Whether it’s losing a familiar home, a beloved family member, or even a simple routine, dogs can need our help bouncing back from life’s changes.

Snarling dog aggressive behavior

Life has a tendency to deliver surprises, doesn’t it?

Circumstances shift, routines get upended, loss happens, and even if the changes are ultimately positive, becoming comfortable with a new normal can take time and require flexibility. Change can be challenging for us, and it can be challenging for dogs, too.

So how can we, as dog trainers, help clients support their dogs during times of change? Victoria and her team held a roundtable to discuss this issue.

The Dog’s Perspective

For certain dogs, even the smallest shift in their routine or environment feels uncomfortable. Others may go with the flow, but some even become stressed when their food bowl gets moved a few feet! As dog trainers, we always want to consider the dog as an individual and observe how environmental changes could be perceived from their unique perspective.

Dogs can struggle with changes due to any number of causes. Perhaps the household had a crisis, like a fire or flood, which led to an unexpected move or disruption in the home. Maybe the changes were expected from the human side, but still surprise the dog. Even if the changes seem exciting to us—perhaps a new job, or a new home, or a new baby—dogs get swept along for the ride, and can feel like their world has been turned upside down.

Loss, grief, and new homes

Changes and losses can have a cumulative impact on emotional well-being. Victoria shared a personal story of how her own 13-year old Chihuahua, Jasmine, was struggling to cope after another dog in the home passed away. Bella, a Shi Tzu, had been a fixture in Jasmine’s life for years, and losing this “big sister” presence was difficult for Jasmine. Venturing out alone on walks became scary and new for her.

In addition to this change, in a case of unfortunate timing, Victoria needed to travel and stay in a new place with the distressed Chihuahua. Jasmine reacted to this added challenge by displaying separation issues, including howling and crying when left alone in the new place. So Victoria took the time to support Jasmine in a few ways. She patiently gave the senior dog extra time to venture outdoors, so Jasmine was able to go at her own pace on walks. Victoria also established comforting rituals in the new home, making it easier for Jasmine to regain confidence.

Plan and Prepare

As trainers, we can help clients to plan and prepare for how future changes are likely going to affect their dogs. We can sit down together and help them think through what might present difficulty, and how to ease the dog’s experience in the situation. It may only take a few carefully chosen accommodations to avoid or reduce the emotional distress dogs can feel when dropped into a new situation.

For example, moving to a new home can be disruptive for dogs. Even though the dog may be remaining with familiar people and their own familiar bed and toys, the new environment will still include new smells, sights, and sounds both indoors and outdoors. It’s ideal if the dog can be introduced to the new place or new property ahead of time. For example, we can encourage clients to take their dog on walks in that new neighborhood before the big move. Let the dog sniff that new yard, and if possible, walk through the property. On moving day, make sure that the dog is kept somewhere safe and away from the chaos. Then, the very first time the dog “meets” their new home, it can be a positive experience with awesome goodies and experiences waiting for them inside.

By giving gradual exposure in a structured way and offering coping strategies ahead of time, we can help dogs build resilience to the changes in their life. We support them by managing their environment so that the changes don’t affect them as much. And whenever possible, we listen to the messages they are sending through body language and do what we can to respect their choices to help them feel safe.

Victoria and the team discussed even more aspects of supporting change, from welcoming a new puppy to the importance of understanding canine emotions and body language, during the conversation. Catch all the VSA roundtable podcasts here.​

Have you helped your dog through challenging changes? Visit the Victoria Stilwell Academy on Facebook to let us know. 

Learn more about understanding your dog’s point of view and supporting them through changes in VSA’s premiere Dog Trainer Course.

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