This question came to mind recently when I was speaking with a client whose newly adopted dog lunged at a person. This behavior felt unpredictable to them, and I get why. But I had to step back and think about what truly unpredictable behavior in dogs is, and what may make behavior feel more predictable to us humans.
Just like for dogs, if something feels unpredictable to us humans, it raises our anxiety and our need for a sense of safety. Not knowing what is going to happen is very nerve wracking. If we don’t know our dog is going to do a certain behavior – we can’t predict it – it can feel truly unsafe to have them in certain scenarios. We want to feel our dogs are safe creatures to have in public, around people, other dogs, etc. We don’t want to feel like we’re walking a ticking time bomb on a leash.
In order to work with a dog whose behavior feels unpredictable, I first like to see if I can make it feel a bit more.…predictable. How would we do that? Well, let’s start by identifying some hallmarks of predictable behavior. For starters, the best indication of future behavior is past behavior, especially in times of stress (barring of course the effects of a behavior change program being in place). If your dog has shown certain behaviors in the past, such as aggressive responses towards people, we can reasonably predict they will show them again without behavior interventions. If you haven’t had your dog very long, you don’t yet know them very well, and you don’t have their past behavior to refer to as your road map going forward. Assuming situations may be hard for them and putting prevention measures in place is a smart path to take until you know them better.
Behavior is much more predictable if you can see it coming. This is why it is crucial to be able to read warning signs in your individual dog. Does your dog lower their head before growling, or just growl? Do they back away first and if they can’t get away, do they then snap? What’s their warning system? It’s also crucial to know when your dog is truly comfortable in a situation. This is different than when they may be worried but just not showing signs of overt aggression – or giving many signs at all. If your dog isn’t showing signs they’re truly comfortable, you can reasonably predict they may have a response to what’s going on.
The speed with which your dog moves also affects their predictability. If you have a very fast dog whose everyday movements are quick, they may snap or bite more quickly than a dog who moves a bit more slowly. This could mean they go from a freeze to a lunge/snap faster than you can read them or intervene. This would then increase their level of unpredictability.
A sense of predictability will also increase if your dog frequently responds in the same manner to the same triggers. If your dog always barks and lunges at new people, for instance, that isn’t safe. But it is predictable. When your dog only occasionally barks and lunges and there is no apparent pattern, that’s when things feel pretty dicey.
Let’s consider a scenario using my dogs. Their behavior feels very predictable to me. I know them well. But if my 6 year old dog Emery was in a situation where a friend of mine picked up his paw – let’s say to remove something sticky – Emery might growl. We have worked long and hard on paw handling and nail trims, and just grabbing a paw without warning (you unpredictable human!) is not our protocol. But my friend might then feel Emery is unpredictable because they didn’t see the growl coming. I would have bet them money he would warn them to back off in this context.
This brings up another point – are our dogs responding predictably to an unpredictable world? If someone comes around a corner and I didn’t expect them, I might jump. Growling and snapping is not in my behavior repertoire because of the species I am. But it is in every dog’s ability to do so since they are the species they are. Surprises are always harder and if your dog feels a situation is unpredictable, that affects their sense of safety too.
Is predictability a personality trait? I don’t think so. I think it is a matter of us as the human handlers being able to read a situation quickly and anticipate what is going to happen before it does. But those are pretty advanced skills to cultivate.
When we ask the question “Is my dog unpredictable?”, we are fundamentally asking “Is my dog dangerous?” If your dog feels fast and erratic and you aren’t sure of the triggers, muzzle training is your answer. A muzzle trained dog is comfortable wearing a muzzle in many situations and they are safer than any dog who is not muzzled. Basically, no one wants to feel like they are walking an animal down the street who may behave in a way that could hurt someone. Also, if it seems your dog is “up and down” a lot, meaning their emotions don’t seem regulated, speaking with your vet or vet behaviorist is a great place to start.
Preventing the rehearsal of behaviors such as lunging, snapping, and biting is the key to reducing aggression. This means increasing our dogs’ sense of safety in as many situations as we can so that they don’t feel they must access aggressive behaviors as often. Learning your dog’s warning system and what their triggers are is a good way to be better equipped to predict their behavior, and helps both you and your dog feel safer.