TOP FAQ’s – Ask The Behaviourist – Part 1 – Destructive Pets

ASK THE BEHAVIOURIST with renowned animal guru Karin Pienaar is SUCH a hit on social media, so naturally we’ve gone and created a mini-series of those TOP FAQ’s – just in case life happened and you missed out.


When the people in sales ask “can I help you”, I’m sure we’ve all felt like saying “I have a pet, so I can’t have nice things” somewhere in our lives, if not every single time. But truth be told – our pets aren’t deliberately trying to drive us up the wall or towards bankruptcy.

So having said that, a little bit of advice and a dash of help truly does go a long way, especially when an expert shines a light on these strange pet problems.

Here are fellow parent’s questions and concerns:

QUESTION –  Please tell me why do my dogs chew my couches when we are gone? If I leave them outside they eat my plants….

ANSWER –  I’d suggest getting them some chew toys as a start – dogs still need to chew well into old age. Not only does it give them something to do, but it’s a great stress reliever and it keeps their teeth clean. If your dogs like chewing (which they clearly do), then I’d suggest flooding their environment with toys that are safe to chew, swallow and digest (if they chew too hard).

QUESTION – I have a 5 month old Yorkie that was rescued from a shelter. He’s really cute and loveable, but we left him alone for a few hours this past weekend and when we arrived back home it was a mess. He ate two of my curtains and the washing was everywhere. What can I do? Please help.

ANSWER – What I would suggest is to start by teaching him to enjoy spending time on his own. This can be done by giving him a really special chew toy like a stuffed KONG, initially while he’s with you. Give him the toy, and make sure it is chock full of his favourite treats. If you need advice on how to stuff a Kong have a look at this website: KONG Cuisine | Global Pet Recipes | KONG (

Give him this stuffed Kong when you’re having dinner, reading a book or watching tv. When he has the Kong, don’t give him any attention, so he learns that it’s either the Kong or attention, but not both. You do need to first give the Kong to him in your presence so he doesn’t associate the Kong with just being left alone. 

Once you’ve done this training for about three weeks, you can start giving him the Kong and then leaving him alone in a room for short periods of time. Don’t make a big fuss when you leave, and don’t make a fuss when you come back. 

When he’s ok with that, you can increase the amount of time you let him have alone time. If you need to go out, give him the Kong (inside the house, if at all possible, as he will feel safer inside) five minutes before you leave. Then pick up your keys and calmly say goodbye, leaving without fuss.

You may want to teach him to stay in one area when he has his Kong, where you can do some damage control such as lifting curtains, removing pillows etc. The kitchen is usually a fairly safe area, but remember that he needs to have a comfortable bed and water. You need to do the ‘alone time training’ mentioned above in the kitchen too before you let him stay home alone. 

Also scatter some high value treats around the kitchen for him to find, and when you come home, don’t make a huge fuss of him. Say hello calmly and then take him out to go have a wee. 

QUESTION – How can I prevent my Boston Terrier (8 month old male) and Boston/Jack Russel pup (3 month old female) from destroying my plants and garden? They don’t just dig, they literally break off branches from the shrubs and I’m really despondent. Scolding and punishing them does not work, we even buried their own poop next to the plants, but not even that works. They have more than enough chew toys everywhere and we play with them regularly. We even take them for walks. What would you suggest?

ANSWER – What kind of chew toys do you have for them, and how often do you rotate or introduce new chews? Do they actually use the toys? 

Given the ages of your dogs, it sounds like a combination of puppy / teething and adolescent chewing – which can be quite hair-raising for anyone to deal with in one dog, never mind two! They’re also terriers, which means that digging is the best thing ever to do. The first thing I’d suggest is to give them a digging pit where they are allowed to dig. Even though they’re digging next to plants to tear them out, it will still help to install a digging pit to redirect digging to, and to then deal with the plant chewing.

This is a normal and natural behaviour but can become quite a problem. Encourage them to use the digging bit by playing games with them in which they are encouraged to “dig your patch!” and praised when they do. 

Once this has been done a few times, you can interrupt your dogs whenever you see them beginning to dig anywhere else, by taking them to the patch and encouraging them to dig there instead. This technique is usually successful in preventing random digging within a couple of months. 

The patch should be about 1 x 1,5 meters, situated in a shady but well drained area of the garden and clearly demarcated by either logs or bricks set into the ground. This is important as they need to learn that it is only within these boundaries that digging is allowed or drift will begin to happen. It is usually a good idea to mix some river or beach sand in with the heavier soil to encourage digging and help drainage so that it does not become a swamp during the rainy season. 

When teaching them to use it, you need to spend some time over a number of days to teach the dogs what it is, how to use it, and what fun it can be: 

  • 1. Take them to the patch and bury some food items and toys just under the sand in front of them (this is all based on the assumption that they don’t fight over toys. If they do, please let me know?).

  • 2. Whenever they show any interest in it at all, encourage it by saying “Good Dogs! Dig your patch, dig your patch!”

  • 3. Whenever the dogs begin to dig at all, give maximum encouragement and the odd food treat. 

  • 4. Do this over a number of days. 

  • 5. Make it into a big game with the dogs that include both quality time as well as useful lessons learned.

  • 6. Toys and chewies can be buried under the top layer of soil and the dogs encouraged with great excitement to “dig you patch!” and then praised every time they do. This needs to be repeated over and over, and chewies and other treats routinely buried in the patch to provide surprises for them to find.

  • 7. Anytime you see them about to dig somewhere other than the patch, interrupt by clapping your hands and encourage them over to the patch with enthusiastic calls to “Dig your patch!”


QUESTION – Why does my Labrador chew and swallow his blanket?

ANSWER – Labradors are by nature extremely mouth orientated – it forms part of their function as retrievers (where they must grab things and bring it back). This means that it’s extremely rewarding for them to chew (and often swallow) things, and when they are stressed or bored it’s usually their default behaviour.

What I would recommend is providing suitable alternatives that he can safely chew and when you see him about to chew his blanket, substitute with a safe chew toy. If you’re consistent, he will learn what he’s allowed to chew and what he really shouldn’t.

Try to get chew toys that are similar in ‘feel’ when in his mouth to the blanket (but don’t use material, it’s dangerous as I’m sure you know!) – look at chewies that he can nibble pieces off (or out of – like a Kong) and swallow and always make sure he has a sufficient supply.

Keep the toys rotating so he doesn’t get bored, and if you do decide to use chew toys like hooves, rawhides and so forth, always make sure that you remove them when they are small enough to fit down his throat as you really don’t want him to swallow them whole. 

You can also have a look at some of the really wonderful Enrichment pages on Facebook and Pinterest for some fun ideas about channeling his inner Retriever that will help to make him less ‘chewy’. 

QUESTION – Please tell me why my cat scratches the couch?? Even though she has a scratch post?

ANSWER – It may be that she doesn’t like the scratching post you have for her, or she doesn’t like where the post is standing. Cats have very particular requirements for a post to be suitable.

BUT: Cats can also scratch as a form of territory marking – so if your kitty is scratching despite the post meeting all the requirements, she may be worried about intruder cats or there may be some problems between her and another resident cat if you have more than one.


Stay tuned for PART 2 – RUNAWAY PETS of ASK THE BEHAVIOURISTs TOP FAQs on ePETtalk AND of course tune in once a month on ePETstore’s Facebook page to catch Karin Pienaar live in action and get your questions, queries, frustrations and curiosities answered – because life is after all just too short to suffer in silence. 

3 thoughts on “TOP FAQ’s – Ask The Behaviourist – Part 1 – Destructive Pets

  1. Thank you for your useful tips. Will you please also discuss aggressive dogs? I have a very unpredictable spaniel, today I am his best friend, tomorrow I am his biggest enemy.

  2. My Pekingese loves chewing on stones and also ends up swallowing some. Its impossible to remove all the stones in our garden. She has plenty of toys and chewy items. We play with her often. We can sometimes entice her to drop the stone in exchange for a treat but it is an endless task. What about her teeth and the fact that she is wearing them down ? Your advise would be appreciated

  3. I have a very destructive puppy, 9 months. She is a daxie x miniature German Shepherd. She buries things, and chews everything. I managed to stop the burying when I could not find the TV remote I planted bricks where she dug. She has never dug another hole. I got her tonnes of toys. She still chews brooms, mops and other household things. I dropped a box once and she grabbed it and tore off with it. It kept her busy for hours. Thankfully she rarely shallows the chewed off pieces but loves destroying it. So I save all empty boxes, toilet rolls and other bits and pieces for her to destroy. She will still play with her toys as well.

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