Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dog Gone Problems,
We have a Border Collie who is 2 years old. She has become very aggressive and mean as the days get dark. She gets protective of her food, her toys, her bones and her space. She bares teeth and scary growls, but has never bitten or attacked.
She is a wonderful dog in the daylight. She's very friendly and loving — if a bit standoff-ish. She was free to roam the house at night, but we have recently started closing her in the room with a gate where her crate, food and water are. Our daughter comes home late and we want both to feel safe.
We live in Colorado and many things have recently changed. Dark days, snowy cold days and I was the person who used to walk her every day. Two weeks ago I damaged my knee and all walking has stopped. I know this is driving her crazy. Also, she cannot spend time outside like she did in the summer.
We live in a small one-story house and exercise possibilities are limited. She does love the laser and she loves squeaky balls. She gets all happy with those. She does not fetch well, as she won't give up the ball and likes to tug-a-war over it. I know we need to increase her exercise time and I'm looking for ways to do that. My biggest concern is her aggressiveness during these dark cold winter days. Thank you, again, if you can give me some insight to this.
Any time you have a dog whose behavior suddenly changes, the first thing to do is check to make sure there isn’t a medical issue at foot. Acting suddenly different is a big indicator that there is something wrong.
In your dog’s case, I wonder if there is an eyesight issue at play. If your dog’s eyesight is poor or declining, she may be able to manage during the day but feel frustrated and scared at night when she can’t. Some of the behaviors you described would not be at all unusual for a dog with diminishing eyesight.
The lack of exercise is easier to address. Be careful when using the laser. While some dogs can chase the red dot without incident, others become anxious or frustrated due to not being able to catch it. It can also heighten a prey drive, which can be problematic in some situations.
Here are a few additional exercise options that can help:
Start feeding your dog out of a Snuffle mat and treat dispensing toys like an Omega Paw treat ball. These make your dog work for her food, which can boost her confidence. It also makes the meal an energy-draining event. Just be sure to put up the toys after feeding is done (or 10 minutes after meal time starts or if the dog moves away), as some dogs will destroy them when the food stops coming out.
Get a dog walker involved. Border Collies are very high-energy dogs, and not getting them out can have long-lasting effects. She needs both exercise and stimulation. Even if you hire a neighbor who only walks her around the block, that will help. Longer walks obviously are better, but do whatever you can. During the walk, let her sniff as much as is safe, since sniffing drains more energy on walks than the movement.
Get a doggy backpack. This is a combination of a dog harness with horse saddle bags. You can add in items that add some weight, which will make the walks more efficient. Be sure to check with your vet to make sure they sign off on your dog carrying one on walks.
Doggy daycare. Socialization with other dogs is stimulating, drains energy and keeps social skills sharp — provided the daycare properly supervises play. The well-lit room should be a healthy way for your dog to get some quality “me time.”
Start practicing some scent games. A dog’s nose controls 65 percent of its brain, and using the nose is very energy-draining and stimulating. There are all kinds of scent games you can play, including hide-and-seek where a dog searches for an object, and leaving treats around legs of furniture.
Dog training. Teaching a dog new tricks and commands is both fun and stimulating. It can deepen your relationship and allows you to have the one-on-one interaction you are missing while you can't walk the dog.
Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.