They’re not giving us a hard time, they’re having a hard time: The truth about dog behavior challenges

Husky looking at the camera

When your dog struggles with behavior challenges, it can be frustrating as a pet parent. 

Your dog may bark or whine or pull towards something, and no amount of training cues and calling their name seems to help. If it feels like your dog is just not listening to you, there’s likely a reason: they’re having a hard time.

What happens when we don’t get enough sleep, we're late for work, or we spill coffee on our work shirt on our way into the office and then find out we are expected to present information at that morning meeting? 

Will we be able to concentrate well? Odds are, not easily! This is called "trigger stacking," and it can even happen to us humans. 

It takes practice to build up healthy coping mechanisms to work through stressful things. Our dogs are the same. When they experience trigger stacking, they can struggle to think through their actions and they won’t know how to use healthy coping strategies unless we teach them.

Once we look through the lens of "our dogs aren't giving us a hard time, they are having a hard time" and we think of potential 'whys' to our dogs' behavior, we can work through these big feelings and build a strong relationship together.  

Why is my dog whining and barking at everything and not responding to me?

Our dogs are limited in how they can express their emotions to humans. Their primary mode of communication is through their body language and vocalizations.  

Dog barking

If your dog is barking and whining at everything around them, pulling towards or away from something, or even just flat out ignoring you, they’re most likely overwhelmed with all the stimulation and their brain is struggling to process the information. 

When we see these behaviors, it's sometimes too easy to assume our dogs are giving us a hard time on purpose, or are "being stubborn.” We should instead consider that they’re having a hard time themselves.  

When faced with lots of things happening at once, our dogs are naturally built to take on the most self-relevant thing first, process it, and then go down the list from there. 

So, if you’re at a park with a lot happening around you — and your also asking for prolonged eye contact from your dog — your request will most likely fall to the bottom of their importance list. 

Their overwhelmed brains will then dismiss you as irrelevant to their current concerns, and instead react in a way that makes sense to them. This is where we often see the pacing, panting, barking, whining, redirecting on the leash, and other behaviors that show they’re struggling.  

How can I support my dog in stressful situations?

Women at AHS training, working with her small white dog.

Our dogs rely on us for information on how to act in many situations. A great way to build good communication and trust is to recognize when they need something else and help direct them towards making alternative choices. 

Stepping up as your dog’s guardian means setting them up for healthy choices. That means helping to regulate their environment or stepping in when you see your dog becoming overwhelmed. For example:

  • If your dog is pacing and panting, you can move away from busy areas to a wide open space where they can regulate themselves and decompress. 
  • If your dog is fixated on kids playing, you can move them to a new area where they can sniff and get information about their surroundings without being too fixated on the children’s movement. 
  • If your dog is beginning to tense up and pull towards something, you can help them redirect their gaze, move themselves further away where they can then watch as they need to, and encourage sniffing for a few minutes to get them to decompress.   

You can also plan for the future. If an environment was too difficult to work in, plan to not go there again until you’ve practiced and worked well in a less busy one – an empty baseball field instead of a busy loop around the lake, for example. 

Once your dog has shown that this lower criteria is easy for them, and their good choices are becoming good habits, you can increase the difficulty slightly.  

Remember, dogs are individuals 

Overall, you want to make sure you’re working with what your individual dog can handle, and support them as they need it. Progress is never linear. Some days will be incredible progress days, while others may be about maintaining or supporting them with lower expectations.

Adolescent dogs especially can use the extra support. Their brains are still developing, and it can be hard for them to process when they’re surrounded by lots of activity. Some dogs (and young puppies) will need extra naps during the day to help support their brains.  

Do you have behavior and training questions?

If you have any questions on how to support your dog through situations, environments, or how to progress in your relationship, our Behavior and Training team is here for you. 

We have private sessions availablespecialty classes to continue building a bond and growing together, and our Behavior Helpline is always available to help both ends of your leash.  

Contact Behavior Helpline

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

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