If your dog misbehaves when you're gone, you may be wondering what's going on in that mysterious canine mind. 

Are dogs really holding themselves, behaving when you are around, only to go rampant the moment you leave?

 Are dogs really acting out of spite, or some other defiant motive, because they weren't taken along for a car ride? 

Learn some possible reasons why dogs misbehave when you are gone. 

Not a Matter of Spite

Many dog owners assume that their dogs are misbehaving when they are gone because their dogs are seeking revenge, or are acting out of spite, to "get back" at their owners.

 The truth is, dogs aren't capable of such complex thinking.

Dogs tend to live in the present. Acting out of spite or seeking revenge requires dogs to have a concept of time and engage in futuristic planning. 

Yet, dogs lack the cognitive capabilities for carefully analyzing a present situation and then deliberately carrying out of plan to seek revenge. 

Sure, when you come back home, your dog may have the words "guilty" written all over his face as he keeps his ears down and slouches behind the couch. But that's not really what is happening.

Turns out, according to recent research that classic guilty look is simply your dog's reaction to your altered body language. 

Indeed, the study revealed that, dogs who behaved well, but were scolded by their (misinformed) owners, looked more “guilty” than those who had, in fact, really misbehaved.

This means that, as dog owners, we should not take the dog’s guilty look at face value, for what it looks. Rather, we should understand that it's simply a response to our behavior, and therefore it's not necessarily indicative of any proof of misdeeds.

Instead, dogs misbehave when owners are gone due to other types of emotions, that are  much more down to earth, so to say. Let's take a look at some of these emotions. 

That "guilty look" on your dog's face isn't proof of a recent misdeed

That "guilty look" on your dog's face isn't proof of a recent misdeed

A Matter of Separation Anxiety

Are you coming home from going grocery shopping or from a long day at work and finding a mess upon your return? Well, depending on the type of mess you find, your dog may be acting out of anxiety. 

Separation anxiety is sort of type of panic attack dogs may develop the moment they are left alone. These dogs often form a dysfunctional attachment to their owners and start getting antsy as early as when their owners are starting to get ready for an outing.

Affected dogs are often pacing, barking, whining, howling, drooling and having pee or poop accidents in the house. On top of this, they may also be destructive, chewing and scratching things, most often barriers that prevent them from being re-united with their owners such as windows, doors and crates. 

A Matter of Fear/ Stress

Other forms of anxiety may also trigger destructive behaviors. For example, dogs who suffer from noise phobias, such as fear of thunderstorms or fireworks may engage in several escape/avoidance behaviors such as scratching and chewing behaviors.

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Some dogs who see certain sights out of windows when left alone, may get distressed and may chew on windows and doors out of stress or frustration.  

Did you know? There is likely a correlation between noise phobias and separation anxiety in dogs. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, 40 percent of dogs with noise phobia also experience separation anxiety.

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A Matter of Boredom/Understimulation

Among the possible owner-absent problematic behaviors displayed in dogs, boredom needs to be kept in consideration. "Idle paws are a devil's workshop" goes the canine version saying. In this case, we're simply looking at a dog who is bored out of his mind. 

When boredom sets in, there is only one solution: alleviating it! And what better way than chewing those tempting pillows and getting all the fluffy stuffing out! Or how about ripping those flowers on the table into a million pieces? So much fun!

Here's the thing: dogs weren't meant to play jig-saw puzzles or a game of Sudoku when they are bored and left alone. If you look at the history of most dogs, you'll find that they were mostly working for most of the day 

Retrievers were catching downed birds falling down the sky, hounds were chasing rabbits out of holes, the small working terriers were keeping mice out of mills, pointers were holding still at the sight of birds to tell their hunters where to toss the net and coonhounds were barking when racoons went up a tree. These are just a few examples. 

Therefore, dogs struggle when they are left at home unemployed for most of their day. If they have little to no resources to count on, they'll come up with their own "hobbies," but owners won't find them amusing. 

"I commonly think of this when dogs younger than one year of age present to me for separation anxiety. A video tape reveals that these dogs are calm, but destructive. They may destroy the couch or papers left out, but not usually the door the owner exited through."~Dr. Meredith Stepita, veterinary behaviorist, Psychology Today

A Free Pass for Fun 

There is also another possible cause for dogs misbehaving when the owners are not around. That is, right when their owners leave, dogs may perceive a deep sense of relief and this sets the tone for some "fun. "

Now, it's not like these dogs are willingly organizing "parties' when their owners exit the door. It's just that some dogs come to associate the presence of their owners with punishment. 

For instance, imagine a young dog who has a strong need to chew things. Every single time the dog starts thinking about chewing something, he is reprimanded.

 This dog therefore quickly learns that his owners "attack him" every time he thinks about chewing. Soon, he learns to repress his needs, and stops "acting like a dog" in the owners' presence. 

 Yet, the urge to be a dog and chew is so strong and he doesn't have any outlet through legitimate chews. So the moment the owners leaves, the dog feels relief due to their repressive presence and therefore decides to finally chew on something. After all, it’s the only time it’s safe to do so!

These dogs though, once again aren't acting out of spite. And the term "fun" here has quotation marks, simply because it's not really fun these dogs are seeking when their owners leave. It's more of a deep need that isn't being properly addressed. 

   The chewing dog should be provided with appropriate exercise and appealing toys to chew on before any attempts to punish undesirable chewing are initiated. If however, we can train our pets to do what they are supposed to do and provide outlets for their needs, then it will seldom be necessary to punish inappropriate behavior. ~Debra Horwitz,& Gary Landsberg, veterinary behaviorists

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs have their own reasons for misbehaving when left alone. In all cases, Rover isn't intentionally misbehaving to make you angry, rather, he's likely suffering or has a need that needs addressed. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to ameliorate the situation. Here are some tips.

  • Record your dog's behavior when left alone. This can help differentiate a case of separation anxiety from a young, bored and under-stimulated dog. The tricky bit is that these two problems can present very similarly. Show your recording to your vet or a behavior professional for an accurate assessment and treatment options
  • Work on the problem. Dogs with separation anxiety require behavior modification which entails getting these dogs gradually used to being left alone and creating positive associations during the process. Some cases require the use of prescription medications to be used along with behavior modification. 
  • Provide more exercise and mental stimulation. Dogs need to keep their bodies and minds occupied. Walking your dog prior to leaving him alone and providing him with more mental stimulation can help. Make sure to leave your dog with some chew toys or puzzles (bully sticks, food-dispensing toys, frozen peanut butter Kongs, everlasting treat balls) that will keep him occupied. 
  • Train your dog to "leave it." Many dogs come to learn to leave things when we are in sight, but not when we leave. If your dog's problem behavior begins right when you leave the room, you may need to practice training your dog to "leave it". Train this when you are in sight. Then, pretend to leave the room, but watch him closely from around a corner, through an outdoor window if the dog is indoors or you can even use a  mirror or baby monitor to remotely monitor him. The moment he begins to perform the undesirable behavior, remind him to "leave it." After several trials, your dog may learn to leave the item alone whether you are present or not. However, to help your dog succeed, make sure to always leave him with acceptable items to chew/interact with so that he can make good choices and rotate such items routinely to keep his interest alive.
  • Dog proof your home. Dogs who repeatedly misbehave due to boredom are better to be kept confined in “dog-proofed” areas where they cannot rehearse their destructive behaviors. Often it's just more fair to leave the items out of reach rather than leaving tempting things around young, hyper dogs all the time. "Out of sight, out of mind." However, as always, ensure to leave out ample of chew toys and food puzzles as legit outlets.

 

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