Dear Dr. Maxwell,
My sister-in-law has a 1-year-old Collie who continues to chew holes in her drywall walls. Any solutions?
Bob E., Narrows, VA
The chewing of walls by a dog can stem from a variety of causes, so a detailed assessment of the situation is necessary before an explanation or intervention can be provided for any individual dog or family. Some common reasons for this behavior will be described here but your sister-in-law should seek counseling with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or board certified veterinary behaviorist before implementing any strategies on her own.
Your first step is to have the dog evaluated by its veterinarian. Be sure to specify exactly what material the dog is chewing and whether the dog is ingesting any of it. Your veterinarian will likely ask questions related to your dog’s dietary habits and should rule out any medical problems or nutritional deficiencies before you proceed with behavioral intervention.
Behavioral explanations of wall chewing can be grouped into several main categories based on different possible functions, or causes, of the behavior.
1. Fearful Escape Behavior: Dogs who are kept in a garage or certain room of the house often develop wall chewing after experiencing a single or repeated thunderstorms or exposure to outdoor fireworks while in this environment. These loud, sudden noises can trigger severe fear responses in many dogs, and they may begin digging at or eating walls in an attempt to escape from this perceived threat. Similarly, a dog who experiences a fearful event in the room itself (e.g., the dog is stung by a wasp or knocks over a cabinet) may attempt to escape from that room in a panic by digging at or chewing walls. Thereafter, even when the original fear-provoking stimulus is no longer present, escape through the wall feels like the only safe option for the dog so ongoing wall destruction can occur.
2. Separation Distress: Many dogs experience distress when separated from family members and will attempt to re-establish contact with family members by eating through the walls of their enclosure. This can occur when owners are not in the house or when owners are home but in another room of the house.
3. Predatory Behavior: Some dogs begin chewing at walls because they hear or smell critters - cats, snakes, mice, or even termites – through the wall.
4. Attention-Maintained Behavior: Some dogs learn that digging at walls brings their owner to them to distract them with play, let them outside, feed them or otherwise provide brief attention. When an owner does not respond immediately, the dog may continue to chew through the wall in an ongoing attempt to obtain these responses from the owner.
5. Boredom Behavior: Many dogs may chew drywall because it provides sensory reinforcement – that is, dogs just love to chew! The behavior can persist or escalate merely because of the enrichment it provides for the dog. Especially for dogs whose energy needs exceed their opportunities to tire themselves out during the course of normal family interactions, this chewing can provide for an important outlet for energy expenditure (albeit one that is clearly problematic from the owner’s perspective).
Because each of these categories represents a different function, or cause, of the behavior, intervention strategies will vary based on your animal behaviorist’s assessment of your particular situation. If the response is based on fear or distress, we must decrease or eliminate uncontrolled exposure to the fear-provoking stimulus while teaching the dog to tolerate necessary events like thunderstorms in a systematic desensitization program. (Such a program will be outlined in more detail in next month’s column.) If the response is triggered by separation distress, we must teach the dog to be calm and even enjoy time home alone. If there are critters in the wall, these must be removed. If the behavior is designed to garner attention from the owner, we must teach the dog that another response (either quiet behavior or, for example, the ringing of a bell), will bring the owner to the dog while wall digging is prevented. Finally, if the behavior is fulfilling a dog’s natural drive to chew, we must provide plenty of exercise, social stimulation, and chew items that are satisfying from the dog’s perspective but also serve as appropriate alternatives from the owner’s perspective.