Sunday, April 26, 2015

URBAN OVERLOAD - The Canine Behavior Epidemic

Is your dog a victim of URBAN OVERLOAD?

What is Urban Overload?

"Urban Overload" is a term we've adopted for an emerging problem in today's dog population.

It describes a phenomenon in dog behavior that is not just a trend, but an epidemic.  

Dogs experiencing Urban Overload are usually dogs who used to get along with other dogs - but who have become reactive (or even aggressive) when they encounter other dogs outside their yards, on walks, at the dog park, at the vet's office, etc.

Some dogs show signs of Urban Overload with people, bicycles, skateboards, etc. in addition to other dogs.

Many of these dogs are fine with their own housemate dogs and human family members.  It's when they encounter new dogs or people that the trouble starts.  And often, they only react to some dogs and not others - creating a lot of unpredictability and confusion for their owners!

56% of the dogs we evaluate each year at Front Range K9 Academy are suffering from some form of Urban Overload.  The problem does not go away on its own, and in fact, it seems to get worse if left untreated.  

Is your dog a part of this epidemic?
  • Do you become tense and worried whenever your dog might encounter some other dog or person on a walk?
  • Do you find yourself crossing the street when you see dogs or people?
  • Do you avoid taking your dog out in public, when you used to enjoy it?
  • Do you avoid walking your dog altogether because it's too stressful?
Many owners report they cannot take their dog out in public at all without worrying that if their dog sees another dog, it will begin to:
  • misbehave
  • bark, whine, howl loudly
  • growl
  • pull very hard on the leash
  • leap up and down in frustration
  • lunge and snap
  • attack if approached
Dogs experiencing Urban Overload seem to be just that - overloaded. They become stressed, then fearful, then reactive, then aggressive.

Very often, the problem begins much sooner than the owners know.

This makes the problem worse, because the early warning signs are often hidden.

What causes Urban Overload?

Urban Overload is caused by a combination of factors, including:

1.  The changing landscape of dog ownership:

Today's dogs are exposed to much more of everything - more people, more dogs, more sounds, more sights, more smells.  

This describes a relatively new trend of owners taking their dogs with them to more places than they used to.  Many dogs go to work with their owners, visit family and friends with their owners, go on vacation with them, go to sporting events with them, to dog parks, dog bars, and dog cafes.  They are generally more out and about. 

While this development may be very good for dogs in some ways (they get much more attention and mental exercise than the dog that stays home all day), there are specific social pressures associated with this increase in social activity.  

In particular, dogs who have not been trained to behave well in public have no foundation for good behavior. Not knowing what they should be doing often leads to behaviors that increase the stress of their owners and other people and dogs around them, as well as increasing their own stress.  This is a recipe for setting up Urban Overload in a dog.

2.  Humans misinterpreting signs of social stress in dogs:

If you can't tell when your dog is stressed, you can't do anything to avoid or recognize Urban Overload.

Many people make the mistake of believing that since dogs are social animals by nature, they should like all dogs or people they meet.  

Humans are social creatures as well - but that doesn't mean we like every other human we meet!

Forced socialization leads to stress, which can lead to fear and aggression.

3.  Inappropriate socialization experiences:

Over-socializing a dog can be just as damaging as under-socializing it.

When dog owners understand the natural social development of dogs, they can socialize their dogs appropriately - creating dogs that are relaxed and friendly when they encounter other dogs and people outside their usual social circles.

Is there a solution?

Luckily, most cases of Urban Overload can be helped.

As more and more behaviorists, dog trainers, veterinarians, groomers, and most importantly, dog owners begin to recognize the problem of Urban Overload, we can begin to change the trends that have caused it.

Helping dogs who are experiencing Urban Overload involves a unique training approach.

First, owners must be taught to read dog body language better and to recognize stress signals. Owners must also learn about proper canine socialization (and no - the dog park is NOT the answer to socializing dogs), and social development stages in dogs. This means owners can avoid the problem (or reverse it in dogs already having trouble) by creating safe, appropriate social learning experiences for their dogs.

Dog owners who have dogs that are already experiencing Urban Overload can learn how to change their dog's reaction to stress - reducing or eliminating re-activity, and aggression.

When paired with owner education and proper training exercises, stopping the tide of Urban Overload is an entirely attainable goal.

If you think your dog might be showing behaviors consistent with Urban Overload, the professionals at Front Range K9 Academy can help.  Contact us today!

Jennifer Hime is a canine behavior consultant and the owner and training director at Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO. She has been working with dogs professionally for 25 years.  She can be contacted through her website at:

1 comment:

Tanya said...

Hi Jennifer. Tanya Cardwell here from Pavlov Dog Training. We have also seen a big jump in leash reactive cases. We've recently dubbed it the 'leash drama' program. The more urban dense the environment, the higher rate of reactivity. With the increase in population, I suspect those numbers will climb.