“He’s chewing everything in sight and when he gets out, he runs away!”
The woman had called me because she had adopted an Alaskan Malamute. Unlike the pet she had before, this dog was active and rambunctious — and was getting into all sorts of trouble. Over the years, people ask me how to deal with destructive behavior, sneaking off to defecate on the floor, raiding counters, and other bad behaviors.
What’s Going On Here?
Inevitably, I hear someone say “my dog is doing this to get back at me,” or “he knows he’s not supposed to do that, but he still does.” Usually, it’s because the owner sees the dog slink away from the offense when the person gets mad. But does the dog truly feel guilty — or is it something else? What owners often mistake for guilt is actually submissiveness. Dogs will “slink” or lower their heads in a submissive posture to show that they are below the “Alpha” or the one in charge. It is a natural reaction to your angry behavior.
Dogs don’t feel spite or guilt. They don’t have that complex of thoughts. The dog realizes that the object of your displeasure — poop, torn up object, or other transgression — makes you mad and therefore hides it so you won’t be mad. The dog doesn’t associate the act of tearing up something or pooping on the floor as being bad. The poop is bad; the torn up shoe is bad. The act to tearing the shoe up doesn’t equate. What’s more, once he starts doing something bad, he’s doing the behavior out of habit and not out of spite.
What Not to Do
What often happens when an owner discovers their dog’s transgression, they get angry and punish the dog. Sometimes the punishment is something convoluted like not feeding the dog his supper or not taking him for a walk because he chewed up the tennis shoes. A dog won’t associate that punishment with chewing up shoes. He knows he’s hungry and wonders why his owner won’t feed him. He knows he’s anxious and wonders why his owner won’t walk him.
Spanking and hitting doesn’t do much either. It teaches the dog to be fearful of the owner and avoids any situation.
Lead Us Not Into Temptation
The problem is once a dog or puppy learns something, whether through trial and error or intentional, the behavior can quickly become a habit. The best thing to do is not allow the dog to get in a situation where the dog can make the wrong choice. It’s easier to teach good habits than break bad habits. That means remove the temptation before it can be a problem.
If you have to leave your dog alone for a while, put him in an area where he can’t get into trouble. A crate works well, or if you can’t abide the thought of a crate, try gating off a portion of a room where he can’t get in trouble. Give him toys with treats inside them like puzzle balls to keep him occupied, so he isn’t chewing your shoes.
If your dog is really sneaky and slips away, you’ll need to employ a tether. This trick has worked on thousands of dogs with success. What you do is clip a leash or 6 foot rope to your dog’s collar and tie the other end to your belt or belt loop. Wherever you go, your dog has to go. It makes your dog focus on you and not on slipping out to get into mischief. I recommend tethering for escape artists, counter raiders, and dogs who sneak out to poop on the floor. When you can’t watch your dog, he needs to be crated,
If your dog starts to poop on the floor, you can interrupt him and whisk him outside to do his business. If your dog tries to chew on something inappropriate, you can exchange the naughty thing for a proper chew toy. If your dog tries to bolt out the door, the tether will catch him. (Be sure to have a sturdy belt if your dog is large).
In order to break a bad habit, tethering usually has to go on for weeks, if not months. You’re now forcing your dog to learn new (and hopefully good) habits as well as forget the bad habits.
Dogs usually start turning around their attitude in a week, if not a few days. But don’t be fooled by the quick turnaround — your dog hasn’t forgotten the bad habits yet. You’ll need to keep him tethered to you for weeks to ensure that he is now focused on you and what you want him to do. You’ll also quickly pick up when he needs to go out or when he wants something.
I’ve heard plenty of success stories with tethering dogs. It’s a training technique that is positive and does not employ punishment of any kind. It also strengthens the human-animal bond — and who doesn’t want that with their best friend?