Snooper Sleuth

Anyone who has lived with and cared about a dog has experienced moments when they are looking at a dog and wondering what the heck is going on. A trainer friend shared a story with me about a client’s dog who had started barking, at seemingly random times, at the refrigerator. We had been griping about the reasons some vets or trainers come up with to explain a dog’s behavior and then justify their recommended response to it. Among the worst being the idea that a dog’s behavior is based on their desire to move up in a pack hierarchy to justify the use of any number of inappropriate responses. The vet suggested that the dog was barking at the food in the frig. Not barking for the food, but barking at it. Don’t ask me, I don’t get it either. My friend suggested that the owners clean the coils under the refrigerator (something we should all do I learned from the repair guy). The collection of hair and dust had changed the sound of the refrigerator motor when it kicked on. The dog had noticed it and the barking ended once the original sound returned. Figuring out what is driving a dog’s behavior makes us all Sherlock Bones.

It can be especially challenging if we suspect illness or injury. Here in Vermont we have finally gotten a break from bitterly cold temperatures. Too much of a break unfortunately, and instead of a snowstorm, it’s pouring rain. This morning my border collie Finn got up from his bed on the floor next to me and moved to the other side of the room, by the door leading out to a balcony. Did he need to go out? Was he too hot and seeking out the cooler floor by the door? When he put his front paws up on the bed (he can’t jump up any more) I got up and put him in bed with me. He was trembling. Finn was treated for lymphoma and though I try not to obsess about it, know that it could return at any time. Was he feeling poorly? He also suffers from arthritis in his hind end, was he hurting?

I gently stroked him and drifted in and out of sleep while the recent episode of This American Life played on my iPod. Eventually his trembling stopped. It had been raining and I’d grown used to the sound of it falling on the metal roof, but I realized that something was different. It sounded as though a giant windstorm was raging outside. Windstorms mean trees fall down, trees falling down mean we lose power, when we lose power there’s no water. I got out of bed prepared for bucket filling action and noticed that the trees outside the window were still, there was no wind. The sound I was hearing was the river.

We live on a dirt road across from the Green River. When we have hard freezes the river builds up thick sheets of ice. During the spring thaw the river rises up and the ice breaks off in giant chunks that rumble and tumble downstream. The first time I heard it I thought a convoy of huge trucks was driving past the house. Last night’s rain had caused it to happen in January. The sound I was hearing was the river rushing by carrying the smaller chunks of ice and slush that follow after the biggest pieces have washed down. I had slept through that part. My guess is that Finn didn’t. Even the smaller pieces churning by can sound like thunder rumbling for minutes on end. Finn is afraid during storms. Was this the reason for his trembling? I suspect it was.

As frustrating as it can be to be unsure of why a dog is behaving the way they are, it is also an opportunity to get into the habit of looking at our dog’s behavior. Actually looking, not just reacting to it based on a preconceived notion of why it is occurring.

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10 comments so far

  1. jet on

    Hm I’ve seen that ‘hot feet dance’ many times before. Barbie in particular has more sensitive paws than Bender so she can be doing it whilst Bender doesn’t seem to notice the ground is hot. Very cute doggie that is scared of the kitty!!!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Too often physical causes for a dog’s behavior are overlooked. Always good to pay attention!

  2. diana on

    i love this. thanks so much for sharing your thoughts as well as the video.
    i find observing and interpreting a dog’s behavior in the context of what’s happening to be both challenging and compelling.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading. The video was created by Sonya Bevan. I’m glad she made it.

  3. LOVE IT. The more we pay attention to our dogs, the more we see how they can tell us what’s going on.

  4. crystalpegasus1 on

    My girl Shelby did something rather odd this morning that gave me the EXACT feeling you described in the beginning of your post. We were out on our walk, and she was sniffing like usual and all of a sudden, she laid down. Her default behavior is to lie down when she wants something (like to go chase a squirrel or a rabbit or whatever). I looked around and didn’t see anything, and her face was pointed at the ground. I unhooked her leash and gave her the cue to go chase whatever (she had said please after all), but she just stayed there, her face pointed at the ground, these deep wrinkle/concentration lines in her forehead. There must have been something there that smelled…off, and she wanted it or wanted to alert me to it. I ALMOST got down on my knees and tried to take a whiff of it myself, but decided against it at the last minute, lol. I didn’t crack that mystery, and we continued about our walk, but I know that wasn’t out of the blue. Wonder if she’ll do it again tonight. If she does, maybe I’ll sniff it and see what the fuss is about ^.^

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Sounds as though it’s an opportunity to start looking for patterns of behavior.

  5. Vince Egan on

    Figuring out what is driving a dog’s behavior makes us all Sherlock Bones. Never better said. Just thinking about it can give you a headache! Crystals work! There is a long story about being on your knees with a dog while learning how th train; or be trained…Ellie lays the Frisbee on the ground and moves off 10 feet or so so I can ask where is the frisbee and watch her eyes until after I ask 3 or 4 times she looks at the right direction. So who is the trainer and wo the trainee? Gotta love it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The beauty of good relationships is that it goes both ways!


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