8 Reasons Why Your Dog Is Acting Out

Photo by smerikal on Flickr

Did you know that as well as “acting out” dogs or humans for that matter can also “act in”?

Acting out is all about a display of behaviour which is inappropriate, anti-social or just down right dangerous.

It is a great phrase because it is so literal.

If a dog acts out, for some reason it is not coping and there is an explosion as inappropriate behaviour almost escapes from them.

Their behaviour is out of character. 

And in this article, I will be looking at all the reasons why your beloved dog (or dogs) might move from acting in to acting out.

And by the way, “acting in” is about being able to bear or to tolerate a situation so that a dog’s reaction isn’t out of character but well within character.

Anyway enough of the psychobabble, I want to start the article with a subject that is close to my heart. 

[1] Puppy terrible twos

We have an eighteen week old puppy.

And what staggeringly hard work they are- even for someone like myself who has raised four puppies in the last fifteen years!

How our memories can play tricks on us about how joyful the experience of bringing up a puppy is!

Anyway, I digress.

Most of us will have heard of the phrase “terrible twos” which is when that angelic child turns into something with a little more devil inside of them.

Easy going and placid children can become loud, demanding and uncooperative seemingly overnight.

Puppies go through this phase as well although instead of happening around the age of two years old, it happens around the age of eight months.

And so if your puppy is “acting out” and is around this age, it is just a phase that they are going through.

Get your head down, remain consistent, keep smiling and with a bit of luck everyone will come out safely on the other side.

Now the interesting thing is why they do it.

And just like a toddler a dog does it because they are working out their place in the pack. 

They want to know who is superior and who is inferior to them. 

[2] Change of routine or no routine at all

Routines are very important for dogs.

They help them to understand the world better and knowing what should happen next helps them to feel more safe and secure. 

And a dog that feels more safe and secure is much less likely to act out.

The most important element of any routine to most dogs is when they are fed and when they are walked. 

Now it is important that more rigid routines are more important for some dogs that others.

Puppies, a newly adopted rescue dog or an older dog might need a much stricter routine than a dog that you have had for five years.

Whereas the former might need to be fed at the same time every morning whereas the latter might just need to know that they will be fed before you leave for work.

If your dog is acting completely out of character is it because their routine has been changed?

Or could it be that their day has no routine or predictability to it and that creating a routine might also help their behaviour?

[3] Change of person

We have just been discussing how dogs love routine.

And part and parcel of this is that the people that they are most familiar with are a constant.

It is well known that humans have shared their lives with people for about the last fourteen thousand years, give or take the odd millenia.

But it still doesn’t explain why we are so close.

It could be that both of us thrive when we are in a close relationship with one another.

Regardless of why it is, when a familiar person suddenly disappears, this can completely throw a dog.

As tough as a separation is for a person either through divorce or by a child leaving for university at least we understand what is going on.

A dog doesn’t understand, they just know that someone they love has disappeared. 

And, of course, just as disruptive is the addition of a new person into the family.

Most often this is a new baby or a new partner coming into the house but it all means upheaval and a great amount of uncertainty for a dog.

They will have to spend time getting the know the individual and working out if they are going to be a friend or a foe…

[4] Changes in the pack

Just as a dog can be freaked out by any changes of human personnel in the house, so to can they be very upset by the loss of another dog or the addition of a dog in a multi dog household.

Firstly, let’s talk about loss because this again is something that I have had recent experience of.

Eighteen months ago, my wife and I owned three golden retrievers: grandmother, mother and daughter.

I would never have said that the mother and daughter were very close because they didn’t sleep close to each other or play together for hours everyday.

And so when we lost the mother very suddenly, I didn’t think that it would have much of an impact on the remaining dogs.

But it did.

The daughter began to spend much more of her time chewing sticks and I know for her that it an anxious behaviour. 

She missed her mum which was bad enough in itself but I had failed to realise the impact it would have on her.

Worse than this reaction, I spoke to someone that I met on a walk last week who had lost a dog and his other dog stopped eating.

How tragic is that?

I don’t know which causes more upset to a dog- the loss of a member of a pack or the addition of a new member.

But if dogs can act out when a pack loses a member, they can definitely display some challenging behaviour when a new dog enters the fray.

If losing a friend causes emotional distress then getting to know a new (friend) causes emotional and physical distress because the wearisome process of establishing a pecking order needs to be completed.

[5] Moving home

In the UK there is a well worn expression “An Englishman’s home is his castle.”

This expression demonstrates how much value the English place on their homes. 

It is a bit of a stretch but our homes are very important to our dogs as well.

They like the comfort and familiarity of being in the same place.

And my dogs do tend to flit from room to room at different points in the day.

Imagine the shock a dog would have if they were suddenly to be moved to a new house with the same owners.

They would be “all at sea”.

Not only would they be in a very unfamiliar environment but for the first few weeks it would be more chaotic as boxes were unpacked and furniture moved.

Added to this, the stress levels of the family members would possibly be higher than normal because of all of the upheaval and your dog would be picking up on that level of worry. 

[6] Old age

In this section I want to explore an issue that is deeply personal to me.

A dog might be acting out because they are so old or because they are too old.

Our expectations might be too high for them or we fail to change our expectations as our dogs physically get frailer.

And having written this down it does seem a bit harsh but there is a good (but misplaced) reason why we don’t change our expectations of our dogs as they age.

And that is because we can’t face the prospect of them getting old and dying.

One of my goldens will be fifteen years old in December which is a terrific age for such a big dog.

Although generally she is a beautifully behaved dog and always has been…

There is a stubborn streak in her which has definitely got stronger over the past few years.

Although this streak hasn’t caused her to “act out”, I’m mindful of how things might just become too much for her.

If you have an old dog who is acting out, have you changed your expectations enough?

[7] Lack of exercise

I’m far more likely to get antsy or ratty if I haven’t had enough exercise.

Dogs are like this too. 

Physical exercise has many, many benefits for a dog and not all of these are physical.

Yes, a well exercised dog is far less likely to suffer from bad physical stuff such as obesity.

But a dog that goes on plenty of walks also will be happier and more mentally stimulated.

On a walk, dog’s don’t just walk or run, they also explore.

Watch your dog the next time that you are on a walk.

How many times do they stop and sniff?

A walk provides a dog with a way of exercising their brains as they explore their surroundings.

And a walk with their owner helps to build trust and maintain a closeness between “man and dog.”

And I think that this is an interesting point. 

My sister in law has a 1 year old dog whose behaviour has deteriorated since she has stopped taking him for a walk.

And she has a very good reason for not taking him out on walks because of an injury which means that she can hardly walk herself.

Even though he goes out regularly with a dog walker, he has become much more of a challenge when she is with him.

If your dog’s behaviour has got worse recently, have they been getting enough exercise?

[8] Inconsistent expectations

This is another possible cause of bad behaviour that I’m highly vulnerable to at the moment with our puppy.

It is that a dog is getting mixed messages from his main carers- most probably if he is living with a family, the varied expectations will be coming from mum or dad.

Whereas one parent wants to be the lovingly strict “bad cop”, the other parent wants to be their best mate and “good cop” with as few rules as possible.

And our dogs can drive buses through these inconsistencies- they will have a field day. 

It is very similar with children and incredibly common and damaging for children whose parents are splitting up. 

The main area of concern for our puppy is expectations about walking with a lead- my wife is very hot on it and expects great things and generally our puppy delivers.

I’m not a keen fan of leads and I don’t give it the attention that is requires and guess what?

When I put her on a lead she is a blasted nightmare!

James Grayston

My name is James and I love dogs. have owned four Golden Retrievers in the past 15 years. Currently I own two "Goldies"- a five year old and a seven month old. The photo shows me with our youngest when she was about 7 weeks old!