It’s a rare dog who’s never pilfered a sock from his owners, nor been caught fleeing the dirty laundry basket clutching a pair of panties in his mouth. But why exactly do dogs steal dirty laundry? The answer is simple: The more of an owner’s scent is absorbed by an item, the more desirable it becomes to dogs. If that item also happens to be soft and fun to chew, it’s nigh-irresistible.
As I said above, the scent absorbed by socks and underwear makes them highly desirable to dogs. However, most dogs resist the urge to steal clothing while you’re wearing it, and many will only take dirty laundry if they are left alone.
This is because stealing clothing and intimate apparel is a comfort-seeking behavior, often motivated by mild separation anxiety. Dogs who feel lonely instinctively seek out items that smell like family. Many dog breeders will help ease the stress of weaning by giving puppies their mother’s bedding to sleep on when they are first separated from Mom. Just like puppies sleeping on bedding that smells like their mother, dogs chewing or sleeping on your dirty laundry are practicing self-calming, using the objects available to them to reduce their level of fear and anxiety.
It’s tempting to say, “Well, my dog loves socks, so I’ll give him the ones with holes in them.” Yes, your dog would love that. But no, it’s not a good idea. Dogs don’t discriminate between objects that look, taste, feel, and smell the same, unless they’ve been specifically trained to do so. Give a dog one sock and encourage him to play with it, and he’ll presume that you are telling him all socks are acceptable dog toys.
From puppyhood on, do not give discarded clothing to dogs, with the possible exception of the occasional worn t-shirt as bedding for a lonely puppy when you leave the house. If you do allow a puppy to sleep on a shirt belonging to you, take the shirt back and wash it when you return home, rather than allowing it to be treated as a permanent possession of the puppy.
If your dog already steals laundry, you’ll need to work on that behavior by providing more appropriate soft toys, while keeping your dirty clothes out of the pooch’s reach. I recommend putting your hamper in a closet where the dog cannot get to it. To replace the clothing he’s been chewing, get some fleece at a fabric store and braid it tightly to make homemade soft chews. Allow dogs to chew fabric toys only with direct supervision, and do not allow dogs that swallow fabric to have soft toys.