Vigilance in the home

Dogs work on the basis of consequence and reward, always trying to achieve positive consequences and avoid negative ones. Their primary goal in life, is to remain safe. Whether they are physically safe or not, is irrelevant if they do not feel it. Every behaviour they complete that leads to them being safe and sound, they will learn to repeat. It does not have to be logical to you, so long as it is to them.

For survival purposes, in the dog world, everything is a threat until they can be sure otherwise. Dogs do not realise that we lock the house up, install alarm systems to keep danger out. They will learn their own behaviours to ensure that they remain alive in an environment, and if that means constant vigilance, then that is what a dog will do to stay alive.

One of the main things that we hear from our clients is; my dog LOVES sleeping by the front door, front gate, window, on the balcony etc. Unfortunately, this is not something your dog LOVES doing, it is something that it is doing because it feels that it must in order to stay alive. These are all places of vigilance.

By remaining in these places, the dog can maintain a watchful eye over any passers by or potential intruders. It does not know what a footpath is, and so does not understand that we purposefully put a path in front of where we force them to live for people and their dogs to walk down.

It only takes once for our dogs to notice these passers by for them to recognise this as a potential stress point. It can get to a point that when they want to drop their guard and fall asleep, they feel the urge to go check this point. If they do and someone is there, and they watch them by or even bark at them, they will think “good job I did that, they left, and I’m still alive” and then we have learnt behaviour. Even if they check the place, and nobody is there, they will feel re-assured that they did, because in the moment that they were concerned about their safety, the behaviour they completed resulted in them being ok.

Another form of vigilance is over attachment. Where the dog constantly follows the family or a particular family member around the home. This is again a learnt behaviour and a common coping mechanism to an environment that constantly changes. Somebody being home with the dog is a stimulant in their environment, whether we want to be or not, us moving around the home for simple chores and normal behaviours around the home are things that the dog does not understand. Some dogs learn to shadow the family, often settling when the family stops moving around. This constant vigilance and following can be detrimental to their overall wellbeing.

Constant vigilance can result in overtiredness, agitation, mood swings, being startled easily and anxiety. Their mood and behaviour will change as a result of this, they can become more sensitive to noises, start barking and generally less tolerant to change and things that a comfortable dog would be.

It is important that we recognise these stress points in our homes for dogs and expose them to, leave them in and allow them to enjoy an environment that they can fully drop their guard in and feel safe. Dogs require 18 hours a day sleep, without it they will become sleep deprived and sleep deprivation has the same influence on dogs as it does ourselves. Dogs become moody, erratic, easily startled, agitated and their overall mood decreases. It will affect their stress levels and their tolerance to changes in their world.

We use sleep as a gauge, if the dog feels safe and comfortable enough to fall into a deep sleep and drop its guard, we have the environment right. If it cannot, then that is the first thing we must address. The home environment is where the dog spends the majority of its time. If it is stressed all day every day, then problem behaviours are likely to crop up elsewhere, and any training to get on top of these behaviours can be in vein.

To read on about how to provide a safe home environment for your dog click here