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Why is my dog acting crazy?: Familiar versus Unfamiliar Environments

Routines and schedules are tools we as humans utilize to ensure productivity.  We know children often thrive on having a set, daily agenda.  Did you realize our dogs also fall subject to patterns? They wake, go out to potty, eat breakfast, then the family leaves for the day.  Some pups go into their crates, have free roam of the house, or are off to daycare!  It’s a predictable dance that is familiar to the dog, so generally their behavior is pretty constant and foreseeable.

But what happens when that routine is upset – Grandma comes to stay, the kids have friends over for pizza, a repairman is in the house, or a nasty storm came through? Or how about if you meet up with a known friend or pup, but in a new & unaccustomed place?  Does your dog change how he or she acts?  More than likely!  The degree may vary greatly, but most dogs will act different in some manner.

A stress yawn is one way a dog can communicate "I'm not comfortable"

A “stress yawn” is one way a dog can communicate “I’m not comfortable.”

Dogs can behave out of their ‘norm’ when environments change, and can even act differently in the same environment at varying times of the day.  We humans can be unpredictable about how we handle situations, too; something what we brush off one day can send us flying off the handle another day.  Have you see the latest Snickers commercials? When we are ‘hangry’ we may not be rational.  Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell states “It’s so common for us to have good days and bad days that humans who are always patient and benevolent stand out like saints.”  If we aren’t acting like Mother Theresa, how can we get upset when our dogs aren’t either?    

Let’s put it this way – when you’re sitting on your couch versus sitting in rush hour traffic, you make different decisions.  Context (such as familiar versus unfamiliar situations), genetics and environments all have impact on behaviors, human and dog!  McConnell continues “every dog is different, because each dog’s behavior is the result of a unique combination of genes and the environment.”

From a genetic perspective, the dog has been hard-wired in many facets.  Did you know that shyness and sociability are considered inheritable traits?  The first validated study of canine behavior predispositions came out in August, 2016 and found “a genetic predisposition to aggression toward an owner or a familiar dog is distinct from that for fear and aggression directed at unfamiliar humans and dogs.”  The study, led by researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, reports approximately 12 genes associated with these traits.  This helps to explain why some pups may be pre-disposed to fear and anxiety, despite the training and handling the owner has provided.

Environmental factors, including how the dog was socialized as a pup, and what continued experiences they’ve had leading into adulthood, also shape responses.  Dogs experience an initial human socialization period from 2-3 months where they should be exposed to as many new types, shapes, and smells as possible.  This is also the initial Fear Period when they learn what environments are safe and which are scary.  A pup who may have spent his first 4 months in a shelter or rescue may have missed a huge portion of this. A second fear period can be experienced from 6-14 months.  During these fear periods, a frightening experience (such as fireworks) may have a lasting impact on your pup.

Having your pup meet a new person in a quiet, familiar environment may illicit a very different outcome than meeting the same person in a crowded, loud pet store which has lots of new smells, sounds and stimulations.  Similarly, if Buster the Cocker Spaniel is a known play mate in your back yard, your pup may act differently if you take him to Buster’s house to romp.  Dogs don’t have the same ability to generalize as humans, so many things can be new and unfamiliar.  These contextual “x” factors also explain why our dogs may react to such things as hats, sunglasses, puffy coats, etc.  The dogs don’t have the ability to understand how we humans can morph from one shape to another—they think mom’s head is being eaten by the hat!

All these factors converge and influence how our dogs can be approachable to familiar people or animals, but not to unfamiliar people or animals.  This can also explain why one person who lives with the same dog may have different experiences and see different behaviors than another member of the family.  Certainly it’s the same dog, but aren’t we humans guilty of acting one way with our boss, and another with our friends?

When taking your dog into new, unfamiliar environments, it is important that we set them up for success.  We know coming into a new playgroup at daycare can feel like the first day of Kindergarten (for both the dog, as well as the pet parent!).  Your pup is being introduced to unfamiliar dogs, with unfamiliar people, in an unfamiliar environment—that’s a lot!  Using food treats, positive reinforcement, and patience can go a long way.  When pups are stressed, they often turn to their owner for cues about how they should be dealing with these new stresses… is mom relaxed and calm?  Is mom nervous and anxious?!?!  Then I TOO should be relaxed and calm (or nervous & anxious)!  That emotion travels right down the leash!

So if you know a troop of 8 boys will be invading your house, and that your dog is nervous around new sounds and people… do him a favor and let him enjoy a peanut butter Kong® in a quiet area of the house.  Ask the repair guy to toss cookies in his direction while you keep him on leash, a safe distance back where he doesn’t feel threatened.  If the dog isn’t showing signs of stress and wants to politely greet the new person, positively reinforce the interaction!  Anticipation of how your dog could react will help you to better manage a potentially stressful situation, and keep all parties safe.





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