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Reacting to Behavior Before Departures
How many different situations does your dog understand?
You’re gone, but I know where you went

Dogs respond to our behavior when we are preparing to leave the house. Reactions are different depending on where we are going. Each type of excursion is associated with a distinct set of (human) behaviors that occur prior to the departure. Dogs pay attention to these different behaviors because they carry a lot of information that matters to them.

The going-to-work behaviors that dogs observe their guardians perform mean that the person is leaving for much of the day. Those behaviors can include packing a lunch, blow drying hair, putting on dress shoes, carrying a specific bag or backpack and possibly being rushed and impatient. Dogs typically respond by sighing, going to lie down, and perhaps acting bored or disinterested. Their reaction reflects their understanding that they will not get to come along.

The actions that take place before a run may be putting on running shoes, grabbing a water bottle, stretching or eating something specific like toast or a banana. It’s easy for dogs who are running buddies to figure out that they get to come along and become excited in anticipation. Many will jump, spin, bark or do some other behavior associated with their enthusiasm or happiness. Some will bring the leash to their guardian, and others will stick very close, as if making sure that they are not accidentally left behind.

The behavior that is often most distressing to dogs involves the actions associated with travel. When many dogs see people filling suitcases, gathering items for a trip or anything else they connect to a long departure, their reactions reflect their displeasure. It’s as though they are thinking, “Uh-oh. I don’t like the looks of this at all.” Some dogs whine, some look sulky and others try to get in the way of our packing efforts.

Some departures are so brief that most dogs don’t make too much fuss over them. If you look outside, slip on your flip-flops and go outside suddenly, a dog who has seen this many times before likely connects those actions to your daily visit to the mailbox. Dogs may watch you from the window the whole time you are gone just to make sure they’ve read the signals correctly, but few experience much distress.

There are so many cues that tell dogs whether or not they are going when you leave, and give details about what’s to come. A bike helmet often means they stay behind (though in some families, it means just the opposite). Picking up the leash is a clear sign that they get to go with you. Shopping bags mean they are staying behind, as does a stuffed Kong being prepared. Grabbing poop bags is a good sign from the dog’s point of view, but grabbing your tablet is not. Dogs pay attention to what we do before we leave because information about their immediate future resides in our actions.

I’ve generalized about the reactions by dogs to various pre-departure behaviors. Obviously, a dog who is too new to the household to know the various patterns will not react predictably to your actions. Dogs who struggle when left alone, especially those with separation anxiety, are often too emotionally overwhelmed and panicky at any sign that you are leaving without them to cope with details distinguishing various situations. (Such dogs are often the most astute at figuring out whether they will be coming with you or being left behind, though.) Most dogs become quite attentive if they’re unsure about what is happening and can’t tell what your actions mean. If the cues that tell them what kind of departure is impending are mixed up or don’t match your usual pattern, most dogs focus closely on what you are doing to try to figure it out.

How many different situations involving your departures can your dog distinguish, and how nuanced are his reactions to each one?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

photo by Cameron Ritchie/Flickr

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