Canine Behavior/Sudden Behaviour Change
We have a 26 month old male English Cocker Spaniel cross. He has in the last two weeks had a huge behavioural change where whenever he is left alone he has sought and found food/food packets out of our bins and various spaces.
Bearing in mind he has NEVER done anything before like the incidences below and is regularly left home alone 3-5 times a week for up to 2 hours max at a time. He also gets up to two off-lease walks a day, accumulating to over 60 minutes. We feed him a dry food diet of ‘Royal Canin Hypoallergenic’, amounting to 220g a day (healthy for his current weight of 16kg) with the occasional addition of boiled carrots, potatoes and egg. He gets mentally stimulated daily with Kong toys and deer antlers with regular play and command training, rewarded with treats.
1- Left home alone for an hour and returned to empty yoghurt pots and packet of crisps on the floor taken out from the living room bin.
2- Left home alone for 1.5 hours and returned to a bag of opened dog chews (cow trachea, pork rolls/hind, pig ears) scattered across the floor. After weighing the left over chews from the 1kg bag, I determined he had eaten over 300 grams.
3- Left home alone for 20 minutes and returned to his dry food bag ripped across the living room floor. This time, since I had no previous knowledge of how much dry food was in the clipped shut bag originally, I could not find out how much he actually ate.
The only factors that have changed that may explain this is that we got him got neutered around a month ago due to excessive humping of other dogs and people but has been checked and cleared by the vet to say he’s physically okay. Also my wife is pregnant and is due in a week so I’m not sure if hormonal changes in her would affect him. He does not do it whilst we’re home, only when left fully alone.
Your help would be much appreciated. Thank you!
Thank you for your question. The neutering is not likely to cause this type of behavior change as it only effects hormone-related behaviors (chasing females in heat, puffing up and challenging other males, etc).
However, your wife's huge hormone surges, exhaustion, the anticipation (both excitement and nerves) that both of you are feeling are all certainly being felt by the dog. Also I expect you've been making arrangements for the new baby with a crib and pram/stroller and all the other baby gear that go with a newborn. So there's a lot of changes happening both physically to the house/environment as well as hormonally for your wife and even you as well as emotionally for both of you. All of this could be effecting your dog's emotional state and causing some behavior changes.
Without a proper consultation, and with only the limited information provided in this question (thank you for as much information as you did provide - you'd be surprised how many questions come to me with two sentences and essentially no information at all!), I can make a couple of educated guesses.
It sounds like you are doing a pretty good job of tending to your dog's needs for both physical and mental stimulation and that's truly excellent! Please keep it up after the baby arrives. Start taking practice walks now with the pram/stroller so that he gets used to walking along with it, but not pulling. Don't ever hook the leash onto the handles of the pram/stroller as it would be a catastrophe if your pup was startled or excited and ran suddenly, pulling the pram/stroller over with your baby in it.
So, right now we could be seeing an increased stress in your dog given all the baby-prep activity and nervous energy from you and your wife. Or it could be that there has been a lapse in puppy-proofing and he is simply finding ways to occupy himself and food/food containers are the most interesting things he can find. Trash bins are like a treasure box for dogs. Many, many dogs are trash thieves. Sometimes it's simply a matter of the dog likes the smells and investigates until he gets to them and then discovers that there are often interesting smells in there and so continues to go back to investigate often.
Other times it's a sign of increased stress. Some stressed dogs have a fall-off in their potty habits. Some will dig or scratch at carpet and doors causing damage. Some will chew things that are not acceptable dog toys. Some will dig through the trash or rip open their food bags...
The first, and most effective way to deal with this is management. Put things away in places he can't access them - in drawers or cupboards that he can't reach, behind closed doors that properly click closed (and that don't have level handles that many dogs learn how to manipulate). Put trash in lidded cans, especially the kind that have latching lids if you can't put the bin itself behind a closed door. Babygate off the kitchen so he can't access the room at all unless he's supervised.... These are all quick fixes and generally quite easy to implement (especially as you're already thinking in terms of baby-proofing and may have some of the gadgets already at your home).
But, if it's stress related, you'll want to help him feel less stressed as simply preventing access to the kitchen doesn't help him feel any better.
Since he is familiar with Kongs as a part of his life regularly already, I might encourage giving him a Kong about 5-10 minutes before you get ready to leave as this will give him something to do. Chewing is a self-soothing behavior and often helps to calm a stressed dog. Kongs are self-reinforcing because every time he chews on or licks at it, he's getting flavors or bits of food. If you haven't tried this already, I'd encourage you to start freezing the food-stuffed Kong. This way instead of taking 10-20 minutes for him to empty, it'll take him 30-60 minutes. Sometimes, if it's well frozen, the dog may give up for a while once they've got the first bit, and then a while later they'll go back to try again. Now that it's thawed a bit, they'll be able to get some more. Often dogs are tired enough at the end of this exercise that they're ready to settle in for a nap and since you indicate that he's typically not alone for more than a couple hours, this may be sufficient to provide him entertainment and stress relief for those brief periods.
Another option is to hide food and/or toys around the house for him to find after you've left the house as this will give him something to do.
other brain games he can do alone include things like a Tricky Treat Ball or a Busy Buddy Kibble Nibble, Kong Wobbler, and others.
You can even place some kibble in each of these toys for him to work at while you're out. Using his regular daily ration of food so that we're not over feeding, just changing how he goes about accessing those calories.
Of course, I still encourage the management aspect described above about limiting access to things he shouldn't get into as part of this protocol. Preventing access to the wrong things while simultaneously providing acceptable alternatives is how we modify the behavior so the two aspects go hand-in-hand.
If you don't see an easy improvement with these simple steps, then I would suggest a consultation with a local trainer or behavior specialist who is familiar with the dynamics of dogs and new babies. We want the transition to go as smoothly as possible which means including him in as much as possible in a safe and positive way when baby arrives. But we also need to make sure that through your own sense of overwhelming in-love with the new baby and adoration that rightly is directed that the new arrival, and the exhaustion that goes with the lack of sleep that we don't let the dog's needs slip through the cracks. It's great that you're addressing it now while you have a week or so still to implement a new routine and hopefully help him feel a bit better before his world is turned upside down again....
Congratulations on the pending delivery! It's a wonderful time and a stressful time and nobody consulted the dog about this, so try to be kind and patient when he tells you in the only way he knows how that he's feeling uncomfortable, stressed, anxious, nervous, etc. :-)
Good luck! Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Los Angeles Behavior Specialist