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Are routines good or bad?

We are creatures of habit, as much as we might aspire to be free of routine and live spontaneously, many of us still have daily routines and predictable habits. Whether it’s set by your work schedule or by the people around you, it’s hard to avoid falling into patterns and following familiar schedules.

Given that our dogs rely solely on us to provide everything they need and they spend the majority of their time observing us or anticipating what’s happening next, it’s no wonder they quickly learn the patterns we follow.

All dogs will have learnt predictable events, some will be highly skilled at it and seem to know your next move before you’ve even thought about it.

They might know 5pm means dinner time, putting your shoes on means you’re going out, the doorbell means visitors, their lead signals a walk … and so on.

When they predict an event is about to happen, it usually leads to an increase in arousal from the anticipation of the event.

This could be excitement, for example, a dog who loves their walks or loves visitors is likely to have a spike of excitement when they predict these events.

But for others, the high arousal may come from a more fearful or conflicted place, for example, if they’re worried about going for a walk or anxious about you leaving them alone.

The predicting of events can lead to challenging behaviours, like barking, jumping or mouthing when excited. The build up of arousal from excitement or fear can also make it harder to work through these behaviours with your dog because they are already in a state of high arousal and stress before you’ve even reached the trigger point.

If you want to teach your dog to greet visitors more calmly, it will be near impossible if they’re bouncing off the walls from the moment a person steps foot on your driveway.

Likewise, if you want to build confidence on walks but your dog is becoming anxious as soon as you pick up their lead, then this is the place to start.

Some people will say to ditch routines entirely, mix everything up and never let your dog predict events.

Firstly, this is incredibly difficult to do, given that we all live somewhat predictable lives and follow routines ourselves. Secondly, having no routine and no predictable events can be overwhelmingly confusing and quite scary.

Even people who enjoy being spontaneous and ‘go-with-the-flow’ would find it stressful if they never had any idea what might happen next in their lives. For many people, not knowing what the next day may entail is a stressful thing to deal with. Expecting our dogs to live with absolutely no idea of what’s happening next is unlikely to help many of them feel less stressed.

There is however a balance. In some situations it does help to mix up the routine and make things unpredictable, but our dogs do still need some structure in their lives. We can make things unpredictable but in a structured, predictable way … it might seem contradictory but read on …

The Pros and Cons of Predictability

Routine is helpful when it provides a security and a consistency for our dogs. Knowing they will be fed and walked each day means they don’t need to stress about it. Knowing you will return soon when you leave them, means they can relax while they wait. Feeling confident and safe in their familiar surroundings, at home and on walks, means they don’t have to fear potential threats.

Some of these routines are important, particularly for dogs who find change stressful.

Not all dogs are resilient when it comes to changing routines, they can find it challenging to relax in new environments or feel anxious when familiar patterns don’t occur.

For these dogs, changing routines needs to be done slowly and it will be beneficial to build their resilience to change. The dogs who take huge comfort from routine and familiarity are likely to find it hard to cope with any sudden changes, but within most dogs lifetimes things will change, whether that’s because you move house, change your job, change your working routine, or live with different people. Being able to cope with change is important.

For other dogs, routines mean they experience increased excitement or frustration at certain triggering moments in the day. Perhaps getting restless when they know it’s nearly walk time, barking incessantly when you pick their lead up, or losing all their focus when you let them off the lead.

Predictable events can become associated with certain behaviours, and these behaviours are hard to change unless you change the predicting factors.

Whether you’re aiming to build resilience to change or to change the associations your dog has formed, it’s never a case of suddenly ditching all routines and making your dog live on the edge of unpredictability, it needs to be done in a structured way so your dog isn’t left confused and stressed.

The Predictable Walk

Walks are the highlight of the day for most our dogs, which means they are also often the biggest cause of over-arousal and a predictor to challenging behaviours. They are also an important security and reliable event for many dogs, so removing all predictability would be damaging, but making small adaptations can make a big difference…

  • Vary when and how you walk your dog, aim to mix up the timings where possible so your dog doesn’t always expect it at the same time

  • Vary what your walks look like e.g. an off-lead walk, a sniffy lead walk, a training session instead of a walk

  • Do some training to lower arousal before heading out for a walk, practice calm training and get your dog into a ‘thinking’ mindset before you pick the lead up

  • Mix up the predictors, if the lead causes huge excitement, pop it on your dog a few times each day and work on something calm like bed training or a different activity

For some dogs, being let off the lead or out the car can cause a huge spike of excitement and frustration, so pairing this event with alternative behaviours can reduce the arousal and change the association.

Try rewarding your dog before they get out the car and scatter a few treats on the ground so they have an instant calming activity when they jump out. Mix up when they get free time, sometimes do a few minutes of lead walking before letting them off or stand and work through calm training for a minute at the start of a walk. Let them off the lead once they’re in a calmer mindset.

If your dog finds change hard, going to a new walking location could be a big deal for them, but also a great way to build resilience to change. Start with just once or twice a week, add in one new location or walk a different route, keep it fun and relaxed for your dog and gradually add in a few more new locations.

The Doorbell Madness

The sound of a doorbell provokes a reaction in the majority of dogs, usually because it has been consistently linked to an exciting or stressful event every time the sound occurs i.e. you get up and answer the door every time. No wonder it quickly leads to a spike of arousal and challenging behaviours, like barking or racing to the door.

Doorbells are predictable so there is no way to remove this completely, but changing the association and how you respond will help reduce the frenzy. Bear in mind, if your dog has a huge association with your doorbell sound you may need to change the sound or start with a recording played quietly.

  • Play the doorbell (or a recording) and continue what you’re doing, don’t respond or react to the sound and keep it all very neutral

  • Play the doorbell and scatter a few treats or give your dog a lickimat/activity toy

  • Play the doorbell and open the door, close it and go back to what you’re doing

  • Do these things every day, or every few days, depending how stressful your dog finds it. But aim to practice a neutral response to the doorbell far more frequently than an actual visitor arriving

  • Once your doorbell is paired with a variety of occurrences which all happen much more frequently than actual visitors, your dog is more likely to respond calmly and not expect someone to be outside

Counter any moments of frustration/excitement spikes with calmer behaviours, scattering a few treats to find is a great go-to method in these moments. Or better still, teach your dog to relax in their crate or a separate room when the doorbell goes, so you can deal with the door without your dog getting involved too!

Check out our blog on teaching your dog not to bark at the door:

Dinner O’Clock

How many dogs can tell exactly when it’s dinnertime? Whether its hit 8am or 5pm, they seem to know when they should be fed and they start getting restless or agitated.

While ‘ditch the bowl’ has become popular and a good way to avoid dinnertime anticipation, for some dogs having a regular mealtime routine is very beneficial. A hungry dog is more likely to feel frustrated and always having to work hard for your food or never knowing when it might come, can leave some dogs feeling quite stressed.

There are ways to mix it up though, whether that’s by feeding in different ways or keeping the timings slightly variable, but make sure your dog isn’t left stressed and confused by it all. Adding in a variety of feeding methods can help build resilience to change too, but don’t make it all hard work, make sure your dog still gets some easy meals and maintains enough of a routine. Read more here

Doorways Lead to Great Things

Doorways tend to predict exciting things, whether that’s running into the garden, greeting a visitor or leaving the house for a walk, thus frustration typically spikes around doorways because they’re associated with predictable exciting events.

This can lead to problems like racing into the garden and barking, launching out the door towards visitors, or pulling you out the front door for a walk.

Pairing doorways with alternative associations can break these patterns…

  • Open the back door and scatter a few treats for your dog to find, repeat it lots so the action of going out the door is no longer paired with a frantic race

  • Step out the front door, reward a few seconds of calmness and then go back inside, so your dog no longer associates stepping out the door with high excitement

  • Place rewards down every few steps when walking out the door to start your walk, beginning the walk in a calm state will set your dog up to be more focused and responsive throughout

  • Reward your dog for waiting calmly on their bed while you open the front door, it’s just one small step in the process but it will help calm the association of high arousal around visitors at the door

There will be predictors in many events in your life, one of my dogs knows to run to her bed when I turn the kettle on because I’ve often (without thinking) paired making a cup of tea with giving her a treat on her bed.

She also knows when I shut my laptop or say ‘bye’ on the phone, it means something is happening and she’ll immediately leap up and be ready to go. She has no association with words or things like me picking up her lead, my keys, coat or shoes, but she’s learnt some random other predictors. I’m sure all dogs have their own unique set of predictors and routines.

Rather than rushing to make everything unpredictable and ditch all your routines with your dog, think about what predictors are detrimental to you and your dog and which ones actually do no harm. If there are predictors which create arousal and stress for your dog, then look at ways to mix it up and teach new associations. It’s not just about ditching all routines, it’s about taking the arousal out of these events and showing your dog how to respond calmly in these moments.

Written by Naomi White

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