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Sudden Environmental Contrast in dogs, as the name implies, refers to changes in the dog's environment. 

As attentive beings, dogs are very in tune with their surroundings. Some dogs though are much more likely to take notice of these changes compared than others.

Discover which dogs are impacted the most and what steps you can take to make them less sensitive to all these changes. 

Dogs Seek Safety in Their Environments

Dogs tend to feel reassured by their environments when they have stability and routines. Getting acclimatized to familiar noises, knowing friendly people they can trust and knowing what to expect during their day helps them feel comfortable. 

Dogs recognize familiar patterns and habituate to them, but are very fast to recognize  uncharacteristic events which may be interpreted as threats to be wary of. 

This tendency may stem back to their past histories when they lived in small villages with humans and any changes in their environments (such as strangers or wild animals) came to signal danger and would cause the dog to be on high alert. 

Alerting the villagers was a cherished trait, one of the main reasons why they selectively bred for dogs prone to barking and overall being alert and vigilant. 

"It is important to remember that we specifically bred dogs to bark because it served as a useful warning signal," points out Stanley Coren in an article for Psychology Today. 

Using punishments to correct dogs who bark to alert is the equivalent of what a person might feel if they spotted smoke in a building and went to warn some friends, only to be punched in the face and told to shut up, he further adds. 

What are Sudden Environmental Changes?

While we may be used to the many changes in our worlds, dogs may perceive the most subtle changes as very disruptive and possibly strongly stress-inducing.

Some dogs are easily set off by events that we may perceive as rather insignificant such as a guest entering our homes or the sight of another dog walking past the fence line. 

Dogs sensitive to changes in their environment are likely to be highly aroused by such changes, and that arousal can easily spill into aggressive defensive behavior. 

I once witnessed a considerable reaction to a sudden environmental change when attending classes to become a dog trainer. 

We were all quietly training our dogs off leash to stick by our side and pay attention to us in a large facility, when suddenly somebody knocked at the door and entered with coffee for all of us.

Suddenly, one dog charged at the door, followed then by others joining in barking at this person who only wanted to offer us drinks. 

Interestingly, dogs may not react to the flow of people at a crowded farmer's market where it's packed, but are super quick to react to a person popping up on a trail on a quiet country walk. This is due to the sudden environmental change that triggers a reaction. 

An Adaptive Function

Responding to changes in the environment ultimately has an adaptive function. If we think about it, dogs who readily react in face of potentially threatening situations have a higher chance for survival. 

Dogs appear to be particularly adept to organizing a schema of safe and familiar occurrences and may react in response to unexpected changes or mismatches between the usual or safe.

Dogs therefore respond to such environmental changes with varying levels of uncertainty, from alarm and uncertainty to threat and even challenge, points out Steven Lindsay in his  Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training.

In general though, through proper socialization it is possible to get puppies learn the ropes of obtaining terrific bounce-back powers from Sudden Environmental Contrasts, although genetics can sometimes put a dent in some of the best socialization projects.  

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Herding dogs pay meticulous attention to their surroundings

Herding dogs pay meticulous attention to their surroundings

Dog Breeds Particularly Sensitive to Sudden Environmental Changes 

Not all dogs struggle with sudden environmental contrasts, rather, some can be rather chill. However, some are more prone to feeling unsettled when there are even mild alterations in their surroundings. 

In particular, consider dogs selectively bred for herding. These dogs were purposely bred to fulfill this role in a serious manner. 

The ability to herd animals requires a specific type of personality. Herding dogs need to keep count of the herd, maintain order and ensure the safety of the flock. They may need to respond to situations in lightning-fast ways as in the case of a border collie who may need to make quick decisions and abruptly shift his herding style in moving the sheep. 

The ideal herding dog will therefore pay meticulous attention to their environments, their associated familiar patterns and actively spring into action if something appears amiss. 

"Such hypersensitivity to infractions against a rule is valuable in a herding dog helping a shepherd move a flock to a nearby pasture. But in a canine companion, it can be maddening," points out Kim Brophy in the wonderful book: "Meet Your Dog, The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog's Behavior."

Tips for Making Life Easier

Dogs prone to detecting sudden environmental changes can be difficult to live with, but we can do many things to ameliorate the situation. Following are several tips:

Scan Your Dog's Environment

   If you are able to predict and manage sudden environment contrasts, you can take steps to make sure they are not so startling for your dog.

 Learn what sets your dog off and avoid such exposures, and when you cannot control things, make sure to quickly intervene as soon as possible. 

For instance, if you notice a trigger, have your dog perform a fluently trained behavior so to preempt a reaction. 

Train the Emergency U-Turn

On walks, upon noticing a trigger, you can have your dog do a quick about turn followed by some steps of attention heeling that reward your dog for looking up at you.  

Train this first at a fluent level at home, practicing in hallways and then move on to the yard, and then on walks away from triggers and then in presence of triggers at a distance. Here's how to train it: train your dog the emergency U-turn. 

Train Your Dog to "Leave it"

Training your dog to leave it can turn handy considering that you may need to redirect him at a moment's notice. 

Make sure to praise lavishly and reward generously when your dog picks to be involved with you rather than attending to the environment. Here's how to train it: train your dog to leave it and drop it. 

Other Helpful Cues 

Other helpful cues to redirect include having the dog reliably come when called, look into the owner's eyes, and respond to a smacking sound that means "come to me for a treat." 

This latter is often helpful because dogs tend to more readily respond to sounds which are more consistent in tone and attractive. 

Keep Life as Stable as Possible 

Sudden environmental contrasts, like moving from one home to another are often triggers for anxiety. To dogs, their world is suddenly different and their former predictable lives are turned upside down. 

During moves or changes, try your best to still stick to your dog's routines and do all you can do to maintain a sense of normalcy. Calming aids can help in transitions. If feasible, it also helps to take the dog to the new house and create positive associations with the place prior to the move.

References:

  • Meet Your Dog, The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog's Behavior, Kim Brophy
  • Aggression in Dogs by Brenda Aloff 
  • Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Procedures and Protocols by Steven Lindsay

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