Maybe it wasn’t such a sudden behaviour change after all. Perhaps there were already signs.
Earlier when we spoke on the phone I heard this story:
It began about three months ago. Ambrose was spending hours just sitting and staring. He wasn’t looking for shadows or lights. In the lady’s words, he stared obsessively and becomes very distant. When they called him out of it he came, but went straight back.
Coinciding with this there was a sudden change in the two-year-old Cocker Spaniel’s attitude towards the family’s other four dogs. One, four month old Vizsla pup, Hector, he had ‘attacked’ several times – not yet drawing blood but very negative experiences for Hector at a vulnerable age.
The first sign of Ambrose’s behaviour change was when he had attacked their other Cocker, Guinness, simply because the other dog had approached while he was being fussed. Later Ambrose had shaken and pinned down their older Schnauzer mix. Other incidents followed, one being causing a small dog to yelp when he was out.
This sudden behaviour change was completely out of character and very worrying.
I arrived to bedlam (largely my own fault as I wanted to see what they did). The younger dogs were highly aroused at my arrival and, along with leaping at me, erupted into wild play which I felt could have quite easily turned into something else.
This behaviour change – why?
My arrival gave me my first insight into Ambrose’s change in behaviour. The common denominator in nearly all the incidents was high arousal.
My second insight was that Ambrose always did his staring in a direction away from the front of the house. He would take himself outside and sit on the grass, staring in the direction of another house. He didn’t do it anywhere else. Easily called away it wasn’t like a trance, but he would go straight back.
They live in a wonderful private area where there are no fences and mix freely with the other dogs – a bit like dogs had freedom to be dogs in my childhood.
My educated guess is that something happened back in October that upset him – something they probably didn’t even notice and certainly can’t remember. Possibly it was earlier, but the first they really registered was the incident with Guinness. Then the staring behaviour followed.
Stacking up on this were other changes in his life. The elderly mother moved in. Then playful puppy Hector became part of the equation which will have ramped up excitement levels in all the dogs.
Ambrose was developing an increasingly short fuse.
Already mysteriously troubled, Ambrose became increasingly reactive when something upset him.
They didn’t read his body language so they did not heed his warnings.
Growling was ignored or scolded.
Then, when he did then explode, his humans ‘turned on him’, as it might seem to him. I would say the escalating incidents are still in the category of ‘warning’ – no actual biting yet.
This could be an exaggerated interpretation but my guess is that the cause for his seemingly sudden behaviour change is along these lines.
We humans sometimes occupy our minds with alternative things to fill our minds when really troubled. We know that dogs also use displacement activites when conflicted. Maybe the staring gave Ambrose an all-consuming thing to occupy him that he himself had control over and that blocked other things out?
Strangely this staring has begun to right itself. They have all been away for three weeks and since coming back, without rehearsal, he’s doing it much less.
It seems that the majority of the aggressive incidents occur when all the dogs are together which isn’t all the time. Two live elsewhere with the daughter. I could see just how aroused all dogs can be when together.
Stress and over-arousal is the common denominator.
In brief, they are now introducing management including a gate for a doorway so the dogs can be apart without being separated – not all together at trigger times or when resources are about. Until he has calmed down, they will use a long line when Ambrose starts on a walk because he is liable to redirect his arousal onto another dog. He goes mental on seeing squirrels, deer and other wildlife through the long window, so they will restrict his access to it.
They will manage people coming to the house differently for maximum calm. They will terminate excited play a lot sooner – particularly where puppy Hector is involved. We don’t want negative experiences with other dogs at his age colouring his attitude to dogs later on.
Finally, as food also could make a difference to Ambrose’s mental state, they will optimise his nutrition.
A general vet check would be a good idea, but before panicking about sinister causes like something neurological, let’s do the most obvious things first. Very dedicated family and I have good feelings about it. If he’s not much different after a couple of weeks of reducing over-arousal amongst all the dogs in every way possible along with management, the next step is a very thorough vet check.