Dog Acting Strange? Change Affects Every Member of the Family

As a professional dog trainer, I have worked with hundreds of dogs over the years…. I have studied all of the different breeds, studied different methods of training, worked with different families, and have come to realize one universal truth…dogs are as bad with change as we are. Why does that matter????

I want you to imagine that you live in a world that is black or white – and I am not referring to color, I am meaning it in the sense of all-or-nothing – cause and effect – action equals reaction. A world that is built around routine and structure. Think about a young child that does not yet know how to read a clock… they nap approximately the same time every day, and eat around the same time every day, so what happens when you are out, and those things get delayed? It could be fun-central, and still all of a sudden you have a very cranky child on your hands! Why? Because their bodies instinctively tell them what they need and are lacking at that time. It doesn’t adjust instantaneously to change. I will also add that at a very young age, they lack the cognitive ability to understand the concept of ‘it is coming, it is just delayed.’

It is the same with pups… with one exception. With a child, the heightened state of confusion leads to a very cranky child. The situation is very easy to read, usually pretty easy to resolve and for the most part, relatively harmless. It’s not always so simple with your dog. And because of this, it has the potential to escalate to a situation that’s not as harmless…and that leads me to why I’m writing this…

To enable you to best understand this, I need to give you a very brief overview of canine psychology and dynamics… why dogs do what they do. To start with, dogs rely very heavily on instinct. Since they do not communicate verbally, they also rely on reading body language. Since dogs run in packs, the order of hierarchy is a very important fundamental ‘rule’ they live by, and the pack leader earns their place by gaining the respect of the pack. In the wild, following a strong pack leader will keep them alive, a weak pack member can get them killed. Consistency is key.

Change leads to confusion which leads to insecurity…and that will get them killed.

Now that you hopefully have a better understanding of how your dog sees the world, maybe you can understand a bit better why any change to your dog’s routine, no matter how big or small, can throw everything out of whack for them! Oftentimes the changes that are happening in our lives are positive, but your dog cannot understand that. Some examples:

  • A New job: Pay and hours are much better for you, but to your dog, all it means is mealtimes, ‘out’ times, bedtimes, and many other things in their daily routine have gotten disrupted.
  • Moving: Think about how stressful this is for us…. Even when it is a positive, new and exciting thing, the packing, the moving, the re-organizing…. Its stressful! But at least when you see a toilet, you know where to go!! The yard or area where they have pottied is now gone and replaced with unfamiliar territory and scents. Furniture is all in different places, including their food and water dishes!
  • A New Person in the house: Whether it is a new relationship, a new baby, a relative staying with you, child leaving for college or coming to live back home.

As a trainer, when I get a phone call for a dog who was previously housebroken, but is suddenly having accidents, or a dog that was always friendly and outgoing suddenly cowering or hiding or growling, a dog that has suddenly become destructive of personal property when the owners leave, there are always two questions I ask first:

  1. Are there or could there be any medical issues? Have you seen your vet for a full exam? This is a very important first question because we must always remember that our animals cannot verbalize when something is wrong, so sometimes we must rule out any potential medical issues (such as if your dog is suddenly having accidents, could there be a Urinary Tract Infection? Or if they are growling or suddenly snapping, they may have an ear infection or an injured limb that is hurting them.) If the answer is there are no medical issues, I always ask:
  2. What has changed in the household? Sometimes the slightest things have turned out to be the cause…. their food dishes were moved, their crate was put in a different spot… and sometimes it is more major… relationship difficulties (more fighting in the house, doors being slammed) Someone in the house is depressed or anxious, or their primary care-taker is sick or injured… all these things can have a major impact on your dog.

Remember “change leads to confusion which leads to insecurity…and that will get them killed”. In your household, your dog needs a way to deal with that insecurity, and your children, clearly not the strong pack leader that will keep then alive, can become the unexpected target. A dog who is scared, nervous, frightened or insecure will instinctively go into a ‘fight or flight’ mode; they may not be physically trapped, but mentally, they may still feel that way…. and more often than not, will strike out at whoever is closest, even well-meaning family members who are only trying to help them.

So because changes in life are inevitable, how do we help the dog work through it, thereby keeping our family and kids safe? Here are some suggestions I can give you to help them through this:

  • Know your dog so you know when something is wrong. The best way to accomplish this is by doing short daily training sessions with them. This will tell you so much about your dog’s personality…. Is he relaxed and easy-going? Take direction well? Eager to please? Is he stubborn? A bit hard-headed? Is he treat-motivated? Toy motivated? Affection-motivated? Easily excitable? Do you have to really work to gain his interest and/or trust? Having this kind of base-line on his personality will help to alert you quickly if something is “off” or changing in him.
  • Keep mealtimes short and consistent. Regardless how many times a day your pup or dog eats, you should refrain from allowing them to ‘graze’ all day. Put the food out for 15 minutes…. If they do not eat, pick it up and try again at the next meal time. Remember, a dog is an instinctual animal…. They will not allow themselves to starve to death! When they are hungry enough, they will eat… but in the process they will learn to eat when the food goes down or it will be gone. This is important because when a dog is not feeling well, or something is wrong, oftentimes they will not want to eat. Dumping food in their dish whenever you notice it empty may prolong your awareness of something being wrong.
  • When able to, try to make changes slowly. Need to move their food dish? Do it in increments until it is in the new spot. Moving to a new house, bring the dog by a few times prior to the move to let them acclimate. Going back to work? Slowly get them into the new routine before the event takes place.
  • Make sure your dog has plenty of ‘down-time’ Pick a place (whether it be a crate, a mat, a blanket, a towel, etc) and allow them to just rest. A dog with no ‘off’ switch is in a constant state of alert and excitability… which can make for a very reactive dog! Give that space a name (I use “PLACE”) and make sure everyone in the family knows he is to be left alone when in his quiet time place.
  • Work with each other, not against each other…. Be a unified team with your dog. Remember I spoke earlier about the hierarchy and respect of the pack leader? When I am working for the first time with an aggressive dog, I tell the family I need them to hand me the leash and step back and let me do what I need to do. The reason I do this is because if the family steps in to ‘rescue’ either one of us, I have lost the opportunity to gain the dog’s respect… and the dog will therefore not respect or accept my authority. Similarly, if you ‘override’ each other’s directions and commands while one person is working with the dog, the dog will pick up on that and also not respect that person.
  • Always supervise your kids around the dog! I consider myself a pretty happy and easy-going person, but even I have my bad days when I want to bite everyone’s head off!! Your kids are not going to be as proficient at reading your dog’s subtle body language changes as you are!

In closing, I will also add that your dog may not be the only one having difficulty with some of these household changes…., A toddler may have trouble adjusting to day care, A child going from elementary school to middle school or high school may have difficulty making the transition, and a child of any age may have trouble accepting a stay-at-home parent going back to work. But awareness is the key. Just like you will notice a subtle ‘shift’ in your child’s typical personality, you can be just as aware of your dog.

Keep everyone safe by making adjusting to change a team effort.

About the Author

I trained as an EMT in NY, than recertified in Atlanta. I loved being an EMT and was involved with it for several years. I worked on the “Rainbow Response Unit” at Egleston’s Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, and when not on a call, worked in the PICU and NICU, which was both a blessing as well as a heartache because I learned and saw so much. Helping to create a child safety seat for ambulances was my way of making sure children who were already compromised health-wise, would not be put in any more danger. When I realiized I could no longer be an EMT due to medical reasons, I found an alternate outlet for my desire to nuture and protect; I became a dog trainer...something that was always a second love and passion for me. Now, whenever possible, I combine my passion for children and canines by working to make the world a safer place for both. Suzanne is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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