Why Is My Dog Crazy Lately? The Answer: It's Fall!
The leaves are falling.
The temperatures are falling.
And my dog is crazy.
The weather is cooling down. It’s brisk, which makes everyone, including your dog, want to walk a little faster. Moving a little faster revs up your dog.
It’s a little windy. Odors abound, which liven up your pup. His nose is in full sniff mode. So many interesting things to smell. The air is FULL of odor, coming from all directions. Your pup needs an extra moment to take in the scent and make sense of it. Extra sniff breaks are a must.
The leaves are falling. Awesome! Now that the leaves are on the ground your dog can finally – finally - give them a good sniff. How’s a dog supposed to sniff leaves when they’re way up on the tree?? And while your dog is sniffing, maybe they’d like a little nibble (especially puppies). What an opportunity – sniffing AND snacking!
Furry critters are on the move. Your dog definitely notices the increased squirrel and chipmunk activity. The desire to investigate (and possibly chase) is overwhelming. Even the most well-behaved canine may be squirrel crazy this time of year.
And if windy weather, cool temperatures, and active critters weren’t enough to rev up your pup, let’s talk about the new stuff in the yard and house. Fall decorations are everywhere – pumpkins, cornstalks, mums, and Halloween decorations.
While this may be completely normal for you, your dog may think differently. At the very least, your dog needs (yes, NEEDS) to investigate the new things. Sniffing, nose nudging, tasting are all normal doggie exploration behaviors.
This can lead to human-canine conflict. Your dog is hard-wired to investigate with their nose, paws, and mouth. When we prevent our dogs from being dogs – sniffing, munching, digging – we can create frustration and increase determination in our dogs.
Determination is defined as “firmness of purpose; resoluteness”. (Oxford Languages) When a person shows determination they are often applauded. It takes determination to learn a new language or finish a project. It may take determination to get through the day. Whatever the task, it’s determination that helps us to reach the goal.
Dogs can be very determined. Some people call it stubborn. I love watching my dog when she's determined. She may be trying to solve a puzzle or seeking the odor when we're doing nosework or trying to figure out how to balance on a fallen tree. I also get annoyed when my dog is determined to get my attention when I'm busy.
For people, when we're doing a task and our progress is interrupted, say the internet goes down preventing you from achieving your goal for that day or moment, it’s very frustrating. How do you respond to that frustration? You might tense your jaw or your shoulders. You may complain at your computer or slam your hand on the desk. You might walk away from your computer. The important thing to notice is that you have choice in how you respond to the frustration you feel. Things are different for our dogs, especially when they’re attached to a leash.
Imagine this scenario: It's a beautiful morning. You and your dog are out for a walk. It’s been fabulous, until your dog’s nose twitched. She caught an odor. Undetectable to your human nose, but not your canine’s super sniffer. She is determined to achieve a goal – sniff whatever it is that’s so interesting. Your goal is simply walking around the neighborhood. And as quick as that, you and your dog have conflicting goals.
That relaxing walk turned into a struggle. She’s off to sniff. You want to continue on the walk. She wants to understand the odor. You pull her leash. She puts the breaks on. You call her name. She twitches her ear but doesn’t budge. Your dog is determined to sniff. You’re determined to move forward.
Dogs are dogs. They have innate behavior that they need to express. When innate behavior is suppressed, their well-being decreases. Well-being is different than welfare. An animal’s basic needs may be met – food, water, shelter, safety, medical care, but that doesn’t address well-being, which includes the ability to express normal species-specific behavior. Some of the more annoying species-specific behaviors (from a human perspective) that dogs need to express include exploration (EX: sniffing/digging), foraging (EX: counter surfing/trashing) and vocalization (EX: growling/barking).
While my dog and I both know what it feels like to be frustrated, our demonstration of that emotion is determined by our differing biology. When your dog is frustrated, what options does he have to show his frustration? If he’s on a leash, it might be pulling. If he’s in the house, it might be barking. I can honestly say I’ve never, ever barked in frustration. I have sworn and slammed my hand on the desk. Neither pulling on the leash nor slamming a hand on the desk decreases frustration. But we may do it anyway. Emotions are powerful.
When I start a task, say writing this blog, I’m both motivated and determined. I have a goal that I want to achieve. If I’m interrupted, I will experience frustration, but determination will keep me going. When my dog starts a task, say sniffing the ground, she is motivated and determined. She has a goal she wants to achieve. If she’s interrupted, she will experience frustration, but she is determined and not easily distracted.
When my dog and I go for a walk, we are both motivated and determined. However, our goals may be vastly different. I’m a casual walker. I follow my dog, generally meandering where she wants to go. There are times when I follow her off the path and into the woods, and other times when I limit her to the path. Most of the time this works for both of us. She has many opportunities to do her doggie stuff at the same time I’m doing my human thing. We pass the time companionably. Most of the time.
But it’s fall and she’s a little more “sniffy”, she’s a little more insistent in going off trail. She’s a little less interested in any distraction I might attempt. So, we negotiate. A little extra sniffy time slightly off trail, but not quite into the woods seems to work for us both. Most of the time. If I think she’s having a “sniffy” day, then we’ll play more games on the walk so her attention is centered on our games rather than other interesting things in the environment. Playing games during our walks has been part of our walking routine for her entire life.
Preventing tension between my dog and myself is critical for both of our well-being. The responsibility for her well-being, and mine, is all on me. If my dog isn’t doing what I ask of her, or her behavior is not acceptable to me, then I need to stop and ask myself if I’m being reasonable. Have I provided opportunities for her to express her species-specific needs (exploring, foraging, etc.)? If not, she may be displaying her frustration. Have I trained her how to behave in a manner that I find acceptable? If not, she may be confused about expectations. Am I consistent in what I’m asking her to do? If not, then I can't expect her to read my mind and know what I want. If the answer is no to any of these questions, then I should adjust my expectations to meet her at her level.
I don’t expect absolute compliance from my dog, during walks or any time. She gets distracted. If I’m honest, I get distracted and ignore other people and the dogs in my life who are seeking my attention, too. We share many of the same emotions. I express those emotions like the human that I am. My dog expresses those emotions like the dog she is. So, when you’re on your walk today and your dog is a little more determined to sniff and explore, know that she’s doing her doggie thing. She’s showing some determination. Give her a moment. Let her revel in the fall weather.