"My dog is just so unpredictable!"
Have you ever said that about your dog?
It is a very common issue which causes a great deal of angst in guardians, who feel that if only their dog was more predictable in how he reacted, they would be able to cope much better. And it is a completely understandable response - we like things to ordered and certain. We like to know what is going to happen and when it will happen.
But unfortunately living beings are not very predictable. That goes for our dogs and indeed for us! We are not machines where (hopefully!) the same input will result in the same output.
Instead we - and our dogs - are contextual.
This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that it means our dog’s behaviour will not always be the same, given the same input. So one day, our dog might see a man in a hat and be fine about it. The next day, the same man in the same hat could trigger a riot!
But the good thing is that knowing that our dogs are contextual creatures means that we can start to make more sense of their behaviour and then we can start to make more accurate predictions.
So take the Man in the Hat. The Man in the Hat is only one part of the context. He is the bit we tend to notice because he is the focus of our dog’s outburst.
But there are lots of other relevant factors that may contribute to why our dog barks one day but not another. Factors such as:
- Weather: Is it particularly hot or cold? Is there thunder in the air? Does your dog cope better with some weather conditions more than others?
- Location: Is the location different? More echoey? Less visibility? Element of surprise?
- Health: Is your dog feeling well? Any pain? Discomfort? Including low level “niggles” that might not halt activity but may reduce patience. Is he hungry? Is he thirsty?
- Energy levels: Is your dog tired? Or are they full of energy and raring to go?
- Your Energy levels: Are you tired? Or full of energy and raring to go?
- The Man in the Hat’s Energy levels: Is he tired? Or full of energy and raring to go?
- Mood: Are they calm and relaxed? Wound up and stressed? Over-excited?
- Your mood: Are you calm and relaxed? Wound up and stressed? Over-excited?
- The Man in the Hat’s mood: Is he calm and relaxed? Wound up and stressed? Over-excited?
- Other people: Is there anyone else present? Any other dogs?
- What happened yesterday: Any barking incidents? Any highly charged fun activities? Plenty of rest?
I could go on but you get the idea.
Context is everything and contexts are rarely the same from day to day - even if you are in the same place meeting the same person.
So how does knowing this help us? Well we can work on our observational skills and make judgements accordingly. Rather than assuming that our dog will always be happy to meet the Man in the Hat, we can note that he becomes less comfortable when the Man is carrying a stick or when it is hot or when he had a bad day the day before.
Some of these things of course we can only judge in the moment - the things about the specific scenario. But some of them we can know in advance and make allowances for.
If we notice that our dog is always more “grumpy” the day after a long walk, we can choose to go somewhere quieter the next day, or keep him on a lead, or give more space, or even take the next day “off” from walking.
If we realise that our own mood really affects how our dog reacts, we can make sure we only walk him when we ourselves are feeling calm and relaxed.
If we find he is more reactive when he is hungry, we can time walks to be after meal times (always allowing an hour or two after eating to avoid bloat especially in susceptible dogs) and avoid walking just before he is due to eat.
So dogs are not unpredictable - at least no more than we are! It is just that we need more information than just the presence of a trigger to be able to predict their likely response. But once we start to think of them as contextual rather than unpredictable, it becomes much easier to predict what might happen.