How Do I Get My Dog to Stop Destroying My Plants?

From removing the temptation to positively reinforcing good behavior, there are many ways to prevent dogs from destroying your plants.

How Do I Get My Dog to Stop Destroying My Plants?
From removing the temptation to positively reinforcing good behavior, there are many ways to prevent dogs from destroying your plants.


How Can I Stop My Dogs From Destroying My Favorite Plant?

"My husband has two chocolate labs. I have a lone star (swamp) hibiscus that is potted in a large planter (18" deep x 22" across the top). The plant requires boggy soil and warmer climates and must be moved indoors during the winter months. The labradors insist on drinking the standing water in the planter. And their big, ungraceful heads break the stems and keep the plant from growing to the point of blooming in the summer.

We have tried wrapping chicken wire around the planter and having it extend above the top of the planter pot, but the dogs just crush it down (damaging the plant's stalks) and nose on in for a drink. I generally try to keep the water level at a minimum—which is a little difficult on hot summer days—to keep them from drinking. But that doesn't keep them from breaking stalks just trying to see if they can drink from it.

It doesn't matter to them if the plant is inside or outside, actively growing (spring and summer) or dormant (fall and winter), or if there is a bowl of cool, fresh water just a few feet away from the planter. Catching them in the act and telling them no results in them either pretending not to hear or looking at you and going right back in for more water. My husband tried the shock collar, and that too was a joke.

How do I keep them away? This plant was a gift from a friend when my first chocolate lab passed away. I have never been able to keep plants alive, but this one has lasted 17 years. Both of those reasons make this hibiscus incredibly sentimental to me. I'm hoping you have an idea I haven't thought of to keep them from destroying it. Thanks." —Angela

Let's dive into some potential reasons that your dogs have become so focused on this plant.


If your dogs are messing with your plants, it’s very natural to be upset about it, especially when the plant carries sentimental value and you have had it for so long! From your description, it sounds like your dogs are particularly attracted by the water and have decided to make the planter their new water bowl.

Why Are Your Dogs So Obsessed With This Plant?

Before diving into some potential solutions, let’s take a look at several possible reasons that messing with your plant and the water in the planter is so attractive to your dogs. By understanding some of these reasons, we can take them into consideration and devise a more strategic behavior change plan.

It's Accessible

If your plant is readily available, your dogs will keep on being attracted to it. Although you have wrapped chicken wire around it, what counts is that your dogs' persistence has allowed them to succeed in their mission.

This gives them a sense of achievement and tells us that if we add other challenges to prevent them from accessing it, they will only try to work even harder as their persistence has been reinforced (paid off) in the past.

It's a Fun Puzzle to Solve

Added challenges may even add to the plant’s appeal, as dogs love problem-solving! As naturally curious and intelligent beings, Labs thrive on mental stimulation, so anything you put in place to block access to the plant may present as a fun new puzzle to solve.

This will likely increase their interest in the plant and draw them to it even more as they take turns analyzing its solution.

It's Become Part of Their Routine

Dogs are very routined-oriented animals. When they get to rehearse behaviors that we find problematic over and over, these put down roots and become established. Therefore, the more they get to drink from the hibiscus planter, the more they’ll want to keep on engaging in this routine.

It's a Source of Attention

In some cases, dogs repeat undesirable behaviors over and over because they find our attention reinforcing. This can also include attention of the negative type (like scolding them or pushing them away).

In general, dogs predisposed to this are dogs who crave human attention and would do anything for an ounce of it. If your Labs are attention-driven dogs, the mere fact that you just stop in your tracks from doing whatever you are doing to tell them “no” can be enough to reinforce the messing-with-your-plant behavior, keeping it alive.

It Quenches Their Thirst

The fact that accessing your plant quenches your dogs’ thirst adds a further appealing feature to accessing the plant.

The Behavior Has Been Reinforced

As seen, there are many factors at play that may contribute to your Lab’s “obsession” with drinking water from this planter. When behaviors repeat over and over, there is some type of reinforcement at play.

Dog behaviors are reinforced mainly in two ways: positive (added) reinforcement and negative (subtracted) reinforcement.

In the case of positive reinforcement, the addition of something makes the behavior stronger and prone to repeating. In the case of negative reinforcement, the removal of something makes the behavior stronger and prone to repeating.

With your dog’s drinking behavior, there are likely several types of reinforcement at play, causing a double whammy of rewards. For example, the addition of your attention can positively reinforce the behavior, but also the removal of the sensation of thirst can negatively reinforce the behavior. This combo can make for established behaviors that can be difficult to undo.

The following strategies will help redirect your dogs' focus away from your special plant.


How to Keep Dogs Away From Plants

You have several options to try, but long-term management is likely to be the easiest and most likely to be successful. There are also other options, though, if long-term management is difficult or not feasible.

Long-Term Management

The ideal solution is to find a way to make the plant totally inaccessible to your dogs. “Out of sight, out of mind,” goes the saying. Keeping the plant in a separate room (where the dogs can't even see it) may therefore be the best long-term solution.

If you continue to use chicken wire, truly preventing access to the planter is also important for safety; if your dogs are bending the chicken wire, the sharp edges may injure their skin and eyes.

Pros of Long-Term Management

There are several advantages to long-term management.

  • It prevents rehearsal of the problematic behavior.
  • It removes all sources of reinforcement (internal as from quenching thirst, and external, such as your attention, engaging in extra challenges, etc.).
  • It keeps your dogs safe.
  • It keeps your plant safe.
  • It saves you from feeling frustrated.
  • It’s cheap and energy efficient (no need to purchase expensive gadgets or spend time on training).

Other Ways to Block Access to Your Plant

If making the plant totally inaccessible is not feasible, there are other options, although they are not guaranteed to work as well because your dogs will be able to see the plant, which will cause them to feel motivated to find ways to get to it.

  • Use a Tall Pet Gate. If you don’t have a room where you can put the plant, you can invest in a tall baby gate or a tall indoor pet fence to keep your dogs from entering the space where you will keep the plant. I like to use Carlson’s Extra Tall Pet Gates for large dogs.
  • Place an Exercise Pen Around the Plant. This trick is one that is often suggested for cats and dogs messing with Christmas trees during the holidays. Basically, you purchase a tall exercise pen for dogs and place it around the plant.
  • Use a Dog Kennel. In spring and summer, when your plant is outdoors, you can use a dog kennel to keep it safe from impertinent noses.

The Importance of Using Something Sturdy

If you use some type of barrier to prevent access to your plant, it’s important that it is sturdy and that it’s capable of “surviving” a phenomenon known as an “extinction burst.”

Extinction bursts take place when reinforcement no longer occurs as it used to. This can lead to a temporary intensification of the behavior. In other words, if your dogs have learned that if they persist, they are able to find a way to access the plant (such as by bending and pushing through the chicken wire), they will likely try harder and harder when they are confronted with a new barrier/challenge.

Hold Your Ground

Often, when an extinction burst takes place, dog owners are convinced that whatever they are doing is not working. However, if they hold their ground, the extinction burst will fade and the dog will eventually give up trying.

The biggest mistake would therefore be giving up and letting the dogs “win” by breaking through flimsy barriers, so make sure that whatever you use is strong and sturdy so as to survive the extinction burst and possibly solve the problem once and for all.

Take a Multi-Modal Approach

Some of the most successful behavior modification plans involve taking a multi-modal approach and tackling the issue from a variety of angles.

Keep Your Dogs’ Brains Busy

When dogs repeatedly engage in problematic behaviors such as digging, barking, or destroying things, that is often a sign of boredom and lack of mental stimulation. “Idle paws are a devil’s workshop,” goes the canine version of this popular saying.

Food puzzles (e.g., stuffed Kongs, Kong Wobblers, and Snuffle Mats) can help keep those doggy minds busy. Also, brain games such as hiding kibble around the yard, placing treats in a muffin tin covered with balls, and burying toys in a sandbox can provide some challenges that activate a dog’s “seeking system” and provide them with a sense of achievement.

Make the Water Bowl More Appealing

If your dogs have been so attracted to water from the planter, they may think their water bowl is boring. Think about what could have made the planter so interesting.

  • Can it be because it was elevated? Then they may like an elevated water bowl that prevents messes.
  • Or maybe the planter keeps the water cooler? Consider keeping their water bowl in the shade.
  • Or maybe it's just the novelty factor. They might love a water fountain!
  • Do they prefer the material of the planter? Some dogs dislike metal water bowls because they see reflections in them or the metal tags on their collars make clicking noises against them. Consider trying a water bowl made of a different material.

Encourage Water Play

Labs were selectively bred to retrieve downed fowl from bodies of water. They are naturally attracted to water and may enjoy anything that revolves around water.

Nowadays, there are many ways to engage them so as to provide outlets for this natural desire. There are paw-activated water fountains, splash pads purposely designed for dogs, and even doggy pools.

Train Your Dogs

Teach your dogs what you would like them to do in lieu of telling them "no" or using punishment/punishment-based tools. Dogs do best when they are provided with guidance and gentle training revolving around positive reinforcement.

Train your dogs to sit, lie down, go to a mat, leave it and drop cues, a strong recall. The “leave it cue” in particular can come in handy when you notice your dogs approaching something that you do not want them to interact with.

The Advantages of a Multi-Modal Approach

With the plant out of sight (or at least more difficult to access), a well-trained “leave it” cue, more fun activities for your dogs to engage in, a more appealing water bowl, food puzzles, and perhaps some fun water games, you should see a steady and significant decrease in your dogs’ interest in your beloved Woogie Bush.

Good luck!


  • Vieira de Castro AC, Fuchs D, Pastur S, et al. Does training method matter?: Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. bioRxiv 2019:1-34.
  • An Evolutionary Framework to Understand Foraging, Wanting, and Desire: The Neuropsychology of the SEEKING System Jason S. Wright & Jaak Panksepp (Pullman, WA) Neuropsychoanalysis, 2012, 14 (1)
  • How Dogs Learn, by Mary R. Burch; Jon S. Bailey

If your puppy or dog shows signs of potential aggression (lunging, barking, growling, snapping, biting), please consult with a dog behavior professional for direct in-person guidance. Articles, videos, and general information provided online are not meant to replace in-person training/instruction. By using this service, you are waiving any liability claims or other types of claims related to any of your dogs' behaviors against you or others.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli CPDT-KA, Dip.CBST

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