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How Unpredictability Affects Dogs

Updated on August 13, 2014
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

The world out there can be a big scary, unpredictable place...


It's a fact: dogs love routine and unpredictable events can set them off causing stress. This explains why many dogs do not do well with abrupt changes from moving to a new home, being boarded at a kennel for a week or just seeing furniture moved around. It's proven that unpredictability makes stressors much more stressful. Salposky in his book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" discusses how rat studies show the effect of unpredictability.

Unpredictable Punishment Creates Stress Studies Say....

In one study, a rat gets several electric shocks, but just before each shock, the rat hears a warning tone that lets him know that shock is about to happen. It was found that the rats undergoing this study got fewer ulcers than the rats that received shock on a random, unpredictable manner. Why is that? The tone provided the rats with two important pieces of information: 1) every time the rat heard it, he knew a shock was coming, and 2), when he did't hear it, he knew he could relax. The rats instead who received random shock without a warning tone were always hyper vigilant and never able to relax. This caused higher stress and a stronger predisposition to ulcers.

As humans, we feel the effects of unpredictability as well. If you fear turbulence on flights, you may feel less tense if the pilot announces that you are about to encounter turbulence; whereas, never knowing during the flight when it is about to occur. Salposky discusses how Gary Gilmore, a criminal who was executed in 1977, felt much better once he knew his execution date. Many serial killers are terribly anxious when their execution is at an uncertain date. From a more practical level, affecting most of us, many of us feel less fearful at the dentist if our dentist is kind enough to let us know what is about to happen. Don't you feel better when your dentist says "You are gong to feel a slight pinch" when he is about to inject Novocaine into your gums rather than not knowing exactly when it's going to happen?

However, just because we feel better knowing what's coming, doesn't mean we get to enjoy what happens next. Perhaps, we feel better just because we can apply coping skills that reassure us and make us get through the event. We may be self- talking at the dentist's office thinking things as such: "the pain is just a second" or " soon everything will be over it and I can go on a shopping spree!"

When it comes to dogs, such self talk is not likely, but it's for sure that a dog would relax more knowing when a negative event is coming than being bombarded with random negative events and being uncertain all the time. So if a dog knows he will be shocked with a shock collar every time he behaves in a certain way, at least he can predict it and modify his behavior versus being randomly shocked and not associating the shock with anything, or worse, associating it with other things such as a tree or the owner. For many good reasons, I do not condone the use of shock collars in dogs, or any other animals.

A study by Matthijs B.H Schilder, Joanne A.M van der Borg revealed that a group of dogs trained with shock collars learned that the presence of their owner (or his commands) announced reception of shocks, even outside of the normal training context. This is a big issue with using shock collars, their misuse may cause dogs not associating it with their behaviors but random things which makes them insecure as they feel life is unpredictable-- just as the poor rats did in the studies. On top of that, another element of unpredictability may also take place as the dog may never know how intense the level of shock may be as shock collars come with the option of delivering different levels of shock.

But Unpredictable Rewards can Cause a bit of Stress Too!

Interestingly, the same goes with the predictability of rewards. In a study, a rat in a cage received food delivered down a chute at measured intervals. However, give the rat food at a random rate, at unpredictable intervals, and the rat's glucorticoid levels shoot up. Even though the rat wasn't feeling pain, hunger or any other negative feelings, he developed stress. Why is that? For the simple fact that loss of predictability causes a stress response.

After all, we see this as well in people going gambling and winning the jackpot. If you look at these people playing, most likely they are stressed as they look at the machine symbols lining up. Will you win the jackpot this time? Out of 10 games when will those flashing lights turn on announcing you have won? Chances are, people are tense as they play, their heart rates go faster and they may hold their breath. An actual study on casino gambling has shown that playing increases heart rate and salivary cortisol, symptoms that accompany increased cardiovascular activity.

At a closer look, from a neuro-chemical standpoint, when we get rewards, our dopamine levels increase. This anticipation of pleasure is what increases our desire in repeating the action that got us the reward in the first place. But it was found that when rewards become unpredictable, the dopamine levels increase much more because our brain is more stimulated and less likely to become bored. Dopamine is more about the anticipation of a reward, rather than experiencing the reward. It was found that dopamine triggers the release of stress hormones.

In dog training, it's this insecure edge that makes dogs more eager to respond to training. This is why many trainers recommend switching to a variable schedule of reinforcement from a fixed one, once the dog understands the behavior asked.This semi-stressful response is what we call a willingness to training.

Compulsion-trainers may therefore argue that using punishment and using rewards can both be stressful events, but to me it's a no-brainer. Would you rather feel stressed because when walking though a crowd out of nowhere somebody will unexpectedly deliver you a slap in the face or feel that positive stress associated with anticipation that one day you may start winning trophies when you race? Truth is, random punishment suppresses behavior leading to insecurity, anxiety and learned helplessness, when instead random rewards encourage behaviors and build eagerness, self esteem and confidence. When you clicker train, you see a dog's eyes literally light up when he has to guess what behavior will earn the reward. Worst thing happens? The dog doesn't get a reward, big deal; whereas in punishment training your dog's whole personality may be negatively affected.

Despite the semi-stressful responses seen in dogs receiving rewards on a variable schedule, it appears that the ability to control situations appears to be important from a standpoint of less stress and more well being. In rats and pigeons it looks like they prefer to press a lever to obtain food versus receiving food freely. This may explain why many insecure dogs thrive with training and routines. Let's take a look now at how you can make your dog feel more secure by reducing unpredictability, but also ways to train your dog to better cope with changes and the positive effects that changes sometimes bring.

Individual Variances in Response to Unpredictable Events

As seen, unpredictable events can have a toll on dogs, especially those who were victims of negative experiences. Just as us, dogs may suffer from anticipatory stress due to unpredictability. For instance, when you take your dog on a car ride, he may be stressed because he doesn't know if you are taking him to that vet that handled him roughly or that groomer who scared him with that loud hair dryer. Yet, if every time you take your dog to the dog park you grab a bag of waste bags, your dog may feel reassured because he predicts you're going some place nice.

Many dog owners report their dogs know the difference between going out to the vet or going out for pleasant car ride to the dog park looking at what their owners grab before going out. If you own a cat, you can bet he knows he's going to the vet because you always grab the crate when it is time. When I was working for the vet, you can't imagine how many phone calls I got from cat owners who told me their cat went missing in action the moment they got the crate out. The long search caused so many cat owners to miss their appointments!

Interestingly, how dogs react to unpredictable events seems to somewhat vary on an individual basis. This makes you wonder if there are dogs who see the glass full versus dogs who see it empty. Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier conducted several experiments using dogs. They applied repeated stressors to dogs by delivering shock with complete absence of control by the dog's part. These unpredictable shocks caused a phenomenon known as "learned helplessness" where the dogs gave up and did't even attempt to find a way to escape the shock even when given the opportunity. This response was found to be very similar to depression in humans. The depressed person who gives up, has a distorted view of the world and lacks the ability to try the easiest things that could help him improve his situation.

Interestingly, there's also a breakthrough in this study. Of all the dogs put through the learned helplessness study, one third of them were resistant to the phenomenon. How is that possible? It appears that some animals and people may be more resistant to learned helplessness. Martin Seligman has a possible explanation. He observes that dogs who were born and raised in laboratories for research purposes were more likely to succumb to the learned helplessness phenomenon than the dogs who were in the lab and originated from the pound. He further explains that the dogs coming from the pound were likely to have experienced the world more and were more resourceful when it comes to finding ways to fend for themselves. It's as if they have a good grip on how many things are controllable in life so when they experience uncontrollable stressors it's as if they draw the conclusion "this is awful, but it isn't the entire world."

Helping Dogs Adjust to Changes

Unpredictable things in life can really set off an insecure dog. By reducing unpredictable events you can help lower stress in dogs. Severely stressed dogs may benefit from a cortisol vacation. However, as your dog feels safer, it may be helpful to gradually habituate your dog to gradual changes. Following are some tips to help dogs better cope with the unpredictability in life.

  • For dogs who are hyper vigilant, very tentative and shut down, inform them about future positive happenings. "Time to go on a walk! as you grab the leash" "Cookie time!" as you walk towards the cookie jar, "Training session' as you grab the clicker or "Let's play Frisbee" as you grab the Frisbee from the toy box. After some time, you'll see a happy response and eagerness to engage in the pleasant activity. This is good as the dog is reassured by the routine since he knows what comes next.
  • If you own a puppy, make sure you get him used to as many stimuli as possible before he reaches 16 weeks. It's proven that the more puppies are exposed to different people, places and experiences, the more "plastic" their brains become allowing them to better adjust to different environments and changes.
  • Praise and reward your dog for investigating any novel items. By doing so, you increase those dopamine levels and create anticipation of a reward. Your dog will be more likely to explore in the future, but never flood him or force him to interact if he appears fearful. Be watchful for "approach avoidance" behaviors .
  • Try free-shaping. Use your clicker to mark and reward any behavior your dog exhibits. This encourages your dog to interact with his environment and helps gain confidence. Look up the training game " 101 things to do with a box."
  • Walk your dog in the same areas each day until he appears calmer and more confident. Then gradually introduce new areas and make walking these areas rewarding by using high-value treats. If your dog appears stressed by these new areas, go more gradually.
  • Many dogs get stressed on walks when they spot the presence of another dog or a person. You can manage the dog's environment and establish more safety by walking your dog at night or in the wee morning hours to avoid unpleasant encounters, but at some point, you may feel the need to work on the problem rather than avoiding it. You can create more predictability and overtime a positive emotional response, if every time you spot a dog or person you say:"Look at that" and the moment your dog looks at the dog he gets a yummy treat. With time, your dog learns that your verbal warning means looking at the dog, which predicts treats so he will be less likely to react. For more on this training method see article "The look at that dog training method" .
  • Learn to recognize signs your dog is having trouble with recent changes. Peeing in the house is often a dog's attempt to make things smell "familiar again" when recently moving. Scratching doors and windows when you start working after staying at home for some time, may be the first signs of separation anxiety. Excessive attention seeking behavior may be a sign he isn't adjusting to the amount of attention the new baby in the home is receiving. Marking on your guest's luggage or bed is often a sign of not accepting well changes associated with the intruder.
  • Consider that exercise and mental stimulation can help diffuse the anxious energy associated with changes in routine.
  • Provide your dog with a place to retreat when he feels overwhelmed by unpredictable noises such as thunder or construction work.
  • If you move to a new place, keep the routine the same. Walk him, feed him and play at the same times you used at his former home. Bring along his toys and blanket that smelled like his former home.
  • If furniture changes stress your dog, keep him a separate room for a few days, and then leave treats around the new furniture and feed him nearby.
  • Try to make changes as subtle as possible so to help your dog adjust. If you have a new baby, bring home the baby's blanket to help him get used to his smell. Play recording or babies crying and expose him to a baby doll. Don't just bring the new baby home and introduce him cold turkey.
  • If your dog is prone to reacting badly to changes, employ confidence building exercises to create a foundation of more self confidence.
  • Invest in calming aids to help your dog better cope with changes.
  • Never use punishment-based techniques with dogs who have a hard time adjusting to changes. Doing so will only increase the anxiety and make problems worse. If your dog is struggling with changes, such as growling at a baby, employ the help of a qualified force-free behavior consultant or behaviorist to help you out.

Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy.


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    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Dogs have such different behaviors it is sometimes not easy to point out the reasons. You certainly showed many behaviors of dogs in your hubs.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 

      4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Fascinating insight into dog behaviour. We've recently bought a new tumble drier, and it drives my little Jack Russell nuts, because it bleeps whenever its finished its cycle. I guess he'll get used to it in time though.

      I also like the idea of a thunder shirt, is there one available for humans at all? ;)


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