The Importance of Tracking Changes in Dog Behaviour
Over the many years of dog ownership, I have developed an extensive system of tracking behaviours in an effort to monitor progress (or the lack thereof) in the various interventions I try with my dogs. My background as a social worker encouraged this, as I’ve used journaling and charting as therapeutic tools with my human clients. Charting and graphing has a long history in behaviour modification and applied behaviour analysis with humans and animals. Without objective data, analysis cannot happen.
I have been on the receiving end of some teasing about my behavioural tracking for my dogs, but more often than not, it pays off in some significant ways.
How did I get started?
As mentioned above, I’ve used charting and journaling with my human clients successfully, so it made sense to me to try it with my canine companions. It was an easy transition for me to move from training plans (noting how many times I asked the dog for a behaviour and how often I got it), to more detailed charting of behaviours I observed in my dogs.
The charting also allows me to keep track of inter-trial intervals and latency. Both of these are key to successful training, but also in any classical conditioning/counter conditioning.
I started charting when I had a foster dog with significant allergies. Tank came to me at 8 years old, having been re-homed numerous times due to his allergies. His last family was going to euthanize him due to his smell. He also blew out of two foster homes due to what was assumed to be dog aggression. When he came to my house, he was morbidly obese, had lost most of his fur, and his skin was coal black and peeled off in sheets. He was also on a gruesome amount of prednisone, a steroid, and had developed hypothyroidism as a result. So we began to slowly wean down his prednisone dose, and try to figure out what triggered his allergies. We started with food— hypoallergenic veterinary diets had not helped—but it was also clear that he had seasonal allergies and contact allergies, and was vulnerable to a variety of opportunistic bacterial infections like Staphylococcus. The list of things he reacted to was gargantuan and included vinegar, wool, most commercial cleaners, any protein that was a fowl, all manner of grains, the flavourings in many medications, various common species of plants, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin.
Keeping track of what set off his allergies turned out to be a mammoth task. There were so many things to which he reacted that it was impossible for me to keep track of them all in my head. So I began to keep a record of things like what he ate, where he walked, what he rubbed up against, what he was lying on, and how often I changed the dog beds. I also noted skin swelling or redness, itchiness, if he started to smell yeasty, and other physical changes that could be considered allergic responses.
It became crucial to chart what was and wasn’t working with this dog and to do so in a methodical and objective manner. His health was at risk without that detailed and consistent tracking. It took a year to get his allergies under control, but we did it. And it turned out his dog aggression was related to his sky-high prednisone dose. Once we got his prednisone down, his episodic dog aggression largely disappeared.
Separation anxiety, isolation distress and noise phobias
I have included noise phobia under this heading since I’ve found that noise phobias are often co-morbid with separation anxiety and isolation distress. I tend to see similar anxiety behaviours with noise phobic dogs.
As I began to foster dogs with some significant behavioural issues, the charting fit nicely into tracking progress with dogs experiencing separation anxiety, isolation distress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and stereotypies. This kind of charting was particularly useful when the dog was put on medication. I typically request that a veterinarian starts dogs with these types of issues on medication immediately; charting assists me in tracking whether and how the medication is affecting behaviour, specifically whether, day to day and week to week, there is any improvement in the observable behaviours. I can also compare pre-medication rates of a behaviour to post medication rates.
With noise phobic dogs, I might make a note of behaviors like looking to hide and shivering, and also note when those behaviours start to show up. I’ve had more than one dog who would begin to show anxious behaviours hours before a storm, for example, arrived. With separation anxiety and isolation distress, I’m tracking the increase or decrease in behaviours that show anxiety: pacing, vocalizing, stereotypies like circling, scratching, or any seemingly purposeless repetitive behaviour. I’ve included a photo of the chart I used with one of my dogs who had isolation distress.
I also use video along with written charts with separation and isolation issues, as sometimes what really needs to be noted is my own behaviour—the patterns I have developed that signal to the dog that I will be leaving the house.
Assisting clients to begin the process of charting the behaviour of dogs with anxiety disorders can be one of the ways a behaviour consultant can reduce the human anxiety that often goes along with having a seriously anxious dog. It’s very hard to watch a dog suffer from this kind of anxiety, and charting can give clients the ability to feel some control.
Canine cognitive dysfunction
I often foster and adopt older dogs, and I have been successful in getting these dogs well into old age. As a result, I see more canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) than most people do. Many of the dogs I’ve fostered who developed CCD also had fairly long and complicated medical histories or long histories of untreated anxiety. I cannot prove it, but I believe that these long histories of both medical and anxiety disorders may contribute to a higher risk of a dog developing CCD, or of an earlier onset.
My current CCD dog, Annabelle, is an elderly female pug who came into our rescue at age 14, and I fostered and adopted. After a few months, I began to notice that she would go out in the yard purposefully but once she got out there, she would become less focused and ultimately stop and stare into space. We also began to notice restlessness and pacing at night (a phenomenon called sundowning, common to dogs and people with dementia). I talked with my vet, and we decided that given her age and that this behaviour was new, we would start her on Anipryl (selegiline, a medication used to slow cognitive decline) and chart her progress. It took eight weeks before I noticed a reduction in her symptoms, but after that we did see a marked reduction in her sundowning behaviour and “spacing out.”
I started charting CCD behaviours because I’ve become very adept at spotting the early signs and was not always able to convince others that I was seeing it. Sometimes I needed to do the charting to convince myself. The medications for CCD can be very helpful, but an earlier start is always better. The charting also cues me that I may need to kick up my “brain games” for the older dog.
CCD involves many behaviours that can be incorrectly attributed to a need for training. Being observant to context, frequency, and type of behaviour can help a client avoid frustrating themselves and their dog in fruitless efforts to train away a behaviour that is the result of CCD. With possible CCD dogs, I watch for pacing or wandering that seems purposeless, heightened anxiety at certain times of the day, changes in house training, getting stuck in places (for example, being unable to complete coming down stairs, or wandering to a corner and not being able to get back out). The list of symptoms for CCD is fairly long, and individual dogs will show them in various configurations. There is an excellent website about canine cognitive dysfunction put together by Eileen Anderson, dogdementia.com. I highly recommend it.
As with the anxious and phobic dogs, because I tend to move to using medication fairly quickly, charting helps me see if there are any shifts in these behavioural symptoms over time, which may assist me in knowing if the medication is working.
Why do it?
Charting serves several purposes for me. Working with dogs with behavioural issues can be very frustrating and disheartening. It is easy to think you see progress when there isn’t any, simply because you are desperate to see anything that gives you hope. By the same token, it is easy to think you aren’t making progress when you are, because the progress being made can be so incremental. This can be a very useful way for a behaviour consultant to “sell” the idea to clients. It gives them a handle on what actually is or isn’t happening.
Charting allows me to impose order on what can be a very disordered situation. It allows me to step away from the forest and begin to see the trees. It can give me a sense of control and “doing something” rather than being overwhelmed by the suffering of the dog. It short-circuits my own innate desire to try to make things better, even if I’ve only done that in my head and not in real life. Many clients feel overwhelmed by the behaviour they are seeing and can feel overwhelmed by the work involved in mediating the issues. Behaviour consultants can mitigate some of this by suggesting that clients chart behaviour in order to help the client see whatever patterns may be there. Charting can help a client bring the situation into bite-sized pieces and begin to figure out how to prioritize.
On several occasions, charting behaviour has allowed me to show a vet, veterinary behaviourist, or a behaviour consultant that my belief in progress or the appearance of cognitive dysfunction is not just an idle speculation. I have the behavioural charts and graphs showing increases and decreases in specific behaviours over time. This has been particularly useful when I have a dog that is entering into canine cognitive dysfunction.
What exactly do I do?
My tracking system has evolved over time, and now includes behavioural charts that I later transfer onto graphs. I also keep a journal that records weather conditions, any changes in my home environment, and the status of my own health and energy. The journal is also used as a venting system for my own frustrations with the work.
I’m a bit of a technological dinosaur, so my behaviour charting is a simple paper-and-pencil counting of behaviours—there are smartphone apps and other online tools out there, which may help with client buy-in, but I prefer to stick to what’s worked for me.
The journal allows me to look at the graphs and see if there is a correlation between increased and decreased behavioural counts and environmental changes. How many times on a given day did the dog engage in a specific behaviour, and how long did it last? I may divide that charting up by time of day (this is fairly important in tracking CCD behaviours). I then take the daily behavioural charts and graph the results over the course of weeks or months.
Using this system, I was able to discover that Annabelle’s demented behaviours increased with heat and humidity. In fact, they could increase or decrease based on what floor of the house she was in. I likely would not have made that connection if I hadn’t had the behaviour charts and graphs, and the journal where I note weather conditions.
The charts and graphs are very specific to observable behavioural data. The journal allows me a bit more flexibility in noting things that aren’t as easily quantified. It can also provide a personal benefit by allowing me to go back and read paragraphs of frustration. I can look back and see my own progress in learning to respond to and think differently about the issues the dog is confronting.
What’s the take away here?
Keeping track of behaviour in a systematic and quantitative manner can improve the health and welfare of the dog in your care. It can, frankly, improve the mindset of the owner in tackling canine behavioural issues. Is it mechanical and “cold”? Sure, it is in many ways. However, it is the most effective way to sidestep our desire to see progress when it isn’t there, or our belief that we are facing a hopeless case with no sign of progress. It can also be useful in forestalling the tendency to start throwing protocols at a dog in the hopes that something sticks. It puts some rigour and method into what can feel a bit like madness. Data trumps anecdote, or the general feeling that things are getting better or worse.
Blanche Axton has been involved with dogs her whole life-from the dogs her family raised and showed to working with canine rescue as an adult. Over the years, she has trained some of her dogs in agility, tracking, herding and therapy work. Blanche currently coordinates Pugalug Pug Rescue. She also fosters for an all-breed rescue called Speaking of Dogs.