Sudden Changes in Behavior

December 18, 2018

I recently received an email asking for a training referral. The sender had two senior dogs, and the younger of the two was suddenly attacking the older one. There had been problems between the two when they were young, but they’d been getting along for many years. While I did find a trainer for the woman in her city, I also advised her to take both of the dogs in for a complete veterinary exam.

You might be thinking Hmm, a sudden behavior change could be linked to aggressive behavior, but why would she need to take both dogs in? Surely, it’s only the younger one who needs to be seen. While it’s true that the dog who is displaying the aberrant behavior should be thoroughly checked, sometimes the reason the dog has suddenly become aggressive is because the other dog, unbeknownst to the owner, is ill. Think about how in a group of dogs or wolves when the one in charge becomes sick or weak, another member might take advantage of the situation and challenge for rank, especially if his own standing has been suppressed for a while. Dogs often know when another dog is in decline before we do.

Both dogs should have a thorough blood panel done. Vets who are knowledgeable about the effects of physiology on behavior should know what to look for, but it doesn’t hurt to do a bit of research on your own and to share that knowledge with your vet. Check out the link between thyroid levels and aggression, including the work of Jean Dodds, DVM. Look into how issues with the liver can affect canine behavior. Beyond that—and this is something I don’t hear discussed often—I recommend having the dog checked out structurally beyond what normally happens in a cursory veterinary exam. Canine chiropractors are specialists who are much more likely to be able to discern whether a bone is out of place, a nerve is pinched, or something else is happening that’s causing pain or discomfort.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had so many issues with my own back that I understand all too well how, when something is out of place structurally and pain and inflammation strike, anyone can become cranky. Dogs are easily irritated when they’re in pain, and it’s unfortunate that a chiropractic approach is so seldom considered. When my mother was in a nursing home in her late 80s, she kept complaining that her neck hurt. She was clearly in a lot of pain and distress, and though she was normally pleasant and friendly, it made her grouchy and irritable. Who could blame her? The staff kept insisting it was part of what happened “at her age” and just kept pumping her full of pain pills. I told them she needed to see a chiropractor. They wouldn’t listen, and I finally arranged myself for her to be taken to one. One adjustment later and whaddayaknow! The pain was completely gone and she was back to being her own happy self. Doesn’t it stand to reason that something similar could be going on with a dog who was formerly happy and well behaved and is suddenly cranky and aggressive?

Of course, not all sudden aggression has a physiological cause. Changes in the household or the dog’s routine should be considered as well. For example, did someone the dog was close with move out of the home? Did someone new move in? Did a baby arrive on the scene? A change could also be environmental, like a construction site springing up next door. I’m very noise sensitive and can easily understand how a dog who was the same would becoming anxious and might take it out on a canine companion. And what about other senses? Even something like a new cleanser being used in the home could affect an odor-sensitive dog. Chemicals give me raging headaches, and although I haven’t seen any research on the subject, I would think it’s possible that it could happen to dogs as well. And, by the way, it’s not only aggression that can manifest suddenly. If a dog who has seemed fine when left alone is suddenly showing signs of separation anxiety, it may be that he’s feeling needier because he’s unwell or anxious.

Again, many times sudden behavior changes do have roots that are solely behavioral. But when the cause isn’t clear, it’s always best to do some sleuthing to rule out possible underlying factors. After all, if there is a non-behavioral cause, applying behavior modification alone isn’t going to solve the problem. When it comes to sudden behavior changes, a holistic view is always best. And if there’s fighting between your dogs that truly is behavioral in nature, check out my latest book Keeping the Peace for more help.
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and blog at Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified by email of new posts. You can also sign up for my Training Tips Tuesdays by going to and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You’ll get free tips on training and behavior weekly! You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.



It’s All Fun and Games ‘Til Someone Ends Up in a Cone

December 11, 2018

Bodhi conehead widerYou might think because of the title of this blog that it’s going to be about dogs who play too roughly and eventually get hurt. It’s not. (Sorry, I just liked the title!). But, it is about a dog having to wear a cone on his head, namely my dog Bodhi, and how our new daily routine has been made possible by the behavioral work we put in early on.

Bodhi had surgery last Friday to remove a lump from his head. It had started out small. In fact, when I first noticed it I thought it was a tick and tried to remove it. (Sorry, Bodhi!) Once I realized it was a growth, I kept my eye on it. I wasn’t panicked, as Bodhi is approximately nine-and-a-half years old and I’ve seen my share of lumps and bumps on older dogs. But when it began to grow, I took him to the vet to have a needle aspiration done. The vet wasn’t overly concerned, although she did say it was difficult to declare the lump benign based only on the cells she could see under the microscope. Fast forward a few months and the lump had become a LUMP. I decided enough was enough. Not only was I alarmed that it had grown so quickly and so much, but it was positioned above his eye, and I didn’t want to chance it eventually pressing down on his eye area.

As with all dogs who need to be kept from scratching or pawing at themselves and opening their incisions, Bodhi came home sporting an oh-so-fashionable white plastic cone. Yes, that cone—the Cone of Shame, the Cone of Silence…he was a Conehead now for sure, and you know how much dogs love a cone around the head. Unwieldy and annoying though it might be, it’s also necessary. So, like a good, responsible owner, I’m leaving it on except when Bodhi eats, or when we go for a walk. Even if I’m watching him at other times, it would take only a split-second for damage to be done, and Bodhi is exactly the kind of dog that would do it. When I mentioned to a friend that I was removing the cone and putting it back on multiple times each day, she expressed surprise that Bodhi was so good about letting me handle him that way. She went on to say she couldn’t imagine being able to do that with her own dogs.

Her remark got me thinking back to when we first adopted Bodhi. He was somewhere around a year to a year-and-a-half old, smack dab in the middle of his obnoxious teenage phase which, in concert with his myriad of behavior issues, made pretty much everything difficult. He had issues with other dogs. He was super destructive. He was leaking urine (not his fault, but so not charming). If my husband or I took a few steps, he would jump up and put his teeth all over us, not aggressively, but in what I recognized as a totally insecure, unsocialized, unmannerly way. (If you really want to know how bad it was and how I solved his issues, check out Hit by a Flying Wolf.) In addition to all of that, to say he did not like being handled would be an understatement. He not only didn’t like having his paws handled or rear touched, as is the case with many dogs, but he also hated being brushed. If I so much as touched the brush to his fur when he was lying down, he’d whip his head around, take my hand in his teeth, and look at me as if to say, “Don’t make me do something we’ll both regret.” While I understood that he’d probably had zero experience with people treating him gently and working with him, it was not okay to let him go through life that way. And so, we began the long, gradual process of working on his handling issues, along with all the others.

It’s now been just over eight years since we bought Bodhi home and, hopefully, he’ll be with us for years to come (we’re waiting on the pathology of that pesky lump). Had I not put in all of the time and effort with him at the beginning, I am confident that he would not be easy to cone or de-cone, to brush, or to live with at all, really. The fact is, dogs come with baggage just like people do. We can take offense and try to strong-arm them into compliance, which only suppresses the underlying reason for the behavior and doesn’t solve it; we can give up on them entirely; or, we can work with them kindly and patiently to make things better. As this challenging period, along with a myriad of other interactions in our day-to-day life proves, in the end, being gentle, patient, and willing to work cooperatively over time always pays off.
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and blog at Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified by email of new posts. You can also sign up for my Training Tips Tuesdays by going to and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You’ll get free tips on training and behavior weekly! You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.


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