Watching your dog scratch the carpet can be an annoying and frustrating experience for pet parents.
Not only is it damaging to your home but it’s also a downright puzzling behavior to observe in your dog.
Concerned pet parents may be wondering if their dog scratching the carpet may be a sign of a more serious problem.
Why do dogs scratch the carpet?
Your dog is likely scratching the carpet in response to a smell in or around that spot of the carpet. They may have excess energy or some sort of anxiety, and they are redirecting their energy into scratching. Scratching is a natural instinct for dogs, but it may be a sign of something more serious.
When you’re trying to unpack and understand your dog’s behavior, it’s important to keep in mind that YOU are a big part of the equation as well.
Many well-meaning pet parents overlook their own role in creating and reinforcing odd behaviors in their dog, be sure to factor in some self-examination when you’re trying to figure out why your dog is scratching the carpet.
But more often than not, your dog is going to be scratching the carpet in response to a smell or sound in that spot.
If not that, it’s likely a behavioral or emotional issue with your dog that you’ll need to take time to work out of your dog.
That said, it is possible that your dog is scratching the carpet as a sign of a more serious illness. If this is the case, it will likely be coupled with some other tell-tale signs that your dog is sick.
Keep reading for all of the reasons that dogs generally scratch the carpet. The reasons range from “it’s just what dogs do” to “your dog has a neurological issue,” so gathering all the information you can is crucial to figure out why dogs scratch the carpet.
If your dog has started scratching the carpet all of a sudden, that’s a different story so let’s start by explaining the difference.
Why Is My Dog Scratching The Carpet All Of A Sudden?
Sudden changes in dog behavior are typically related to sudden changes in their environment or their physical or emotional health. A dog may suddenly begin scratching the carpet because of a smell, spill, or crumb on that spot, or it could be fear, pain, or a sign of a serious injury.
Anything that happens “suddenly” with your dog should be taken extremely seriously and acted on immediately.
Dogs are creatures of habit and, if they are going to make a change in their daily routines, typically do so gradually over time.
A dog who does something new all of a sudden is likely doing so because they perceive something new in their environment and are responding to it.
Dogs have great sense and may be able to perceive things that you don’t, so keep an open mind when you’re looking for the source.
But also remember that dogs are not quite as sharp as they think they are, so they may be responding incorrectly to the new stimulus. Like when a dog doesn’t recognize their owner when they put on a hat.
Regardless of whether or not your dog has suddenly started scratching the carpet or if your dog has always scratched the carpet and you’re curious why, this article contains useful information as well as helpful steps to help curb this behavior if that’s what you decide you want or need to do for your dog.
Reasons Dogs Scratch The Carpet
Let’s break each of the major explanations for carpet scratching dogs!
Reason #1 – Instincts
Dogs actually have a lot of different instincts that drive them to scratch on your carpet.
Many breeds of dogs were bred for digging and will be more likely to get the impulse to dig and scratch at the ground than other breeds.
Most terriers, including Jack Russels, Dachshunds, Malamutes, Beagles, and Schnauzers are all breeds that have historically been bred to dig.
If you have one of these breeds of dogs or a mixed breed dog who may have one of these breeds in their lineage, they likely still have the impulse to dig even if they just live in your carpeted apartment with you.
And since they don’t have any badgers around to try to dig out of the ground, they may just find a nice, abrasive part of the carpet to take out their diggin’ impulses.
Another instinct that may make a dog scratch your carpet is leftover from the fact that dogs have historically not slept on our couches or in orthopedic dog beds.
Dogs, being animals, lived outside. And the ground outside where a dog may find themselves sleeping for the night isn’t very comfortable (especially compared to curling up between your legs).
It’s all covered in leaves, sticks, stray pokey rocks, and a damp layer of topsoil. Dogs, being clever and comfort-seeking creatures, learned that giving their chosen sleeping spot a few good scratches and turns smooths out the ground, removes debris, and makes sleeping more comfortable.
After thousands of years of scratching the ground to make it more comfortable before lying down, it’s no surprise to find that your dog may still engage in this bedtime ritual even when they’re just going to sleep on your carpet.
Not only does scratching at the ground help physically remove debris so your dog has a smooth sleeping surface, but it also gives them the ability to control the temperature of the ground.
Everyone knows the feeling of lying down at the end of the day in your ice-cold sheets. Sometimes, it’s a welcome relief from a warm night. But other times, it’s all you can do to keep from squealing out in cold discomfort.
If your dog finds that spot a little bit chilly, scratching at it for a bit before they lay down can warm the spot up and make laying there a little bit more comfortable.
Conversely, if your dog finds the surface a bit warm, digging down under the ground exposes a cooler underlayer of earth that’s much more comfortable.
You’ll see this behavior at dog parks a lot. After running around and getting all hot, some dogs will scratch away the top layer of earth to get at the cooler, darker dirt underneath.
Your dog may not be able to effectively dig to a cooler patch of carpet, but they may still have the impulse to do so if they are warm.
Malamutes are one of many dogs that have been bred to sleep outside in the snow by digging a hole. I’m not talking about tiny dog houses on chilly nights either. I’m talking about laying in the snow while being snowed on in subzero temperature. And still getting a restful night’s sleep out of it.
One way that dogs are able to sleep in the freezing snow is by insulating themselves from the wind and the elements by digging down into the snow, similar to paradoxically using an igloo to protect yourself from the cold.
Digging down into the snow literally made the difference between life and death for many of these dog breeds, so it makes sense that they’d hold on to some vestiges of this behavior even today.
This may especially be the case if your dog is scratching up rugs or scratching the carpet in places where there are clothes or toys as well, anything that allows them to fling objects around and really feel like they’re affecting their environment.
Speaking of flinging objects around, does your dog always scratch at the carpet next to their favorite toy? Do they bring the toy around with them and scratch at the ground while holding the toy in their mouth or scratching at the toy on the carpet?
Dogs are social animals and have always lived alongside family units. Nowadays, their family units usually consist of a few loving humans and maybe one or two other well-fed dogs or other friendly critters.
But up until not that long ago, a dog’s “family unit” was a pack of dogs that they lived with and spent most of their time with. In these situations, food may have been scarce, so resource guarding was prevalent.
If a dog came upon something they wanted to keep for themselves, one of the best ways to keep it safe and also close by was to bury it.
If your dog scratches the carpet when they get a treat or if they are obsessed with a toy while they are scratching the carpet, they may be instinctually trying to dig at the carpet to bury their new prized possession.
These are just a few of the common instincts that dogs have that may give them the impulse to scratch the carpet.
All these motivators are internal; they come from your dog’s impulses regardless of the environment that they are in.
Up next I’ll discuss some more environmental, emotional, behavioral, physical reasons that may motivate your dog to scratch the carpet.
Reason #2 – Smells
Dogs have tremendous olfactory capabilities, some doctors say up to 40 times as strong as our sense of smell.
This means that dogs have a nose that is powerful enough to detect odors at concentrations of up to one part per trillion.
To put that into perspective, that would be like smelling a single drop of liquid dripped into the equivalent of 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
This powerful, nearly overwhelming input source for dogs means that they have an entire world of smells available to them that we simply cannot interact with. To dogs, smells are both fascinating and social. They tell a story of what it is, who left it there, and where they were before that. It’s no wonder they can be so obsessed with smells!
And think of your poor, literally lowly carpet. On a good day, all you do is walk all over it, either with your streets shoes (which smell FASCINATING) or with your bare, hormone-laden feet (again, smell FASCINATING).
And on a bad day, your carpet may take a dose of toothpaste, milk, mud, snot, spaghetti, beer, hair, and all manner of dust and grime (I’m not sure what you’re life is like but I know people can be very hard on their carpets).
And keep in mind that these are just the smells that you’re aware of. A cockroach, slug, mouse, or any other foreign critter could also leave a fascinating smell behind on the carpet that you may not detect but your dog definitely can.
By scratching at the carpet, your dog can “activate” the smells, releasing them into the air, and giving your dog a better whiff of whatever smells they detect at that spot of carpet.
Keep in mind, also, that dogs use scent socially in a way that we people seldom do.
If they find a particular smell very appealing, they may scratch at it to get the smells on their pads, which have scent glands on them. This is similar to a fancy lady placing perfume on her wrists.
Or, conversely, if they’ve rolled in something outside or otherwise believe they have a particularly charming scent on themselves, they may scratch at the carpet to leave that scent behind, not dissimilar to bringing home a scented candle or an air freshener to brighten up your room.
Until Yankee makes a “roadkill” or a “mud” scented candle, your dog will have to get by with picking those scents up outside and spreading them all over the house with their paws.
Reason #3 – Sounds
Speaking of senses that dogs have that are way, way better than ours, dogs can also hear things that we people cannot.
One researcher put it best I think: Compared to dogs, all humans are hearing-impaired”
They can hear things that are quieter, farther away, and of a lower or higher frequency than we humans can. This is the principle that makes dog whistles so effective but it also explains a lot of weird dog behavior that doesn’t always make sense to us. Whether that’s growling at “nothing” or digging at the carpet.
Your dog may be scratching at the carpet because they are responding to something that they hear. They may hear something moving along inside the carpet or they may hear something underneath the carpet. They may also hear something outside and be redirecting their behavior.
Your dog may be able to hear the minute scratches and wiggles of pests like fleas, ants, or bed bugs in your carpet. Not being able to see the source of the scuttle, scratching at it would help unearth the culprit.
What they may find beneath your carpet depends a lot on where you live.
If you live on a second or higher floor with other people living beneath you, your dog may be scratching at the carpet to get at the sounds they are hearing from below. They may even be hearing a dog in the apartment beneath you.
Just picture it, your dog scratching at the carpet to get down and your downstairs neighbor’s dog staring and jumping at the ceiling, trying to get up. Sounds like the start of a rom-com for dogs.
Your dog may also be scratching at the floor not because that exact spot is the source of the sound.
Some dogs will scratch at the carpet as a redirection behavior. They may hear another dog barking outside the window and, knowing that they can’t get to that stranger dog and will get in trouble for barking, may end up scratching out their frustrations on the carpet.
But more on that later.
Reason #4 – Energy
So far, we’ve talked about why dogs have the natural instinct to scratch at the carpet as well as why they may have an environmental factor that’s making them scratch at that particular spot on the carpet.
Now, though, I’m going to transition to some more behavioral and emotional reasons that a dog may scratch at the carpet.
The first is simply that they have cooped up energy.
A dog who has not gotten enough exercise lately is likely to feel jittery, just like a person would. And when dogs feel jittery, they’ll look for outlets to burn through their excess energy, like scratching the carpet.
Keep track of the days that your dog scratches the carpet. If you notice that they always do it on days when you skipped your walk, you probably have your culprit right there.
But keep in mind that jitters and pent-up energy in dogs are cumulative; they may be fine skipping their walk one day or even one week. But after a bit, they may find themselves looking for new outlets. So they may not end up scratching the carpet until 3 days after their missed walks.
The fact is that you don’t want your dog to creatively figure out ways to use your home as exercise equipment means that you’ll need to make sure you’re getting your dog plenty of exercise.
If not, what started out as a simple, fun game to burn off excess energy may evolve into a full-blown compulsive habit.
Reason #5 – Anxious Habit
Scratching at the carpet may not just actually be about “scratching the carpet.”
While it’s true that your dog may just have pent-up energy they want to scratch out of their systems on the carpet, this type of behavior may actually be a nervous habit symptomatic of behavior issues or distress.
As I mentioned earlier, your dog may hear something outside that they want to respond to. Knowing that they’ll get in trouble if they start barking but still feeling the impulse to respond in some way, they may end up redirecting their behavior towards scratching the carpet.
This is an easy example of redirecting behavior. “I can’t do X (barking at that dog), so instead I’ll do Y (scratching at the carpet).”
Redirecting behavior is often caused by a dog having feelings that they are unable to act on. They may be physically unable to act on it or they may be unable to understand what’s happening and not know how to react, or if a reaction is even necessary.
Thunderstorms, fireworks, major changes in the house like a new baby or a roommate leaving, or even subtle changes like rearranging the furniture, can all cause fear and anxiety in your dog. Not knowing how to cope with their fear or anxiety, they may turn to scratch the carpet as a nervous habit.
This isn’t dissimilar to someone biting their nails or pacing around the house out of anxiety.
Over time, this can become a coping habit and an anxious, compulsive ritual that your dog does to cope with their anxiety. Different dogs handle anxiety in different ones and some of them are less obvious than others.
Other signs your dog has anxiety, be that sound-reactive, separation, or another type of anxiety that may go along scratching the carpet, include:
- Other repetitive behaviors
- Restlessness or pacing
- Depression or lethargy
- Peeing or pooping in the house
- Excess barking or other vocalizations
- Other destructive behaviors like chewing
Reason #6 – Illness or Ailment
Besides instinctual, emotional, or compulsive motivations to scratch the carpet, it’s also possible that your dog is suffering from an injury or an ailment and that is what’s causing them to scratch at the carpet.
This could be something extremely simple like a splinter in their paw they are trying to work out. They may have been bitten by an insect or exposed to some sort of irritant while they were outside that is making their paws itching.
Or it could be a neurological issue that is causing them to wobble or place and replace their front paws on the ground.
Reason #7 – You Reinforce The Behavior
Regardless of whether you are a trained researcher or just a concerned pet parent, whenever you are observing a dog’s behavior in order to come to a deeper understanding of them, you are engaging in science. Good for you!
And any good scientist will tell you that one of the cardinal sins that is so easy to fall into is the Observer Bias.
The observer bias is very simple: in any study, the simple fact that a person is the one doing the observing means that there will be variation in the results from observer to observer.
Some observations are simple and therefore mitigate the observer bias. Is the dog alive or dead? We’ll probably both agree on that.
Other observations are more nuanced. Is the dog happy or sad? Is the behavior problematic or not? Does the dog need me to intervene?
We may come to different conclusions about those questions, even if we saw the exact same thing.
Formal scientific studies take a lot of steps to mitigate the risk of bias, from using huge pools of subjects to observe to doing blind studies. But you can’t really do that yourself at home with our dog while you’re just casually watching their behavior.
Because of observer bias, many pet parents misdiagnose behaviors in their dogs and, because of the great affection that they have for their dogs, go straight to positive reinforcement as a means of correction.
To put it in terms of your dog scratching the carpet, say someone you live with accidentally dropped some food on the carpet. They thought they got it all cleaned up so they didn’t bother to tell you, but a few crumbs were left behind.
Later, you see your dog scratching and chewing at the carpet like they never have before.
You, worried about them, decide you need to pay close attention to your dog. Maybe you take them for a walk, give them treats or their dinner early, play with them to distract them – all the things you think you’re supposed to do to treat an anxious dog who is nervously chewing on the carpet.
Now it’s the next day. The crumbs are still there, your dog goes for them again, and you once again show them a great time. How many times do you think you need to repeat this process before your dog catches on that, hey, every time I do this, my owner gives me lots of good stuff!
Now the problem is that you have reinforced the “Scratching the carpet” behavior by positively reinforcing it with lots of treats and rewards every time they do it. If you were trying to train your dog to scratch the carpet, this is how you would do it. Because of this, your dog is going to do it again.
Your housemate trying to solve the same problem probably would have just vacuumed again.
The point with all of this is to understand that to effectively treat a behavior you need to have as unbiased an opinion on the situation as possible. Look at every angle and consider not just your first impulse or the obvious reason but also consider your own perspective.
By limiting yourself from the equations as much as possible, you’ll be much more successful at stopping your dog from scratching the carpet.
How To Stop My Dog From Scratching The Carpet
So, your dog is scratching at the carpet and you’re desperate for them to stop.
The above section covers pretty much all of the reasons that your dog may be scratching the carpet.
It’s very important to understand the “why” before we move on to the “what next,” but once you’re ready to tackle curbing this weird behavior, follow the steps below. And if you want extra help with dog training, check this out.
This is especially true if your dog has suddenly started scratching the carpet. Sudden behaviors may indicate that something is suddenly wrong and needs to be fixed ASAP.
But even if your dog has always been scratching at the carpet and you’re finally ready to help them stop, it’s best to check with your vet first.
Just by letting them know that you’re going to systematically work on this behavior is enough for them to check out your dog and give you the OK to proceed with caution.
The last thing you want to do is try to train a dog who is sick not to have one of their symptoms.
Clean the area
Start with your normal cleaning routine (vacuum, dusting, mopping, the whole shebang), and then know you’re going to need to go several steps further to beat that powerful nose of your dogs.
If it’s a high-traffic area that will continue to get dirty, go ahead and invest in a pet vacuum. I love the Shark HV322 because it’s powerful enough to pick up pet hair from the ground while lightweight and versatile enough to grab and use quickly. I can even use it on my couch!
If you think you can get away with a spot treatment, go ahead and pull out the big guns.
First, sprinkle baking soda all over the carpet. This will help remove any odors all over the carpet and dry up all those foot oils (gross).
If you have fleas or bed bugs, this is a good time to treat the carpet with a bug-killing powder like this one.
Let it sit, vacuum it up, then spot-treat using an enzyme cleaner. These don’t just mask odors, they contain enzymes that will literally consume the odor-causing bacteria in your carpet.
If that doesn’t work, it might be time to switch to hardwood.
Clean the dog
If they are trying to bring stinky odors they found outside into your house, then you’ll need to thoroughly clean your dog of those smells before they’re going to stop trying to spread them around.
For extra stinky dogs, try an antibacterial shampoo like this one that is specifically designed for deodorizing. It won’t just wash debris off, it will help eliminate odor-causing bacterias and fungi that may exist on your dog.
Inspect the area around the spot for other stimuli inside and outside the house
Identifying what inputs your dog is receiving is vital if you’re going to mitigate them. They may be scratching at the carpet to let you know that you have rats under your house.
Or, if you listen very closely, you may hear a distant dog barking or some other subtle noise occurring every time that the dog scratches the carpet.
Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open and you may be surprised to identify a trend every time your dog scratches the carpet.
If they have pent-up energy, the obvious solution is to give them more exercise. Long walks are good but running is better.
And trips to the dog park do double duty by both exercising their bodies with all that play as well as their minds with all that socializing.
A dog who is exhausted at the end of the day is much less likely to scratch your carpet.
Upgrade their bedding
Since your dog may be scratching the carpet to make themselves more comfortable, consider upgrading their bedding to something that better meets their needs.
If they seem cold, pick up an extra snuggly bed like this one that will help to trap heat.
If they seem hot, try picking up an elevated dog bed like this one that should help them beat the heat and stay off the ground. No more scratching at the carpet if they aren’t sleeping on the carpet, right?
Toys and distractions
There are so many different things you can do to distract your dog from digging. We actually wrote an entire article on toys for dogs that like to dig that would be great for any carpet scratchers!
Help Calm them down
Anxiety isn’t something you’re going to find a quick fix for, so it’s best to tackle anxiety in a lot of different ways while you patiently wait for results.
Making sure that your dog has a quiet space to go to in your house is always good too. Leave a door open to a dark room so they can have some time to themselves if they need it.
Crate training may seem counterintuitive, but once a dog learns to love their crate it can be a tremendous source of comfort for them during stressful times.
Finally, making a point to socialize them early (which can prevent problems with other dogs in the future) and often can help with separation anxiety that may be causing them to scratch the carpet.
Ignoring the behavior is helpful in a few ways.
First, if you are accidentally reinforcing the behavior, ignoring the behavior may actually just make it go away on its own. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Second, ignoring the behavior may just be the right move here. It’s a natural instinct for your dog and as long as they are not sick, suffering, or destroying your carpet, what really is the harm in letting them scratch at it from time to time?
As with many canine behaviors, things aren’t always what they seem!
But when you dig in deep, scratching the carpet starts to make a lot more sense- especially if it’s in conjunction with other behaviors like chewing the door frame.
What do you think? What explanation best explains your dogs carpet or rug scratching habit?