Small Adjustments Can Sneak in Big Behavior Changes

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

by: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA



Our lives are so interwined with our dogs. Sometimes, more than we realize in the busy pace of day-to-day life. I have worked with countless clients recently on canine behavior issues resulting from the social changes with the coronavirus pandemic's economic shutdown that left parents and children at home together with their dogs for months. Small changes in our routines can be subtle and yet yield significant changes, as I know too well from personal experience. We had a very recent experience with this in our household.


Our 2.5 year old male Kooikerhondje, Beowulf, experienced health issues ever since we brought him home, which also resulted in severe behavior issues, including territorial aggression and body handling issues. We also have a ten year old female Kooikerhondje (Bones) and a 1 year old male Kooikerhondje (Gilgamesh). All of our dogs are affectionate and playful with one another, but like many Kooikerhondjes, they prefer their people to any other dog. We try to spend a lot of time with each one individually doing whatever they like -- playing, snuggling, training -- in addition to family activities. Small life changes can result in jealousy, insecurity, and unwanted behaviors.


We recently experienced a stroke of luck with finding medications to help Beowulf, as well as identifying a food issue that was contributing to the problem. It has been tough monitoring him closely with his veterinarian to find the right doses of the medication, and the right frequencies of dosing to keep his moods stable without negative side effects. Our veterinarian also put him on a hydrolyzed diet to get him feeling better until we can re-introduce proteins to identify his specific allergies. We have also re-started some behavior modification and handling counter-conditioning training with him since he is now mentally, emotionally, and physically in a place where he can effectively learn. It is tough for the learner to achieve their potential in learning when in a state of severe stress. His stress is measurably reduced with the medication and diet changes, and we are making strides with his training.


My husband and I arrange our schedules around his dosing times that occur every eight hours so that someone is home to administer the medication. Gilgamesh is incredibly perceptive and has picked up on Beowulf being the focus of our attention more frequently of late. We spend lots of individual time with Gilgamesh everyday playing and doing fun training and I did not feel that I had reduced that amount of time much, if at all. Still, Gilgamesh seemed to be insecure about changes in habit. I began noticing at night that Beowulf did not want to get into bed with us. I encouraged him to come to bed, but eventually let it be since he was comfortable resting in another spot in the room. This continued to happen for a couple nights, so I became suspicious something was going on.


One morning, I awoke and opened my eyes as Beowulf was climbing into bed. Gilgamesh body blocked him from approaching me. Beowulf tried to go around Gilgamesh, and he was again body blocked. We had never seen this type of behavior from Gilgamesh. I told Gilgamesh to "leave it" and he turned and walked away from Beowulf. I rewarded the "leave it" with some petting as I asked Beowulf to come over to me. I then petted them both. Later in the day, I noticed Gilgamesh try to push in when I was petting Beowulf. I then realized that he had done the pushing in during petting more than once the last few days, but I did not think much of it at the time since it wasn't a typical behavior pattern for Gilgamesh.


Clearly, I needed to help him feel more secure with his access to his most valuable resource -- me. Owners/Guardians are the most important and valuable resource. We are the gatekeepers to nearly everything of value in a dog's life -- food, water, play, walks, outdoor time, friends, affection. We hold a lot of cards. So any change in the status quo can make the alarm bells ring for a dog who has little autonomy over their situations in life. Luckily in this case, we caught this very early. All of the aggression was highly ritualized with no actual aggression taking place between the dogs. I was able to make changes so that Gilgamesh knew that positive attention for Beowulf meant that positive attention and fun were coming his way. We praised and rewarded positive interactions between the dogs. We also increased Gilgamesh's exercise and added more rough wrestling-type play with me every day (his favorite).


Within a couple days, there were no more pushy or guarding type behaviors. Insecurity can bring out the worst in anyone, especially including our dogs who lack much ability to influence situations. The severity of unwanted behaviors can escalate the longer stressful situations go on where a dog feels insecure or is not having needs met. This is especially true if the aggression displayed result in a positive consequence for the dog -- in other words, the aggression works to get him what he wants. These issues can have good prognoses, but are better if addressed before the aggression becomes a regular pattern and before physical and/or emotional harm is caused to either household dog as a result of the aggression. This can even be directed toward spouses, strangers, and/or non-household dogs. In those circumstances, there are other problems that have to be addressed beside insecurity that is limited to the home environment. We were very fortunate to address this early and swiftly to get the whole family back to fun times together...as much fun as can be had with the recently 115 degree heat wave. We are trying not to melt here!

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