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Behavior Unpacked

A wiry black and white dog with a tan muzzle eats a treat off a log.
Lola eats a treat off a log

I work with dogs who bite people.

I work with dogs who lunge and bark on their leashes, growl over their food bowls, and send their canine siblings to the emergency vet with puncture wounds.

I work with dogs who can't leave their house and dogs who only feel safe outside. I work with noise-phobic dogs, handling averse dogs, and globally fearful dogs.

When people first come to me with their dogs and these emotionally dysregulating behavior concerns, they often have stories about their dog's behavior and what's causing it. It's a natural human thing to try to make sense of what we don't understand.

Often, they blame themselves. Especially if they've had the dog since puppyhood. They worry they didn't do something right, did something egregiously wrong, or weren't good enough.

I am always quick to set the record straight.

A black lab with soft eyes and a relaxed, open mouth
Molly is very relaxed

Behavior is complex. Incredibly complex! A myriad of factors influences it. So let's get into it!

Looking at behavior, we can zoom out to see the species in front of us. Yep, this is a dog! Dogs chew and dig and bark.

If this dog were hanging upside down in a tree by its tail, we would have some big questions! So check. The dog is doing dog things.

We can zoom in a little more and look at breed groupings. I'm not shocked that a Livestock Guardian Dog is less collaborative than a Herding Dog.

I'm not surprised when a bully breed has trouble self-regulating.

And some dogs will completely fail out of breed expectations. You may have a couch potato terrier or a sighthound with no prey drive. That's okay too! None of the factors in this post are absolute in their impact on the learner's behavior. They're all pieces, suggestions, and possible elements with varying weights.

From breed groupings, we get more specific and look at the learner's breed or breed mix.

Golden Retriever resource guarding - check that makes sense! Genetically speaking, they're the #1 resource guarders, followed by beagles!

Your husky likes to run? That makes sense, too.

What have we bred this dog's ancestors to do? How have we manipulated the predatory sequence to meet our needs?

Let's look even closer - let's look at the lineage.

If I'm working with a German Shepherd, I want to know if he's from working or pet dog lines. And if the former, what kind of working lines? What traits have we selected for in this dog's great-great grandparents?

And speaking of genetics - epigenetics are fascinating.

Let's say your dog's great-great grandpa was out living his best life when he encountered a bear. The incident was traumatic, but Grandpa lived to tell the tale and to reproduce.

We know now that traumatic experiences can actually change grandpa's DNA, and that's passed down to your dog.

So your dog might smell a bear, and his genetic code says, RUN FLIGHT GET OUT OF HERE. And your dog doesn't know why, and we don't know why, but the body does.

The science for this involves mice, cherry blossoms, and shock collars, but I like my bear story better.

We've looked at the ancestors; now we can look at the parentage. What have mom and dad contributed to this pup?

We can look specifically at Mama. How is Mama doing? If she's stressed out, her placenta will allow through stress hormones it would otherwise block to prepare the puppies for the stressful state of the world.

This can mean a stray dog whose nutritional needs aren't being met, and it can also mean an intentionally bred dog shipped overseas before and immediately after conception.

The stress levels in the puppies remain high until weeks after birth. We'll come back to how sensitive of a time this is developmentally.

Factors like the puppy's position in utero and birth order can affect hormone levels and development; litter size can also have a huge impact.

We know that maternal care in the days and weeks after birth can affect not only those puppies but also their offspring. A new Mama, a sick or absent mama, a big litter with shared resources, a solo puppy, and maternal separation before eight weeks can all have a HUGE impact on development.

A tan dog with triangle ears looks quizzically at the camera
Amos has questions

The puppies open their eyes and ears at three weeks, and we enter the socialization period. Their little brains are creating neural pathways that will inform how they view the world for the rest of their lives.

At this time, the puppies are especially vulnerable to stress. This vulnerability to stress continues through adolescence, which ends around 12-24 months, depending on various factors (breed, sex, and pre-pubescent altering). Remember those increased stress levels from mama's stress during pregnancy?

So the puppies are learning. We want these experiences to be positive or neutral. We want them to generalize. Yes, a man on a horse and a baby in a stroller are both people.

What happens when the learner experiences Very Bad things (as determined by the learner)? Very Bad things get flagged with a warning. This thing is Very Bad, and we should avoid it at all costs. And if we can't avoid it, we may be pushed into a survival response of fight, flight, fidget, fawn, or freeze.

And what happens to things the puppy doesn't experience at all? If a dog spends their socialization period in a barn, they might live fine on a farm. But when you take them to the city, their brain will flag the air horns, traffic, and the multitude of people as UNKNOWN and therefore a THREAT.

In the literature on such things, we might label a dog "optimistic" or "bold," "pessimistic," or "shy." Whether a dog is bold or shy, optimistic or pessimistic, can be impacted by the factors we've listed here - before the dog is even born!

And then that colors the lens through which the dog experiences... everything.

An event that is no big deal to a bold and optimistic puppy could be traumatic and life-changing to a shy and pessimistic puppy.

The socialization period ends around 12-16 weeks, and then we enter the deceptively lovely juvenile period. While some dogs may experience behavior concerns here, or even younger, it is more common to see those concerns arise in adolescence or social maturity.

Ah. Adolescence. This begins around 6-8 months for most dogs. The thinking brain temporarily shrinks, and the amygdala explodes. Stress and sex hormones spike. The part of the brain handling curiosity comes online, and suddenly, your puppy with perfect recall notices an across-the-street. They're restless and needy, and their sleep patterns are irregular.

This is generally where people think they've broken their puppy. This is the most common time for folks to surrender or rehome their pet due to behavior challenges.

Because emotional regulation becomes more complex and feelings get bigger and stronger, we often begin to see reactive or aggressive behavior appear here.

If your puppy fought his giant litter for food and then ate faster or pinned his ears when you touched his bowl as a baby (don't do this), now he may begin to growl or freeze.

If your puppy shied away from reaching hands and offered lots of displacement licking when strangers picked him up, he may now begin to panic from 10 feet away.

If your puppy tolerates the older dog's bullying behavior, we might expect him to take a stand in adolescence.

And then, WOOOOSH - we zoom all the way back into the behavior in question. We know behavior doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's being affected by all of these factors that make up who your dog is, how they see the world, and how they navigate stressful situations.

We look at the environment - is it a tight space with few escape routes? A fight response may be more likely to keep them safe than trying to flight.

Is the dog's safe person nowhere to be seen? Freeze may be a better option than fighting here. (Often, dogs are more overtly reactive when their safe people are around because someone is there to have their back. They may resort to fidgeting, flighting, or fawning instead).

Is the environment loud and chaotic? This may contribute to your dog's stress levels and push them past their ability to cope.

Has your dog had a stressful day? Week? It can take up to 72 hours for stress levels to return to normal after an over-threshold stress event, and learning can be impacted for seven days or longer. That mean if your dog has a bad walk in the morning, they're less able to handle the stress of visitors in the home that night. We call this trigger-stacking.

We might also use terms like "motivating operations" and "distant antecedents."

How does your dog feel in their body? Pain or discomfort can create a shorter fuse for nonsense, disrupt emotional regulation, and increase your dog's personal space bubble.

Pain can increase arousal and decrease a dog's tolerance for stress. Some medications can cause disinhibition and increase bite risk, and some medical conditions may make aggressive behavior more likely.

The first signs of pain are often behavioral, not physical. A sudden escalation of behaviors or new aggressive or reactive behavior warrants a vet check.

Is your dog hungry? This may make them more likely to guard their food bowl.

And if they haven't been outside in three days because of bad weather, they may be less likely to respond to their recall cue when they finally get off leash.

A white and merle hound dog with a relaxed face and alert ears smiles in a field
Cyan living his best life

Behavior is complex and informed by various factors, but I want to be sure you finish this post knowing that we are so much more than the sum of our parts.

I work with dogs who have bitten people but are learning better coping skills in stressful situations.

I work with dogs who are terrified of everything but learning how to feel secure.

I work with dogs every day whose well-being has sky-rocketed once their guardians have the guidance to support them.

You are not alone. Your dog's behavior does not reflect your worth or theirs. You and your dog are worthy and deserving of good things right now, just as you are. You are already whole.

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