Why is My Dog Acting This Way NOW?

December 23, 2013

Muffin LR4 edit smallI recently received an email from a woman who wanted to know why I thought her dog, who had been treated for separation anxiety, seemed to be okay for a while but would then have recurring episodes. Of course, there was no way for me to know without doing an in depth consultation. But the recurrence of a behavior issue is a question I’ve come across a number of times over the years, whether the issue was separation anxiety, aggression, fear, or something else. If the dog has already been treated and the issue was resolved, why is the dog acting this way now?

The truth is that without a crystal ball, it’s a very difficult question to answer with certainty. And since my crystal ball is currently under a layer of dust, I’ll tell you what I told the sender of the email: you’ve got to do a bit of detective work. Of course, a veterinary exam is the first order of business, to ensure that the dog isn’t manifesting the behavior because he or she is unwell. But with medical issues ruled out, the goal is to monitor the dog’s behavior and try to make connections to determine whether any other factors coincide with the resurgence. For example:

Changes in diet. What we eat certainly affects our behavior—just try talking to someone who’s downed a few high energy drinks, or to a child who’s had too much sugar—it’s the same for our dogs. This includes not only changes in the dog’s normal meals, but should take into account visitors or people encountered on the street who give your dog treats he doesn’t normally eat. Treats received at the vet’s or groomer’s office also fall into this category. Food can cause allergies, and allergies can cause discomfort and therefore behavior changes.

Exercise. Just as we are much calmer after exercise, the same holds true for dogs. If your dog hasn’t been getting out as much or receiving the same type, amount, or intensity of exercise, that could certainly put the body and mind into a state that is not quite as balanced.

Changes in the household. Do Buffy’s fear issues coincide with visits from Uncle Bob? Perhaps she’s frightened of him. Does Ranger’s aggression seem to come out when Dad is out of town? Perhaps he feels that with Dad away, it’s his job to keep the household safe. Does Muffin’s separation anxiety coincide with Mom’s longer working hours? These are all types of things to consider. Another kind of change in the household would be another dog being gone, whether temporarily or permanently.

Changes in the environment. Simple changes such as outside noise can throw a dog off balance. Being highly noise-sensitive myself, I can commiserate with dogs who live in a place where construction is going on, or there are suddenly loud sirens or other forms of noise pollution. Even someone playing loud music in the house, or using a new air conditioning or heating unit could cause a reaction in some dogs. Being the environmentally sensitive person that I am, I would even go so far as to consider other changes in the household. For example, my husband, unbeknownst to me, replaced a burned out bulb in my home office with a new CFL type bulb. When he came home, I was curled up on the couch with one of the worst headaches of my life. Turns out some people are sensitive to those bulbs. I’m not saying this is the case with dogs, but that sometimes you have to think outside the box. And that outside-the-box area could even include electromagnetic fields.

Lack of exposure to the trigger. Fears and aggression issues can be subject to spontaneous recovery. For example, a dog who was successfully rehabilitated for reactivity to other dogs might begin to show the behavior again if he hasn’t seen another dog in a long time.

There are certainly other factors that could play a part in a dog’s changing behavior, but these are a good starting point. If you have others, please add them in the Comments section!


My Coyote Adventure

December 10, 2013

I was going to blog on a completely different topic today, but then I had to go and have an adventure–my blog and my morning went completely off the rails. As many of you know, I’m way into photography. Because we live right up against the same mountains where the coyotes live, I keep my camera at the ready. Unfortunately, the coyotes don’t have the decency to let me know when they’ll be taking a morning hike up on the ridge. The times when my dogs let me know there are coyotes out there, it’s normally too dark to photograph them. It’s frustrating. Even worse, my camera is normally still on whatever settings I was last using to photograph the dogs, or at least set for some other lighting situation. Can you see where this is going? Long story short, I never seem to get good shots of the coyotes.

This morning after returning from taking the dogs to the park, I had just finished putting a recently purchased extender on my 70-200mm lens and looked forward to trying out the greater reach. I was about to put the camera down when something caught my eye. There, outside my office window, was a large coyote walking up the hill! I dashed over to the window and snapped a few shots. I was thrilled—that is, until I realized the photos were so overexposed that they couldn’t be saved. Dammit! I decided enough was enough. I threw on my jacket and sneakers, grabbed the camera, locked the dogs in the house, and set out to find the coyote.

As I’ve mentioned, we’re right up against the mountains, and there are no clearly marked trails. There are no houses back there, either; it’s complete wilderness. Having developed a serious case of PISS—Photography Induced Severe Stupidity—I paid no attention to which way I was going, intent only on finding that pesky coyote and getting some shots of him. I followed narrow trails, squeezed between bushes with stickers and spikes sticking out, stepped over who knows what, and, out of breath, finally reached the top of a ridge. I looked across the next expanse of mountain, and spied the coyote. And his friend. The two were trotting away from me down a trail.

coyote adventure long shot

I raised the camera and took a few shots. (My camera didn’t seem to be focusing as well as it normally did; I was shooting in Manual mode, squeezing the button halfway down to focus. I would later find out the slow focusing was due to the damned extender.) All I could think of was seizing the moment. Then the coyotes turned and stared. There was something in the way they were regarding me that gave me pause.

coyote adventure 2 staring closeup

I looked around and suddenly realized just how far from the house I’d come. I suddenly wished I’d gotten the bigger, heavier version of my zoom lens after all, being that it might have do double duty to defend me; coyote attacks on people aren’t unheard of. I thought, Well, whatever happens, at least I ought to at least get some good shots first, and took a couple more.

coyote adventure closeup 1

The coyotes decided the standoff was over, and turned and trotted off down the trail.

I wish I could say that the adventure ended there for me, but when I turned back toward the house, I couldn’t figure out where exactly it had gone. I’m the first to say I have a terrible sense of direction, and while my husband has hiked the dogs around those mountains, I never have. I thought surely I’d find a trail that led back to the house. But each time I started down a trail, it ended in a cluster of bushes. It quickly became clear that I was completely lost. I tried to remain calm and look for landmarks. The only thing I could see was a large water tank in the distance. Thinking it might be the one outside our house, I headed toward it. It soon became apparent, though, that not only wasn’t it our tank, but I didn’t even recognize the house it belonged to. How the heck had I walked so far? I was still atop a mountain, and could see the main road that runs past our dirt road. I’ll hike down to the road, I thought, and at least that way I can follow it back to our road, and then follow our road back to the house. One very steep hike down a mountain, a trek across a field of bushes and stickers, and a mile-long hike later, I was finally back home. It had certainly been quite the adventure. I wish the photos had come out better, but I learned two things: I don’t like the lens extender, and, more importantly, never follow coyotes into the mountains!

coyote adventure trotting away

A Tired Dog is a…Cooperative Dog?

December 3, 2013

Lazing on couchThe saying, “A tired dog is a good dog” implies that a dog who is tired is less likely to get into trouble. Of course, the old adage is true. But while most owners accept that dogs need regular exercise to stay healthy and to cut down on over-arousal, a state of canine weariness can also be used for a specific purpose: to make behavior modification go more smoothly.

Dog-centric television programs spotlight dogs with behavioral issues—aggression toward other dogs, snapping when having nails trimmed, or separation anxiety, to name a few—and then show the trainer working with the dog to solve the problem. What many viewers don’t realize, though, is that before that final, successful, on-air session, many things have already happened. And you can bet that one of the first was taking the edge off the dog’s energy levels.

A dog who is a bit worn out is less likely to be reactive. Think of it this way: when a body’s got a lot of energy stored, it has to be expressed in one way or another.
It’s the same for dogs and people. I live near Los Angeles and I can tell you that when someone cuts me off in traffic, I’m not a happy camper. But my reaction is a whole lot different depending if, let’s say, I just came from the gym and I’m pleasantly worn out, versus having a stressful day that did not include any physical exercise. Getting back to dogs, when I adopted Bodhi, he had some pretty major on-leash reactivity issues toward other dogs. Nowadays, when we encounter another dog, he’ll place himself by my side as I’ve taught him to do. But he still has a mild level of anxiety when passing one particular dog at the park, and will whine a bit whenever we pass him. The last few days, though, Bodhi hasn’t made a peep. It’s not that he’s suddenly realized that black Labs aren’t the embodiment of evil—it’s because by the time we encountered the dog, Bodhi was already tired from a few miles of hiking. Again, exercise took the edge off.

Dogs with aggression issues will be less reactive during behavior modification sessions if they’ve been well exercised first. Tiring a dog out won’t solve the problem entirely, of course, but in many cases it allows for a foot in the door. Even with a problem like separation anxiety, starting with a dog who is pleasantly worn out can help. Back when Sierra and I were working through her separation issues, if I took her out hiking before I left the house, she was markedly calmer than if she hadn’t been exercised. When I included this tip in my book Don’t Leave Me! Step by Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety, more than a few people contacted me to say that they hadn’t thought of exercising their dogs before they left the house, and that it helped immensely.

This might all sound like common sense, but I know very few owners who actually think this way. It’s just not something we’re taught. Even if a dog doesn’t have a serious behavior issue, taking the offense on the exercise front can help. For example, before having people over for an evening visit, get your dog out for a nice, long session of walking, hiking, playing with other dogs, or doing whatever you both enjoy. Just don’t amp your dog up with an activity like ball chasing, and then immediately put him in a situation where he might become reactive. Aerobic activity elevates adrenaline levels, and floods the bloodstream with other chemicals that can take a while to return to normal levels. As an experiment, try exercising your dog before visiting the vet or groomer, before having visitors over, or before a session of working on behavior issues. You might be surprised at the difference it makes.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________For Nicole’s books and seminar DVDs, including the NEW “Talk to the Paw!” body language seminar DVD, visit http://www.nicolewilde.com.

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