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Sunday, March 22, 2015

How The Change Of Seasons Affect Dog Behavior

Ah, I open my eyes to the sound of birds singing outside my screened window. The longer days afford me the opportunity to snap a photo of the sun setting upon the lake, and the aroma of newly blossomed flowers fills my nostrils with delight. Spring is in the air!

“Fido, sit! Fido, stop! FIDO!” An unhappy owner screams at their dog, as it is going nuts at the picture window that faces the street. “What’s gotten into you anyway?”

Fido is a new dog in my life  and, until now, Fido has been doing wonderfully with all of his commands and with potty training. All winter long he has been the picture perfect star of obedience!  Suddenly though, his training is falling by the wayside and Fido is not listening anymore.

We all know that the change of seasons can affect our new dog in health with allergies, allergic reactions, and other ailments, but how does it affect their behavior?  Well, this would depend on the dog (or puppy), and how long you have had it.

A question came across my desk yesterday and it was not something I really gave much thought to over the years.  I guess because in the past I spent time walking my dogs, Chance and Steeler, either through my quiet neighborhood, or the busy streets of town. As well, they spent their time in the community’s eye, more so than any other family dogs I've owned.  

 I have to admit, they probably were not the ordinary dog companions that most people have, as they were shared with the public both as Therapy Dogs and as mascots for the Animal Response Team.

So when a customer wrote in with a problem pertaining to his newly acquired dog, which suddenly forgot all of its potty training manners and was messing in the home, I first looked at possible health problems, to which I was assured, were ruled out by a Vet.

I then asked if there was anything, or anyone, new in the home, or in the pup’s life. It seemed there was a recent change, which included another dog that visited regularly each weekend. Of course, that could be part of the problem even though the puppy grew up knowing this dog since it was 8 weeks old.

 I explained to the customer that as a pup grows, it can go through changes, and if this pup felt challenged by the other dog, who was suddenly taking up residence on his turf, then this could have caused the dog to mark its territory.   I suggested solutions to remedy that problem.

The customer wrote back and asked: “Would this cause a total relapse in all commands so suddenly? The puppy is barking at everyone that is passing the house, he is not coming when called, and he is jumping on the furniture.”

I reminded him that this was a young dog, and that they do backslide from time to time.  However, my feeling was that the customer also needed to look at the dog’s environment as a whole, and other possible causes for a sudden change in behavior.

 I then began to take a look at the age of the puppy and the approximate time and season that the owner brought the puppy home to live with him.

You may be asking yourself, why would a change of seasons suddenly make a puppy, or any new dog in a  home,  forget its manners and commands, when it was doing so well  just weeks prior?

Let’s look at something that should be obvious, but is often not for most dog owners.

In looking back at my calendar, this puppy came into the owner’s life back in September, the fall season. It is now late March and springtime!

Let’s dissect this.

Fall ~ the puppy is young, very trusting of the new owner, and is willing to listen and learn. The air is getting cooler, and aside from some events, most people begin their indoor activities.  The kids are back in school and are usually in some type of after school program.

Winter:  The weather is colder, which leads people (including the owner of this puppy) to spend the majority of their time in the home. Aside from some snow shoveling or power snow blowers being used  at various times of the day, the winter is mostly quiet with limited children and critters in the area.  
The pup, is also growing, becoming more  sure of itself, as well as more secure in the routine of its surroundings. 

Spring:  The long cold winter is over. People are out in droves, and all different kinds of events are taking place. People are walking their dogs up the street, kids are riding their bikes and skateboarding, critters are coming out, motorcycles are zooming up the road, fire pits or grills are being used, and yard work is being done in preparation for the summer.   The daylight hours are now longer, keeping people outside later in the evenings. There are also more critters and bugs running or flying about. 

I will stop at Spring because this is when this pup’s problem began. Think about it ,Spring  is a whole new world for this pup and it is suddenly becoming aware of its changing environment.  After a long quiet winter of confidence building, where the streets and yards around it were fairly quiet, things are suddenly moving about and at a very fast pace!

Though the pup may have been trained in normal obedience during the quiet times and became very good at listening ,  it was never taught how to react to this new hustle and bustle that seemingly, and very suddenly, is invading its calm and peaceful surroundings!  

Now, when the pup is put in its cozy little fenced backyard, it is hearing, smelling, and seeing so many new things in its life, that probably did not exist during the fall or winter months.

This change in seasons does not only affect puppies. A new dog of any age can be affected by these new changes in environment. If you rescued a dog around the Christmas holiday, then prepare yourself for spring, summer, and fall. You may see changes in behavior for a year before the dog is comfortable with everything going on around it.

With seasonal changes, you also see new neighbors moving in, or new construction in the neighborhood. These events have not yet been identified by the dog as being normal. These changes can cause the dog to act out through barking or other fearful behaviors.  To the dog, acting out in this manner is also its way of warning you that something is different.

In the past, I have worked with dogs whose owner took the same walking route daily. Suddenly, their dog became fearful of this route and would pull the owner back toward the home. What happened?  

In many cases, there was construction in the area and a large dumpster sitting in the middle of the walking path. This was not in the dog’s normal routine, and just like seasons, neighborhoods are constantly changing!

These changes, as I said, can affect a dog of any age, and I will use my own rescue dog as an example. Last year in the fall, my young rescue, Skylar, suddenly became fearful of our fenced in back yard, but only  during certain nights. The only way she would venture into the yard, was if I walked with her and waited for her.  At first I could not figure it out. So I took a moment or two, too take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the yard. Finally, I reached deep into my brain and the memory came back to me. Over the summer there was an incident with the new neighbors which sent Skylar running back to the house in a panic, and pounding on the door to get inside.

 The event that left Skylar in such a panic was that the new neighbors, who have children ranging from teens and up , were sitting around their fire pit, which is just on the other side of my fence. One of them decided it was a good idea to set off fire works.  How frightening that is to a dog which  has not been trained around that type of noise before. Not only were there fireworks set off, but the remnants /casings of the fireworks, landed in my back yard, one of which unknown to me may have hit Skylar.

  From that incident, anytime the neighbor's gathered at their fire pit, Skylar did not feel safe enough to be outside alone.  She was associating the smell of the fire, the chatter of the neighbors, and the time of day (dark of night) with the fireworks event.  She was perfectly fine when the fire pit was burning during the daylight hours.

Eventually she got over it, but it took many outings with me and much reassurance. Luckily, there  were not  any new incidents of fireworks going off. 

Also in the spring during daylight hours, Skylar became afraid of going to the back yard to potty. It took some detective work on my part, but what I found was that the bees, yellow jackets, were out and living in the  ground of the yard. Skylar had apparently been stung by a bee and so was associating going through the fence with being stung during this particular time of year. 

So, if you feel your dog is suddenly acting out in ways that are bazaar, take the time to think about the season, and take in what is going on outside. Look, listen, and smell your surroundings, and through that, you will probably find your answer.

Until next time, happy training!