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Their unique interior world: health, development, age, sex, and individuality. Behavior such as puppy biting is part of a dog's development. Being sick or in pain can have an enormous impact in a dog's behavior.

- Kelly Whittington

Dog Life Hack #4: Learn your dog's quirks, likes, and dislikes, and pay attention if their behavior changes suddenly.  

Quick Summary
  • Some dogs are atypical for their breed.

  • Dogs can be bold or cautious, social or aloof, playful or reserved. 

  • Dogs are Optimists or Pessimists!

  • Behavior changes with age.

  • Sudden behavior change that can't be attributed to aging or a change in circumstance or environment is pain until proven otherwise.

  • Often, behavior change is the first sign of illness.

Every Dog is Different

The SELF is what makes your dog a unique individual. Even with the same L (Learning), E (Environment), and G (Genetics), no two dogs are the same because of the S (Self) they bring to the table. 

Some dogs didn't read their breed manual! I once had a Coonhound who had no interest in hunting, possibly why he was in a shelter. He laid on the deck and watched with disinterest while a wild rabbit ran by. Pomeranians who don't bark a lot do exist, but they're the exception and not the rule. Guardians who won't guard, herding dogs who won't herd, and so on.

Dogs have their own personality quirks. In the same litter, some will be bolder and some more cautious. Some more social, and some more aloof. Some more playful and some more reserved. 

Dogs can even be Optimists or Pessimists. Dogs who expect good, fun things will happen in new situations are optimists, and those who are expecting the worst are pessimists. It can, of course, be situational but dogs generally lean one way or the other.

Age & Development

A dog's interests as well as their needs change as they age.

Critical Period - birth to around 16 weeks old

This is when a dog learns how to be a Dog. Through play with littermates, they learn good doggy social skills, bite inhibition, conflict resolution, etc. Singletons (the only puppy in the litter), puppies who are taken too young from mom and littermates (<8 weeks old), and puppies who go to a home with no other dogs to interact with miss out on a LOT of critical social development skills. 

The more POSITIVE exposure a puppy has at this age to novel sounds, smells, sights, and textures, the less fearful of novelty they will be later on. Negative experiences can become permanent fears, so it's crucial that exposure is POSITIVE. If the puppy has a bad experience with stairs, for example, or men wearing hats at this age, it can be difficult or impossible to overcome. The more excellent breeders follow programs like Puppy Culture and AviDog to take advantage of this critical period of development.

Puppyhood - around 3 - 6 months

This is the Golden Age, when they are fun little bundles of joy. Older dogs are more tolerant of their antics at this age ("puppy license"). They tend to stay close to you, listen well, and learn quickly. It's the ideal time to start group training classes to learn good communication skills and get positive real-world experience. It's also when you should be establishing PREDICTABLE PATTERNS and ROUTINES and setting expectations for the behavior you want from them as adults. If you won't want it when they're grown, then don't allow it now (jumping on you for attention!).

They are teething and chew on everything, including you. We actually want this to some extent because it's how we teach them bite inhibition, how to use your mouth without hurting. At first, let them chew on you as long as it isn't painful. If it hurts, do what other dogs would do and FREEZE. All the fun stops. You can say OW but the important thing is the freeze. They *should* stop and go "oh, sorry". Then you start play again. If they bite too hard again, it's time for some downtime. Puppies will bite harder when they are tired because their brain is also tired and they have less fine motor control of their actions. That means it's nap time! As they get older, you'll start freezing and ending play for bites that don't even really hurt, to teach them to have an even softer mouth. 

Puppy Biting is a normal part of a dog's development. It is a fundamental need for the species. An oversized stuffed toy can save your skin and clothes if there isn't another real dog for them to play with. Puppies NEED other dogs to wrestle and "fight" with, and if they don't have one, YOU become the substitute. 

Puppy driving you or your older dog crazy with mouthing and puppy biting? Give them a giant stuffed animal to wrestle!
The magic of Make Believe for Dogs

Adolescence - around 6 months to 1 year +

Hold on to your seat! This is the age when most dogs are surrendered to shelters or rehomed. They literally lose their minds! Their brain completely restructures to go from puppy brain to adult brain. What was relevant as a puppy no longer is and what wasn't relevant suddenly becomes so. They suddenly become more interested in scents and markings left by other dogs, more likely to wander and less attached to you. Things they knew before, it seems like they suddenly forgot, like how to come when called. They lose their "puppy license" so adult dogs are less tolerant of their antics. Behaviorally stable adult dogs should be allowed to correct them as long as the corrections are reasonable. Large breeds especially can experience growing pains in their legs and not want to take walks suddenly or not want to be touched or handled. Be mindful of possible pain, stay consistent with your training, and you will get through this stage!

Social Maturity - 2 - 3 years

Your dog has come into their own. Conflicts between other dogs in the home can happen suddenly as the newly adult dog begins to stake their claim to food and other resources when they didn't before. The genetic traits that were selected for may suddenly "turn on" when they didn't show up before. Maybe as a puppy, your Guardian dog loved everybody. Now, they are aloof or even growly with strangers. Their G becomes a bigger factor. It's my personal favorite stage because we finally get to see the Dog they are going to be!

Senior - 7+ years

Senior pets are a joy because life is easy. You know each other by now and there's no more chewing things they're not supposed to, or stealing your socks, or any of those other annoying things that younger dogs do. But, there can be challenges as your dog's physical abilities and health begin to decline. 

Pain & Discomfort

Pain, disease, illness, and injury are top causes of aggressive behavior. 

One day, I was in a particularly sour mood. Everything seemed to go wrong, including breaking my favorite soup bowl. I didn't even know WHY I was so grumpy until my husband asked, "are your feet hurting today?" I have plantar fasciitis, and yes, they were particularly painful that day. Pain makes you irritable and impatient.

Any sudden behavior change that can't be attributed to reaching adolescence or social maturity or to a change in the dog's circumstances (move, divorce, death in the family, etc.) IS pain until proven otherwise. The first person to call is not a trainer but a veterinarian. Pain can be hard to diagnose because dogs will mask it to appear less vulnerable or have so much adrenaline from the vet visit that they literally don't feel it. That's why the limp your dog has had for a week can suddenly disappear once you're at the vet clinic. 

It is possible for a dog to have perfect bloodwork and still be gravely ill. My AHT's cancer was missed by multiple veterinarians and specialists because his bloodwork and urinalysis were normal, and the mass didn't show on x-rays. He was clearly ill, but test after test failed to pinpoint why. Keep that in mind when a routine veterinary exam doesn't find anything wrong. It doesn't definitively mean that nothing is.

Something as simple as having fleas or allergies can affect your dog's behavior. Ear infections, side effects from medications, etc. Even a change in Barometric Pressure can shift how your dog behaves! If you find yourself asking, "what is WRONG with my dog today?", go through the list to narrow down the cause. 

The better you know your dog, the sooner you will notice when something is off. It can mean the difference in catching an illness early and being too late.

The 5 Freedoms
of Animal Welfare

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst

  2. Freedom from Discomfort

  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury, and Disease

  4. Freedom to express Normal Behavior

  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress

Brambell's five freedoms have been adopted as the basic standard in zoos, farms, and animal shelters.

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