Canine destructive behaviors

Chapter 16 Canine destructive behaviors

Destructive behaviors, such as chewing, scratching, garbage raiding, and digging, can cause household damage, injure the pet, and weaken the family–pet bond. Exploratory behavior, play, and scavenging for food are all normal behaviors that can lead to destruction in the home. Dogs may be destructive, trying to get to prey, digging into furniture to retrieve a toy, chewing at doors or windows due to territorial arousal, and chewing on clothing or carpeting because of an interesting or appealing odor or taste. Some dogs dig in furniture or bedding before settling to rest, or as a part of nesting behavior.

Destructive behaviors may also be due to separation anxiety, compulsive chewing, confinement frustration, and escape behavior arising from fears and phobias. It can also be due to sucking or eating (pica) nonfood items. Some of these behaviors can arise from underlying anxiety or behavioral pathology. To determine whether destructive behavior is a normal but undesirable behavior versus an abnormal behavior and to implement an appropriate treatment plan, it is necessary to make an accurate diagnosis. The behavioral history should consider the age and breed of the pet, the targets of the destructive behavior, the family’s response, and if there are specific stimuli, situations, or times in which problems arise. Video clips can often help make the diagnosis. Diagnosis and treatment of destructive behaviors related to fears and phobias, separation anxiety, and compulsive disorders are discussed in other chapters within this text.

General guidelines for enrichment for destructive behaviors

Dogs should be provided with an environment that is interesting, complex, and stimulating, that provides both physical and psychological choices. Many pets are understimulated because sufficient outlets are not available or the opportunities offered do not address their needs. Pets that are frustrated from exhibiting their normal repertoire of behaviors may engage in less desirable behaviors to help fill the void, such as chewing, barking, or displacement behaviors (circling, excessive grooming) which may progress to compulsive disorders in genetically predisposed individuals, such as acral lick dermatitis (see Chapter 11).

When not sleeping or resting, a dog’s day would normally be spent in social play, and exploration with an emphasis on food acquisition (e.g., scavenging, hunting). Oral exploration can be encouraged by placing food in toys that require chewing or physical manipulation to release the food or by playing feeding games of hide and seek. Placing food in toys instead of bowl feeding can extend feeding time and provide increased enrichment (see Figures 4.8 and 4.9).

Social interaction and play with the family (tug games, fetch, hide and seek), play with other dogs, physical exercise, and reward training should be provided frequently. More challenging activities such as agility, flyball, herding trials, Frisbee competition, hunting, treibball (herding large balls), and pulling carts all provide outlets to help meet the social, physical, and mental needs of the breed or the individual.

However, even with a good repertoire of appealing toys, regular sessions of social play, physical exercise, and reward-based training, many dogs still find time to explore, chew, scavenge, or dig. Therefore to ensure safety and prevent damage to owner possessions, preventive measures will also need to be implemented. The focus should be on setting the pet up to succeed by providing, encouraging, and reinforcing behaviors that are desirable while preventing behaviors that are undesirable. Destructive behavior can be prevented by dog-proofing areas, preventing access to areas where it might do damage, interrupting the behavior, and directing the dog to an alternative acceptable outlet. Attaching a long lead to the pet gives the family another option for keeping the pet out of trouble. Owners who use punishment to suppress undesirable behaviors rather than encouraging and reinforcing desirable behavior may cause anxiety which can lead to further destructive behavior. In addition, owner corrections may actually be a reward for some dogs that crave attention. If it is mild and not sufficiently aversive, it can serve as social reinforcement. When supervision is not possible, the dog should be placed in a safe, destruction-proofed area with its bedding, toys, and chews. All dogs do not innately feel comfortable in small enclosed areas. Time should be taken to introduce the pet slowly to the idea of confinement in a positive manner. See confinement training handout in Chapter 4 (Box 4.11, client handout 5).

Destructive chewing

The primary focus for these problems should include identifying and treating any underlying behavioral pathology, and providing sufficient environmental enrichment and outlets to meet the pet’s needs (see section on environmental enrichment in Chapters 4, 6 and 10). Aspects about family members and the home environment are important variables to investigate. General recommendations will apply to most dogs, but actual recommendations will vary with individual differences (age, breed, temperament, and type of problem).

Inappropriate chewing and destructiveness in young dogs can be a result of exploration, play, scavenging, hunger, teething, and attempts to escape confinement. Puppies and adolescent dogs are usually more energetic and investigative and have stronger drives for both social and object play than adult animals. The consequences of the behavior will determine whether it is repeated. For example, if the pet obtained food by chewing into a cabinet, the behavior will likely recur. Or if chewing allowed the pet to escape confinement, the behavior will occur again when the pet is confined, perhaps more intensely. Family responses can also encourage chewing. When the puppy has an object it shouldn’t have and the owner gives a treat or toy to retrieve it, or chases the puppy to get it, the “stealing” behavior may be reinforced. If the consequence is unpleasant the behavior will decrease or cease. Making a sharp noise when the pet has its head in the trash can or setting an alarm to go off when the pet gets on the counter might decrease the behaviors.

Diagnosis and prognosis

Most destructive behaviors by young dogs are normal but unacceptable behaviors. Owners should be questioned about the dog’s daily schedule, including the amount of exercise and training the pet receives; the amount and types of food, toys, and chews that are offered; how the pet is housed when the owner cannot supervise; and what steps have been implemented to correct the problem to date.

The cause of destructive chewing in adult dogs can be more of a challenge to diagnose and manage successfully. Some dogs, especially those that retain juvenile characteristics and dogs with the energy and stamina required in working breeds may continue to chew and scavenge as adults. Destructive behaviors that persist into adulthood may be due to reinforcement by the owner or by the behavior (i.e., the activity itself is enjoyable). Additional underlying causes in adult dogs include predation, hunger, separation anxiety, noise phobias, confinement anxiety, compulsive disorders, and territorial behavior. Although medical problems are seldom a consideration for puppy chewing, when destructive behavior first emerges in an adult pet, or when there are concurrent medical signs such as polyuria, polydypsia, polyphagia, weight loss, gastrointestinal upset, or changes in activity, medical problems should be ruled out. Dogs that lick, chew, or suck on objects in the environment and those with picas should be assessed for gastrointestinal disease.1 Switching to a calorie-restricted diet, feeding the puppy insufficient amounts (e.g. feeding according to recommendations on the food bag rather than the pup’s actual needs), and drugs that increase appetite such as corticosteroids may increase scavenging, food stealing, garbage raiding, and even picas. They may even contribute to food guarding and possessive aggression. While a basic medical workup would include a hemogram, biochemical profile, and urine, assessment for endocrine function (adrenal, thyroid), gastrointestinal disease, and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency tests may also be warranted (Table 16.1).

Table 16.1 Causes of destructive chewing

Causes of chewing Considerations
Exploration, play, toy retrieval
Reinforced – attention seeking
Inappropriate toys or play
Inadequate enrichment
Predatory behavior
Territorial behavior
Separation anxiety
Noise phobias (storms, fireworks)
Barrier frustration/escape
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Jul 24, 2016 | Posted by in SMALL ANIMAL | Comments Off on Canine destructive behaviors

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