Why do dogs scratch the carpet?

A white faced dog resting its head down on a carpet

The sight of a dog scratching away at the carpet is a familiar one, but not always explicable. Like many other behaviors, dogs scratch at the carpet for reasons not always visible to the human eye.

  • Food: The canine nose is a powerful organ capable of detecting a single drop of liquid in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools…or a crumb, embedded in the fibers of your carpet. Your dog may be scratching at the floor to dig it up and treat themselves to a snack.
  • Instinct: Dogs scratch the ground to create a comfortable sleeping area for themselves. They may dig a few times, turn around in a circle, and settle down for a nap.
  • Scent-Marking: Dogs have scent glands on their paws that they deposit by scratching. They use their hind legs for this, kicking at the ground after they’ve gone to the bathroom.
  • Displacement Behavior: Anxiety, excitement, excessive energy–dogs experiencing high levels of arousal but unable to engage in their preferred behaviors may perform a displacement behavior. Common manifestations include scratching themselves, chasing their tails, and digging at the carpet.
  • Attention-Seeking Behavior: Dogs can learn that digging at the carpet summons your attention. You may call them over to reprimand and redirect them away from the carpet. From a dog’s perspective, all attention is good attention!

Prevention

Clean your carpet regularly, especially if it’s located in a high-traffic area or around a lot of food.

Interrupt the scratching by clapping your hands or making noise. Do not yell or startle them. The goal is to stop their behavior, not frighten them.

Once they’re focused on you, redirect them and give them an alternate behavior incompatible with scratching (Sit or Down). If needed, use Touch to draw them away from the carpeted area.

Make sure they are getting daily physical and mental stimulation. They should have access to toys and enrichment activities. Bored dogs make their own fun!

Some dogs benefit from mat training and Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. Don’t forget to reward your dog when you see them relaxing or engaging in appropriate behaviors!

Separation Anxiety

One of the most common symptoms of canine separation anxiety is scratching.

Dogs may compulsively dig near the front door or, if crated, at the floor of the crate. Digging helps relieve stress and becomes a self-reinforcing behavior.

You may have received the advice if you force a dog to face their fear head on, they get used to it and grow more confident. This technique is more formally known as flooding and is not used in positive reinforcement training. More often than not, flooding backfires and renders a dog more anxious, not less.

Desensitization is the process of getting your dog used to an unpleasant or anxiety-provoking situation in tiny increments, slowly working up to the full event. Before you begin, you want to find your dog’s threshold level, or the point at which they don’t respond negatively.

In the context of treating separation anxiety, you may have to start with leaving your dog alone for only a few seconds at a time. Some dogs grow sensitized to the sight of you putting your shoes on or the sound of the house keys jingling.

If your dog is too anxious for behavioral modification techniques alone, a vet or trainer may recommend medication. The goal of medication is to lower stress levels until behavioral intervention can be effective. Studies have shown that medication alone is not effective for treating separation anxiety.

Enrichment Activities

Providing solitary enrichment activities can help prevent separation anxiety, as can encouraging independent play.

Even if your dog doesn’t suffer from separation anxiety, puzzle toys help them channel their energy towards less destructive activities, protecting your carpet from their claws.

Snuffle mats are a great option for dogs that love to forage, giving them an outlet for their natural instincts. Plus, sniffing releases endorphins in their brains!

Food-dispensing balls let dogs work for their meals and get some energy out. And Kongs stuffed with frozen yogurt, peanut butter, kibble, or other tasty snacks are a classic for a reason.

About the Author

A picture of Melody smiling towards the camera
Melody Lee
Contributing Writer

Melody Lee is a contributing writer for Gentle Beast, and is a CPDT-KA dog trainer. She lives in Manhattan with two feral cats, Littlepip and Alphonse, that tolerate her clicker training attempts. One day, her cats might let her adopt a dog of her own.

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