How to Stop Your Dog From Misbehaving When You Leave

Question: I have a dachshund and he is on the look out for anything to eat, he has even eaten rocks. I have not seen a feasible answer in all the articles I read. I need to know what to do when you leave you home and your dogs yelp and rip up the rug and get into anything they can find? – Lisa

The first point to make about this, Lisa, is that you need to determine whether your dogs are simply misbehaving or whether they are experiencing separation anxiety. The treatment will be somewhat different in these two different situations. However, we haven’t really discussed either separation anxiety or misbehavior during alone time, so this is a perfect opportunity to talk a little bit about each.

Generally, a dog who experiences separation anxiety will begin to bark or engage in destructive behaviors as soon as his owners leave, and continue until they return. Some dogs with separation anxiety will refuse to eat or drink when not in their owners’ presence. In order to determine whether or not you’re dealing with separation anxiety, you will need to “set your dog up”: leave the house for a bit and leave some food in a bowl; or let a neighbor in on what you’re doing and as soon as you pull out of the driveway and down the street a bit, call and ask whether or not your dog is barker. If your dog is destructive when you’re not home (I had one who liked to scratch and chew moldings and the edges of doors), leave the house for just ten minutes or so, leaving him free to roam the house, then come back and see what’s happened.

In order to treat separation anxiety, you must teach your dog that being alone is actually okay; that he can remain calm and entertain himself until you return. The first part of this is simply a form of desensitization. We’ve discussed desensitization before, and the basic principles remain the same in this situation.

As with any other desensitization protocol, you’re going to begin by finding an approximation of your leaving the house which your dog can handle: this may mean putting on a shoe, picking up your keys, or putting on makeup. Whatever it is, do that thing and then go back to your normal (in-home) routine. Repeat. When your dog seems perfectly comfortable with this action, take the next step: putting on the other shoe, picking up your purse, or putting on your coat, perhaps. Repeat the procedure. Move on to each step only when your dog is comfortable at the previous step. Eventually, you will practice walking out the door and walking right back in; getting in the car and then going back into the house; starting the car; driving down the street and back; leaving for ten minutes, etc. Keep in mind, when I say your dog should be comfortable, I don’t mean simply not acting out; if your dog is cowering in a corner, panting excessively, pacing, or exhibiting any behavior you don’t see on a very regular basis, then he is probably stressed. Rehearse each step until you see no signs of stress in your dog.

At no point in this process should you reward, punish, or fawn over your dog. He needs to learn that your coming or going is no big deal. When you do get to the stage when you’re actually leaving the house, do not say much of a goodbye or a hello. Simply go about your business. A little while after you’ve returned, when your dog is calm, then you can interact with him as you normally would.

Another thing to think about when dealing with separation anxiety is crate training. Obviously, if your dog is destructive when you’re gone, this is nearly a necessity until you’ve done some serious training. Beyond that, however, a crate can provide a safe, comfortable place for a dog; and simply having a place of his own where he’s supposed to be when you’re gone gives him a job, which does quite a bit in and of itself to alleviate anxiety. However, crate straining alone, without work geared toward desensitizing your dog to your absence will not solve the problem. If you do put your dog in a crate when you leave, however, you can also give him a really good chewy treat while he’s in there. A kong or sterile bone stuffed with something he loves and doesn’t get at any other time will go a long way toward convincing him that your leaving is okay. If you freeze a stuffed bone, it’s more difficult (and takes longer) for your dog to get the goodies out. This will help to wear him out a bit and he’ll be less likely to become anxious when he’s done; and more likely simply to fall asleep.

Now, if your dogs are simply acting out when you’re not home because they can, you have a different type of work to do. Crate training, however, may still be an important component. One of the advantages to crate training a new dog is that it helps to instill the rules of the house in your dog by ensuring that he must earn his freedom, gradually, as he proves that he deserves it. Another advantage is that he is then accustomed to being in a crate, which is therefore a convenient tool for when you do go out.

That being said, if you simply stick your dog in a crate every moment he can’t be supervised (at least beyond puppyhood) and don’t address the underlying behavior problems, you’re going to get yourself in trouble. A dog (who does not have separation anxiety) who goes wild and crazy when their owner is not home:

  1. has too much excess energy.
  2. does not have a sufficient reward history attached to the behaviors you’d like to see.
  3. does not have enough to do when left alone.

Hence, the problem should be address in three ways.

1. Both mental and physical stimulation are as essential to your dogs’ well being as food and water (well, almost). They should be getting daily walks as well as good runs/ ball-throwing sessions, swims, etc. In order to provide mental stimulation, try feeding them out of a food-dispensing toy rather than a bowl; purchase an interactive puzzle toy; or just do more training! Teach one dog each day a new behavior or trick during the commercial breaks in your favorite show. A tired, stimulation-satiated dog is less likely to act out for any reason than one with pent-up energy.

2. Get back to basics. When you are home, ask your dogs for behaviors you like, or catch them doing good things on their own and reward, reward, reward. The bigger the repertoire of good behaviors you build/ encourage in your dogs by giving them a solid reward history, the less time they’ll have to exhibit bad behaviors.

3. Make sure that when you do leave, you leave your dogs with alternatives to the behaviors they’ve been exhibiting. Crates, food dispensing tools, stuffed kongs and sterile bones are great tools to help you do this.

Guest Contributor–Danielle Grand has spent the last decade working to parlay her affinity for animals into a dog training career. While earning her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, she was involved in an experimental study on canine cognition. She has also obtained her dog training certification from Animal Behavior College and attended numerous dog training seminars conducted by respected behaviorists. At home in New York’s capital region, she works closely with colleagues and mentors to expand her expertise; she hopes to help forge strong, happy relationships between many dogs and their humans.

 

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One Response to How to Stop Your Dog From Misbehaving When You Leave

  1. Debra Galloway& Dick Fisher (who both love our dogs very much!( says:

    Hi,

    I just discovered your site while looking for help with our (normally awesome) dogs’ recent destructive misbehavior while we are at work during the day. Luci is a 4 1/2 year old border collie/cattle dog mix and Charlie is a mid-size mixed breed (maybe some German Short-Haired Pointer?) who is about 3 yrs. old. We got Luci as a small puppy from a Humane Society and Charlie also, although he was about 1 1/2 and had been a stray, who was really afraid of many things and is still not especially brave. We have always spent lots of time with them, training, playing, walking, taking them to the park, etc. but since this very bad winter weather (in KY anyways), we are definitely not getting them out to walk very much. They run in our yard but we keep them inside during the day, and they go out with us or just to run around a bit and use the bathroom.

    So although we are aware they need more exercise and that helps with misbehavior we know, there are some things they are doing that are EXTREMELY destructive and unusual. An example: today one or them got a full bag of Splenda off the kitchen counter, tore it open and spilled Splenda all over the house…expensive and not good for them, plus we do not want them taking things off of counters or tables. A few days ago, one of them (or both?) got spearmint hard candy off the kitchen table and ate it. They have gotten into a bag I take to work and pulled out baggies with work “snacks”, and eaten those too. The focus seems to be food, although they will if given the opportunity, get into trash and scatter it around.

    We are open to any suggestions…some we know, like exercising them more (which with the weather improving we can do), but we are thinking of getting two crates, as they are getting into way too much trouble. HELP!!

    Thanks so much,
    Debra & Dick (and Charlie and Luci)

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