“Dogs love schedules,” they say. “Keep a consistent schedule for your dog,” they say. Is this true? Not exactly! Let’s talk about schedules—When regularity is preferred, healthy variation, and “errorless living”. We’ll talk a bit about biological rhythms, how to “ask” your dog, and body language as well!
When are predictable schedules preferred?
Dogs who are anxious or afraid feel less stress when they know when those painful or frightening events are going to happen—it means they can relax during the other times. This means that dogs who are often punished or “bullied”, dogs that find change scary, and dogs who are recently adopted or have had a major life change (move, new family member, etc.) will often do better with a regular routine.
In contrast, dogs who have a healthy outlook on life and are mentally stable and generally optimistic may get bored with too much routine—we all want something fun to look forward to, and fun almost always involves some aspect of variation. In fact, variation itself is inherently (Westlund, K. 2018) reinforcing to mammals. It’s quite possible that the “schedule myth” arose when training practices were largely pain-based and unpleasant for dogs.
One easy way to “ask” your dog what kind of routine he prefers (lots of new, exciting adventures vs. regular routine and consistency) is to take a look at your dog as you get ready to go outside—does he seem to be enthusiastic and eager to go outside—head and tail up, pulling towards the door, ready to go? If so, he might be an adventuring sort who likes a little variation in his life. In contrast, does your dog resist doing new things, hide behind you, or hold his head and tail low in new environments? This may be a dog who prefers a little bit more routine, walking similar routes and visiting the same friends. You can take things a bit slower with this dog.
However, even for our well-balanced and resilient dogs, too much variation can be distressing. Why? First, because there are fundamental biological rhythms. Just like you are likely to feel your most sleepy between 2-4 am, your dogs are likely to feel hungry, active, or sleepy at certain times of the day. These may be times when blood sugar is naturally low, or the heat of the day is making them feel sleepy. If you watch your dog carefully and ask him what activities he wants to do, you may get an earful!
Some dogs may be difficult to motivate around the noon hour, walking a few paces and then laying down, for example. In contrast, some dogs may be ready to go for a walk at any time of day—jumping up when you stand up—but may be easier to get to settle (sit down in your chair and pick up your phone—do they “poke” you, or just lay down and go to sleep?) My crazy bird dogs are like this. Nothing ever beats walkies, but I do notice that at certain times of day, they are more likely to lay down and nap than bug me for another run around the fields.
Errorless living is a term I coined to describe a “natural flow” through the day’s activities. In errorless living, the dog moves from one preferred activity to the next. Once one biological urge is fulfilled (adventure, enrichment, exercise) another biological urge rises in importance (hunger, sleep). For example, with my dogs, we might take a dawn walk, return to the house for breakfast, and then have a mid-afternoon nap (while mum works on the computer). We might have a short bathroom break, some pets and caresses, then back to work (aka nap) for a few hours. Then there is a brief pre-dinner walk to potty, dinner, short nap, late-night walkies, and tumble into bed. Each activity in this cycle requires little or no prompting from me. In fact, I can use these urges to reinforce a recall or other behavior I like. Once the urge to investigate and hunt is waning, I can call the dogs to me and they readily respond because they have sated the current need. Or, in the heat of the day, I can call the dogs to me and provide a drink of water or an opportunity to cool off in the small pool. Each time I do this, I reinforce the bond between us, and reduce my dog’s tendency to perform “bad behaviors”.
Bad behaviors are typically dogs trying to get their needs met. In fact, ALL behaviors can be considered an attempt to meet needs of some sort or another. If my dog is hungry, he is more likely to dive into the garbage can. If he is bored, he is more likely to nip me or grab the towels off the rack. If he needs to potty, he is more likely to bark, whine, pace and howl. In fact, the more needs go unmet, the more “challenging” a dog will be, and the more likely he is to self-satisfy in ways that are annoying to you.
What I have noticed with my dogs, and with the fosters and boarding dogs that I take in, is that they are most active at dawn and dusk—or relatively close. They are most likely to want to sleep around 1 PM and after 9 PM. These numbers aren’t written in stone; age, health, season, climate, and individual quirks can affect the timing. I notice my dogs like to do more late-night adventuring in summer—the air is cool and they can smell more critters out and about.
By moving from one activity to the next in a biologically meaningful order, I can satisfy my dog’s needs before they become urgent. That reduces their stress and anxiety—and reduces their attempts to satisfy their own needs. When I cue them to change activities in this natural cycle, I naturally reinforce their desire to listen to me. I am a reliable indicator of “good stuff”.
But I have to go to work, you say
Indeed, we can’t all be a slave to our dogs’ schedules. Most of us have to work, and while your boss might like your dog, he may not be so understanding of your dog’s scheduling whims. Fortunately, we are blessed that dogs are very flexible biologically. Most dogs will adjust to our rhythms if needed. If you can’t always accommodate, try to keep a relatively regular schedule, and look for ways you can meet needs before they arise. For me, this meant giving dogs a long, relaxed off-leash walk before going to work, followed by breakfast. Everything else was relatively flexible, but that before work walk and meal were critical.
Sometimes we get stuck late at work, or other emergencies call. This is when it can be very important to have built a little variation into your schedule. If you have not followed a clock in your activities, but instead used approximate times, your dogs will key into your activities. This way, your dogs’ stomach won’t start growling simply because it is 5:00 PM. Instead, he is likely to sleep peacefully until you come in the door.
How do you apply this in daily life?
Ask your dogs what time they want to do things. Occasionally press, but for the most part (as much as your schedule will allow) work on their schedule. Be prepared to walk a little longer, or hear some strong opinions from your dogs once they realize you will listen to them. You have every right to pull the covers over your head every once in a while. Be prepared to compromise. Watch body language. Take an extra breath and do things slowly. If you find yourself rushing to come home and take the dog out, he may feel your stress and amp up himself. Allow a little transition time to find out what your dog is actually asking for.
If all of that sounds confusing—here is a brief primer on how to ask your dog. Watch your dog’s body language—head up, moving towards you, tail high and a loose wagging tail usually mean “yes” and “I want to”. Head down, moving away, or looking away generally mean “no” or “I don’t want to”. If you pick up your dog’s leash or walk towards the door and he beats you to it with a happy “grin” on his face—that is a yes! If he seems to disappear into the couch cushions or lays over on his back, that is a big “no thank you”. In contrast, a dog who is ready for a nap might settle on the mat as soon as you sit down, whereas one that has not had exercise enrichment needs met, may settle for a few seconds before getting up and pacing, whining, poking you, or going to the door.
Some dogs will always say yes to another walk, so for these guys, you might have to ask about alternative activities like naps, or judge relative excitement about walks to determine their best natural schedule. For example, after breakfast, I can stand up and walk to the door—and I am met by sleepy eyes and nodding heads. They will come if I call, but don’t otherwise ask to go out. In contrast, they run to the door and spin and bow when I first get up in the morning!
That’s it—go out and practice some error free-living and please send me updates on your dog’s preferred schedule!
(I’ve left out a few potty runs for clarity—my dogs are good at communicating those! How are yours?)
Westlund, K. 2018. Formal Definitions of “Primary” and “Secondary” Reinforcers Promote More Efficient Animal Training. Journal of Animal Behavior Technology Vol. 8, No. 1. https://illis.se/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/03/1ary-2ary-reinforcers-Westlund.pdfhttps://illis.se/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/03/1ary-2ary-reinforcers-Westlund.pdf