I read a fascinating news story the other day about a woman in Texas who suddenly woke up with a British accent. This was particularly strange because her background is Mexican-American and she definitely had a Texas accent previously.
Naturally, the first question is: Why did that happen? It’s a question people ask me all the time about their dogs when there’s a sudden change or problem. “My dog started peeing on the rug.” “My dog is suddenly nipping at people.” “Both of our dogs started fighting.”
Why did that happen?
But it’s impossible to answer the “why” question without asking another very important question first.
In the case of the woman in Texas, the reason her accent changed is because she had jaw surgery and spoke in a completely different way afterwards. However, it had nothing to do with it being her jaw they operated on. In fact, there’s a condition called foreign accent syndrome. It’s very rare and usually happens after a head trauma or a stroke. Doctors still don’t know exactly why it happened to the woman. They only know that she developed it after surgery.
And that is the important question you need to ask before you can figure out why something happened, particularly when it comes to a sudden change in your dog’s behavior.
What happened right before that?
If the woman had just abruptly started talking with a foreign accent, it would be easy to think that she was joking around. But surgery is usually a physically traumatic procedure, even if most of the trauma is covered up with anesthetic and painkillers. You may not feel it, but your body still knows.
So if your dog suddenly develops a brand new misbehavior seemingly out of nowhere, there are two things to do. First is to take her to the vet to see if there’s a physical cause. For example, if an adult dog suddenly starts peeing in the house, it could be a bladder infection or an early sign of kidney failure. But if the vet gives the all clear, then the answer to the “why” question is “What in your household or pack changed before it started to happen?”
For humans, this can often be a challenge, because it may seem like nothing at all changed, but our dogs can be aware of differences we don’t even notice. I remember one case of a couple whose dog suddenly started showing aggression toward the husband. This was a dog they’d adopted as a puppy and she had always been very loyal and attached. Then, one day, she started avoiding the husband when he came home and even growled if he tried to pet her.
At first, they couldn’t figure out anything that was different. They hadn’t moved, they hadn’t been fighting, and they were both calm and assertive Pack Leaders. But the husband had been promoted at work, which meant that his office was on a different floor — and a Vice President whose office was on that floor always brought her cat to work. Since he worked for this woman now, he was always in her office and around the cat… and the dog was reacting to the scent of a strange animal.
Now this case is very unusual and not something most people are likely to encounter, but there are all kinds of possible changes that we may not think our dog notices — but they do. Sudden misbehaviors are very common in the late spring and late summer. What happens then? In a lot of places, that’s when the kids either go on vacation or go back to school, and that can change the entire dynamic of the house.
Big life changes can have huge effects. Illness, divorce, financial trouble, death of a family member outside of the household, and loss of a job can all have an instant and obvious impact on the humans by changing everyone’s energy. To dogs our energy is everything. If we become unstable, they become unstable.
And dogs also like routine. Sometimes, it can take something as subtle as a slight change in your schedule to make them anxious. You may not think that the 10-minute detour on the way home because of construction makes any difference, but it can.
So the next time your dog seems to be acting out in a way that’s completely out of character, rule out a physical cause first. Then, skip the “Why is my dog doing this?” question and instead ask yourself, “What could have changed to cause it?”
That’s one of the things that’s so wonderful about dogs. In seeking to understand them, we have to be more mindful and understanding of ourselves first.
Stay calm, and ask yourself “What?”