interrupt them and then direct their attention to an item that is more appealing to the puppy. For example, Let’s say your puppy begins to chew on the table leg, you should interrupt them with a “No” or “Leave it” and then give them a bully stick, antler, or whatever item that your puppy finds appealing.

If your puppy is consistently destroying objects that you value, then you need to start supervising your puppy more carefully.  It may help to tether the puppy to a piece of furniture or yourself to aid in keeping a close eye on them. Of course, you can't keep your eyes on your puppy 24/7 so you will need to take preventative measures.

Prevention when unable to supervise
Establishing preventative measures are absolutely crucial in training your dog not to destroy inappropriate items. You do not want to let your dog find out how fun it is to destroy objects when you are not around.

If you have a young puppy that loves to explore with their mouth, you will need to confine them when you are unable to supervise them. Simply place the puppy into a crate, exercise pen, or puppy safe room when you are unable to watch them. With maturity and by incorporating the following additional techniques, your puppy will be able to be trusted to be left alone and not destroy objects that you value. How much time your puppy will need, will depend on your specific puppy’s temperament, amount of training, and frequency of exercise.

Provide toys that are appealing to your puppy
Do you have 20 toys but the dog still prefers your shoes? Different puppies prefer different objects to chew on. You will have to experiment, but here are a few recommendations to make toys more appealing to your pup.

  • Rotate Toys- Puppies can get bored quickly with a toy and will often seek out novel items. You have probably witnessed how much your puppy enjoys receiving a new toy after you have been to the pet store. In order to keep toys interesting, try rotating toys. Leave 3 individual toys out at a time and then set up a rotation schedule. For instance, if you currently have nine toys, put away six of them. Leave only 3 toys out at all times for the puppy for a couple of days. On day 3, rotate a new set up of 3 into the mix as you remove the original 3. Continue this process until you have incorporated all nine and then repeat or buy some additional toys to add into the mix.
  • Make special toys- Having high value toys available can be very helpful to pacify an energetic puppy. A special toy may be a frozen kong toy filled with kibble and peanut butter, a chew item made from animal parts such as a bully stick, animal hoof, pig ear, or a beef marrow bone. Slow feeding toys and puzzles are also a great addition to your puppy’s toy box.
  • Interact with your puppy with their toys- Play games with appropriate toys such as fetch, tug of war, and find it games. These games make it clear to your puppy that you allow certain toys to be mouthed and played with. This also makes the toys more appealing to your puppy because of the fun interaction they get to enjoy with their owner. Many puppies actually learn that picking up a sock is simply more fun because it begins a chase game with their owner.

Don’t set up your puppy for failure
Do not leave forbidden items lying around the areas that you allow your puppy to access. Items such as socks, sandals, hats, kid’s toys will need to be kept out of reach until your puppy is trustworthy. You may want to gate off areas of your home in order to keep your puppy away from items that you deem inappropriate. If you are constantly taking items away from your puppy, they will either decide to play keep away with the objects or begin guarding the objects.  

Catching your puppy in the act
It is important that you are able to show your dog what objects are appropriate and what objects are off limits. If you find your favorite pair of shoes torn to shreds after leaving your puppy alone, it is ultimately your fault. Shaking the shoe at the puppy and yelling may make you feel better, but it will not likely deter future destructive behavior.

You need to catch the puppy in the act of chewing an item for them to understand that some items are simply off limits. Dogs have good memories, but you cannot communicate to a dog in past tense. You can praise your dog and tell them what a good dog they are, and you may get a wiggle of the tail and the dog will probably enjoy the interaction. However, if you tell your dog that they were a good dog yesterday, you cannot expect them to understand that you mean you liked the way they behaved at some point in the past.

The submissive posture the dog offers to these events still continues to make owners believe that the dog knows what they have done wrong. In reality they just know that: items torn up on the floor + your presence= bad situation for them. Whatever you may believe, know that getting upset after the fact does not deter future destructive behavior.

When you observe your puppy beginning to chew on an inappropriate item, clap your hands loudly and tell the puppy “No”, then redirect the puppy to a more suitable item.

Keep your puppy safe
If your puppy tends to destroy toys quickly you will want to stay away from toys with stuffing as this can be dangerous if swallowed. Monitor your dog with toys until you are comfortable with how they chew on them.

Giving your puppy daily adequate exercise will provide an outlet to burn off energy which will provide a more relaxed and calm dog in the home. Puppies that are full of energy and left alone without supervision are sure to start investigating the home with their mouth. Adequate daily exercise is one of the best if not the best activities to combat destructive chewing.

There are various taste deterrents on the market to help aid in keeping your puppy away from certain items. Products such as Grannick’s Bitter Apple spray and Yuck are designed to produce a negative association of an object by delivering an undesirable taste when the puppy licks or mouths it. You can use the deterrents to spray on couch pillows, furniture legs, base boards, etc. to help keep the puppy away. In my experience they work with some dogs and not so much with others (Labradors come to mind). You may need to experiment with different flavors or brands to find one that your puppy dislikes.

Quick Note on Recovering dangerous objects
There are numerous objects in most households that can be very dangerous to a puppy if swallowed. If you witness your puppy pick up a small object that they could easily swallow, you will want to proceed with caution. Attempting to take the object out of your puppy’s mouth may cause the puppy to decide and swallow it before you can retrieve it.

One of the best ways to recover an item safely is to grab a few treats and toss them on the floor beside the puppy. The puppy will usually drop the object in order to ingest the treats. If no treats are available and you must get the object out quickly, wrap your hand around the dog’s lower or upper jaw and angle it down toward the ground as you open their mouth.  You do not want to angle the mouth upward as this can cause the puppy to inadvertently swallow the object.