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Canine Behavior/sudden strange behavior


QUESTION: Our miniature schnauzer is a spayed female, 2 years old. She has been, up until about 2 weeks ago, sweet, cuddly, and enjoyed being with us. Then she started sniffing the air, especially when either I or my husband came near to her. When we approach her, she starts sniffing and will jump up and hide under the nearest table and just look at us. She avoids us, plain and simple. She eats, drinks, loves her walks in the park, has plenty of energy, obeys us on her walks. She still runs and excitedly greets our neighbors, and plays with one of their dogs when they are out at the same time. We took her to the vet, who thoroughly examined her and found nothing physically wrong, but sent us home with 7 days of once daily anti-inflammatory medication. We followed the course of medication and have noticed no change in the sniffing and avoidance behavior. She has been well-loved and cared for so we are at a total loss to understand this sudden change in our ordinarily sweet dog. She's not biting or ill-tempered toward us, just doesn't want to sit on our laps or sit next to us, preferring to be in a different room. She used to love curling up in the bed with us as well and won't do that anymore either. Can you offer some insight?

ANSWER: Think:

Have you changed anything just before this behavior began?

Bath liquids or gel
Hair gel
Fabric softener
Used insect repellant
Painted anything

.....ANYTHING.  If the dog is "sniffing" as you say and scents something she interprets incorrectly, she may have acquired a conditioned fear response that is now persisting.  Talk to  your husband and try to unravel the mystery: something is amiss and she has connected it with her primary caregivers, ONLY.

Use followup feature to respond.  I'll try to help.

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QUESTION: Thank you very much for the quick reply. We talked over the possible changes we've made and can pinpoint the use of a new detergent to wash our dark colored clothing--Woolite Dark. Aside from that, we painted part of the house several months ago (last June and October), using the same brand of paint, and she never reacted to it. I would say the detergent has been the most recent change in the household. Before the Woolite we would use unscented detergent to wash our clothes and dry with unscented dryer sheets, and still do use unscented with light colored clothes. I will take away the Woolite for darks and see what happens. Any other suggestions on how to get her to trust us again? Thanks again! We miss her!


OK: make the most out of the times (when she is with you outdoors) where she is free of fear.  Reward (with tiny food treat) every bit of attention/affection she displays.  You can teach attention in this manner:

Once she's "got" it, she will absolutely *understand* that Attention is always rewarded.  First step.

Second step:  ALL of the clothing you have washed with the new detergent must be washed at least twice with the old detergent.  Scent lingers.  The dog may now have perhaps generalized her fear response beyond the scent to the interior of the house.  Be extremely patient.  Do not approach her directly, walk toward her on a curve.  Halfway, stop, turn aside from her for a second, then continue forward on a curve, no eye contact (this is a body communication of non threat).  As you pass her, yawn (another signal), drop a tidbit of treat.  The end.  Continue using attention outdoors, rewarding it, and re-enforcing the non-threat indoors.  I'm going on vacation March 1.  I'd like you to use followup feature to let me know how this is working before then.  Thank you!

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QUESTION: I have been putting your suggestions into practice. Clothes have been washed and I treat her when she approaches me. One time she even let me hold her for a bit and I engaged her in play time a couple times; however, she seems to have become sensitive to other smells. I held out a treat for her one morning she came to greet me and she flipped out over the hand soap scent I had on my hands. She refused the treat and went to hide under the table. She continues to raise her nose and sniff the air, running to her bed to rub her hose in it, or hide under something. Interestingly, the same detergent I use to wash our clothes is what I use to wash her blankets and she has no problem sleeping in her bed. She spends most of her time perched on top of the couch, looking out the window and napping, still avoiding us. There is one exception to the avoidance, and that is when we return home from being out for a time. She comes to the door wagging her tail and jumps on us as though she is very happy to see us. At this point, I am at a loss to understand what sort of switch must have been flipped in her brain to create this sudden change in behavior and aversion to scents. Aside from the Woolite detergent, things remain the same as they've always been in the house. Thoughts? Suggestions?

The dog's olfactory gland appears to be working educated guess.  OR: she is getting certain cues from you and has a conditioned fear response when the cues are given.

Let me explain:
When I was 20 years old, I owned an MG Midget (little red British car) with a stick shift.  I had no idea how to drive the thing; I kept grinding the gears; I didn't know how to accelerate and work the clutch pedal so I could go UPHILL (!!)  So my friend's husband took me for a ride for about two hours one day.  He sat in the passenger seat with his hand over mine on the gear shift.  Every single time the grinding of gears could be heard, or my pressure on clutch and gas pedal were unequal, he SQUEEZED my hand.  It hurt.  At the end of that lesson, I could drive a manual transmission vehicle.

Now:  I am human.  My capability of converting fearful, painful, or otherwise unacceptable behaviors in any learning process depends upon a complex part of the brain that dogs do not have.  I did not then, nor have I or do I, fear a human male in the passenger seat of my car.  I no longer drive a car with standard transmission, but I most likely could, even LO these many years.

For a dog: rather than being able to process what is (the hand on hand in my example) a fairly benign "punishment", the dog then "learns" either to fear circumstances that approximate the "hand on hand" experience as I have given or acquires a superstitious response:  in other words, the dog learns something MORE than just to avoid anything that triggers fight/flight, it begins to "generalize" to other things (time of day, shadows, other scents, OR the human response to its own fight/flight response.)

I suggest you call the veterinary college in your immediate geographical area and make an appointment with a Veterinary Behaviorist.  Here are some lists of same:

We have to sort the "wheat from the chaff".  Is it possible the dog has acquired a neurological problem (tumor perhaps)?  Most likely not, but at this point we have to be certain.  The Vet. Behaviorist will know far better than I after a routine neurological examination.

If the dog is given a clean bill of health (some rather sophisticated tests might be required, I have no idea), then we have to address this on a purely behavioral problem.  Her sensitivity to "smells" makes me lean toward biologic cause.  But I can't see anything from here.

Meanwhile: discard any and all scented soaps, deodorizers, detergents, softeners, perfume, after shave lotion, face cream with scent....etc.  Do not attempt to coerce or encourage the dog to approach you if she is clearly avoiding you.  Do not attempt to "calm" her or "soothe" her, that is reward for fear.  You might need to put her on Nothing In Life Is Free in order to extinguish a strong conditioned fear response that is generalizing but I will not recommend that unless an expert Veterinary opinion has been given.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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