When Dog Behavior Surprises Me

It only makes me love them more
By Karen B. London PhD, April 2019

Here I am with my buddies Marley and Saylor. (For the record, I was in the dog bed first.)

Many dogs that I meet, know and work with are somewhat predictable. That even applies to the aggressive ones who make up a large portion of my practice, and that is a good thing. There are common patterns in canine behavior that keep surprises to a minimum: Most dogs who are fearful are more afraid of men than of women. Play is often more effective at improving dogs’ emotional state than treats are. Once a dog has been upset by something on a walk, that dog will be more likely to react to other stimuli while on that walk. A dog who has just had a lot of exercise will tend to be calmer and more content than a dog who has not recently been physically active.

I love these and other patterns because they make my goal of helping dogs and people who are struggling with canine behavioral issues more manageable. Predictability is important when working to change undesirable behavior, especially aggression. If the aggression is predictable, it can be managed and improved, but if it is largely unpredictable, then it is much harder to deal with and potentially riskier. For example, if a dog only ever acts in an aggressive way to people wearing big boots, the guardians must work specifically on that trigger and need a plan for keeping everybody safe and their dog under control when a person in boots is present. That is the only situation that requires hard work and special attention. On the other hand, if a dog is aggressive to some people and not others, but there is no discernible pattern, then care must be taken at all times just in case. That’s difficult and also exhausting. So, in many cases, predictability is the greatest ally.

Outside of serious behavioral cases, I would be lying if I said I always appreciate predictability. All of the time I spend with dogs would be less gratifying without the periodic surprises that are harmless—the breaks from the patterns that do not pose a problem. It often makes me happy when a dog’s behavior is unanticipated, and it’s especially interesting to me when dogs who I know well act in unexpected ways. It serves as a reminder that the complexity of canine behavior is endless. It also brings me joy to know that mysteries remain in the emotions and actions of even those dogs who are most dear to me.

Today I received surprises from two dogs who I have known for years and who I love very much. My husband and I took them on a walk together and my predictions of what would happen were fascinatingly incorrect. The two dogs are Marley—a 10-year old mixed breed who looks like he has some retriever in him and perhaps some hound, and Saylor—a 3-year old mixed breed who I would bet money has some sight hound in her but is largely unidentifiable.

After our long walk, I expected Marley to be pooped. He is an older dog who has survived multiple bouts of cancer and isn’t always as full of pep as he was in his younger years. Usually after a walk he is more or less done for the day and will lie around for hours. After this walk, though, Marley got a bout of the friskies and was more playful and energetic than I have seen him in ages. He was running around the yard in crazy looping circles and playing with Saylor for the better part of 20 minutes. Saylor was ecstatic as she frequently solicits play from Marley and is rebuffed. So, Marley surprised me by zooming around like a puppy just when I thought he would be tuckered out and ready for one of his epic snoozes.

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Saylor surprised me during the walk. A third dog named Elly joined us since her guardians were away that day and we were taking care of her. I expected this walk with a new acquaintance to be a challenge because Saylor can be reactive around new dogs. (Once she gets to know them, she loves to play with other dogs.) She finds change hard, is scared of anyone unknown to her, and is generally nervous about anything novel. She is often tense on walks and quite vigilant. We did a slow introduction of the dogs to make it as easy as possible for Saylor to feel comfortable. Though it went well, I expected her to be a bit tense on the walk since a new dog was with her. (If that had happened, my husband and I would have separated the dogs and taken different routes, but we were hoping to be able to spend time with each other as well as with the dogs so we gave it a try.) Contrary to my expectations, we walked with all three dogs after the long, step-by-step introduction, and Saylor was notably calmer than on most walks. She seemed more relaxed than usual and quite happy. I’ve known dogs who are on edge to become more relaxed around a large group of dogs, perhaps because many dogs can share the duties of being vigilant and each individual dog does not feel the need to be on high alert constantly. Still, I did not expect Saylor to act as she did with a new dog along on the walk.

It’s fun to remember that dogs are not a collection of behaviors and a list of patterns. They are complex, amazing creatures with rich emotional lives. When their behavior surprises me, it only makes me love them more!

Have you enjoyed being surprised by a dog’s behavior?

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 has authored five books on canine training and behavior.

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