This is a question I get asked on an almost daily basis from clients who have been told that their dog NEEDS to have routine. When I say ‘Well, yes and no’, the question I am usually then asked is, “isn’t it good for them to have a routine?”
In my experience the answer to this question is “no, not always” – which is always met with surprise because it does not align with what dog owners are usually told.
A quick google search asking “do dogs need routine” will produce many blogs and articles reinforcing the idea that dogs need to have a schedule or a routine so they know what to expect and when.
In my experience setting up a daily schedule where a dog expects to you to get up a set time, feed them at a set time, go to work and come home at a set time, walk them at a set time etc is a huge disadvantage for a number of reasons.
A large reason for this is because life is often NOT routine, and I want my dogs to be resilient and adaptable to change, rather than struggle when their expectations are not met.
One of the biggest problems we see in dogs in training and behaviour consults is that they cannot cope when their expectations are not met or when there are changes to their routine.
I had a client who came in recently for a consult with their adolescent working breed dog. During the course of the consult the owner mentioned part of the dogs routine is that he is let out of his crate at 6am on the dot, every morning, rain hail or shine. I asked them what would happen if they didn’t let him out bang on the dot of 6, and they said he would let them know about it by barking and banging on the crate door until they got out of bed to let him out.
Now I realise some people are early risers by choice (certainly not me, lol!) but regardless of the time you like to get up in the morning, it is never desirable to have a dog who is inflexible to change, particularly down to the minute.
As the consult went on it became very clear that this dog was not only holding his owners hostage to early wake up call every morning, but in every aspect of his day, down to the minute for feeding, walking, play time and of course attention.
He had trained his owners so well that they would drop every thing they were doing, even when working from home, to give him attention or walk him if they had lost track of the time and were not sticking to his routine.
If they did not rush to make sure their dogs expectations were met, he became “unhappy” and would jump on them, bark at them, nip them, scratch them and generally carry on having quite the tantrum until they gave into him.
This is a dog who was incapable of dealing with not getting his way, and because he was so locked into his routine, the second things did not occur when he expected them to he would become extremely frustrated.
This is a dog who has an extremely high sense of entitlement, and having a set routine has encouraged this.
So if dogs don’t need a routine, what DO they need?
I want my dogs to be resilient, capable of dealing with change and able to cope with the frustration and stress of not having their expectations met.
While I don’t lock them into a set routine they do have clear rules and boundaries where they understand what behaviour is expected of them, regardless of what time it is.
So while I may not get up at the same time every day of the week, the rules remain the same – in the morning that would mean my girls relax quietly and calmly in their crates until I decide to let them out. This could be any time of the morning, though they’d probably be quite shocked if it happened at 6am ?
Regardless of whether I come home from work early or late, when I let my dogs inside, their expectation is that they will either go to their crates or their place beds and relax there because I have set clearly defined rules and boundaries about what behaviour is expected of them when they come inside.
If I bring them into the training shed and their expectation is that they will be getting to do a training in drive session (because that is often the case) but I instead ask for loose leash walking, they are capable of calming themselves down and ‘shifting’ into a low gear instead of going into high arousal at the thought of doing some work, or becoming frustrated that their expectation of playing a game of tug or 1,2,3 food was not met.
When we avoid locking our dogs into a set routine where they expect to have everything they want delivered on the same schedule every day, we help them to become more flexible and capable of dealing with change.
Dogs that are locked into routines are often dogs that become stressed when the routine has to change, which is an unavoidable part of life, especially in the times we are living in now!
Once we have dogs who are flexible to change but understand rules and boundaries, it also makes them easier to do things like travel with because they can transfer their skills easily to different places without becoming stressed things are outside of their normal routine.
Remember that our dogs cannot live in a bubble where they are happy 100% of the time, get everything they want and never experience any frustration or stress, so it is up to us to teach them how to deal with these things.
This could be as simple as shifting some things in your dogs routine, such as a later walk or dinner, so they learn to cope with some change and smaller levels of frustration.
If your dog can’t cope with small changes to their routine they will likely benefit from some impulse control related exercises like place training to help them learn how to control their emotions.
If you have a particularly big tantrum thrower like the dog I talked about above, then it would be a good idea to come and see us for a consult so we can help you teach your dog to learn to relax when you ask them to, rather than losing control of themselves when their expectations are not met.
As always hit the comments below with your thoughts and questions!