The Myth of “Suddenly, Out Of the Blue” Behaviors

No matter where you work, there are some common phrases you hear from people all the time.  In an office it might be, “The printer is broken again.” or “Where is the stapler?” In real estate it might be “Location, location, location.” The dog training profession is no different.  One phrase I hear frequently is “Suddenly, out of the blue, my dog…”

Dog showing teeth

This phrase is generally associated with some unwanted or inappropriate behavior the dog has started to display. For instance, “Suddenly, out of the blue, my dog started barking at strangers.” Or “Suddenly, out of the blue, my dog bit my niece.”

In an attempt to understand the sudden behavior change in their dog, most owners attach significance to some routine event that immediately preceded the behavior.  Usually, it involves a person (the child must have hit the dog), or location (he wasn’t like this until he came back from the vet’s office), or activity (he never did this until we started doing training).

And while some of those associations might be valid, normally the sudden, out of the blue behavior is more likely to be related to the age of the dog and the dog’s overall temperament. More importantly, most of the time these behaviors are completely predictable and in many cases, avoidable with proper intervention.

There are two distinctive times that I receive training calls for what I have come to dub the “suddenly my dog starting doing X, Y, Z” behaviors: The dog is either six-seven months of age or approximately 18 months old.

Between six and seven months of age dogs hit adolescence and it’s not unusual for a dog to start testing his confidence level. Also during this time many dogs go through a fear impact period where they can become suddenly nervous with new experiences. This is a time when many owners first start noticing their dog barking at the doorbell, strangers or other dogs. Incidentally, you’ll note this is also the age many dogs get neutered/spayed and often the veterinarian’s office gets an unfair bad rap for causing the perceived new problems in the dog.

Then, around 18 months of age, dogs are reaching maturity and any type of unwanted behavior usually becomes even stronger. This is true of that jumping behavior which was so cute in your 3-month-old Labrador but is now knocking people to the ground.  It’s also true of growling, snarling or barking. Dogs grow “into” not “out of” aggression.  So if you are seeing any unwanted behavior in your dog, particularly growling, barking, showing teeth, hiding, or snarling, you can bet these behaviors will become stronger when the dog reaches maturity. Don’t wait!  Start working on these behaviors now.

Here are some things you should do with your 6-7 month old puppy and continue doing until he is an adult:

  • Increase your dog’s social activities and outings.  Don’t stop taking your puppy to new places. At 6-7 months of age you should continue to go places that provide a positive experience for your dog.  Take lots of treats and toys and let the dog have fun!
  • Give your dog time to get adjusted to new locations.  If something seems scary, take treats and try feeding your dog in that environment. Give him enough space from other people and dogs so that he can relax.  Don’t force your dog to tolerate a new environment. Instead, help him to have fun by playing games or feeding him there. If that’s not possible, then take your dog home and contact a local trainer who can provide more one-on-one assistance to help your dog overcome his fears.
  • Enroll your dog in obedience classes to help build his confidence and teach him alternative behaviors you can use when he is wants to bark, chase, run, or lunge.
  • Continue to let your dog meet friendly strangers…and every stranger can become friendly if you give them really tasty treats to feed your dog.
  • Realize that if your dog is showing unwanted behaviors, they will continue to get worse as he matures.

By understanding your dog’s developmental stages, you can anticipate his behavior and intervene to keep the “sudden out of the blue” occurrences to a minimum.

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33 thoughts on “The Myth of “Suddenly, Out Of the Blue” Behaviors

    • That doesn’t really validate the point as the shelters are full of dogs of all ages, many of them 5+ or seniors that also have “aggression” issues. I put quotes around that word because the majority of dogs labelled as aggressive are done so by inexperienced shelter workers or trainers. Many trainers are merely people that show or breed dogs and translate that in to trainer qualifications when in reality these same trainers are no more qualified to assess dogs than you or I. People really need to shop around when searching for a trainer. Try to find one that actually has credentials behind their name, not just people that assume owning dogs for years makes them a trainer. These people usually end up doing more harm then good to your dog.

  1. First I’ll agree with Jason’s point on shelters. Most every week I’m taking dogs labeled as aggressive into play groups and getting their label changed.

    As to the title, I agree with all Robin said but I often see another case, regardless of the dog’s age. Where the behavior has been slowly building up for months or even years, but the people have ignored or tolerated it, until it finally reaches a higher level or they have an incident that can’t be ignored. In nearly all those cases, however, the people have not followed the advice that Robin gave here.

    • Great point, Jerry. I agree that dogs can deteriorate over time if the behavior is ignored or tolerated. I also agree with Jason about the classification of dogs in shelters. I find it varies shelter by shelter. I also find owners who surrender their dogs do so after a very long processing period and they aren’t sometimes in a type of denial about their pet. That makes surrendering them easier on the person, but doesn’t always allow the shelter to get the most accurate information about the dog. This is just a psychological reality of the shelter world, I think. But I also think this is why shelters need to a good job of assessing the dogs themselves.

  2. That is exactly what is going on with my dog.Can you give more specific tips to stop thses behaviours,
    especially lunging and jumping up on people.

    • Hi – to stop specific behaviors you really need to work with the dog in a way in which you can turn the thing or person he is lunging at into something more positive. Normally this takes quite some time and you start by figuring out how far you have to be from the person/thing without setting your dog into the lunging state. Normally I use treats and play a game of “see the scary thing” and get treats, scary thing goes away treats go away. After a while I want my dog to say, “Hey…the scary thing showed up…YAY…i get treats now.” This helps to change the dogs emotional state. However, this has to be done far enough away from the person/thing that your dog doesn’t feel overwhelmed. From there, you begin making small progress to decrease the distance. It can all take many months depending on the age of the dog and the severity of the behavior.

  3. I need help. My 18 month old Labrador is all of a sudden peeing in the house.( he is totally house broken and has not peed in the house since he was little pup.) also he is getting unmentionables out of the bathroom trash and stealing food off of the counter top.( also things he has never done before) Also he has been acting over the top excited. I don’t know what to do or how to correct this behavior.

    • Hi Sarah, I’m sorry for your frustration with your dog now. If he truly has never done these behaviors before and is now doing them, i would first consider if he has any medical issues. That can often be the first step is to have a vet checkup to make sure he is healthy. After that, I would begin to work on managing his environment as you did when he was a puppy. I would also make sure he is getting enough exercise (at least 2 times for 20 minutes a day) of doing something other than just hanging out in the back yard. hope that helps.

  4. Hello and thank you for your article! I have a sweet 7 month old yorkie who is now displaying some of that adolescence behavior. Specifically, she is barking at anyone (human or dog) that she sees from our window. She’s also doing the same thing on walks (and barking at much larger dogs than herself!), which she had not been doing previously. Do you have any specific examples for training her? I’ve been using the clicker method and treating her once she seems to have heeded my “quiet” command, and I have not stopped talking her out and try to socialize her, but I could use some advice. Thank you in advance!

    • Hi Christina, You may have to increase your work with her and reward her even before she starts barking! You may also need to increase the distance between you and the thing she is barking at so that you get a chance to reward her for good behavior more frequently. Otherwise she ends up practicing the bad behavior more often than the good. Inside I would recommend trying to block her access to the window so that she can’t practice that behavior either. If you don’t see much progress in a week or so, I would elicit the help of a positive reinforcement trainer who can go on a walk with you to help you with more specifics. Hope that helps!

  5. Our dog is right at the he you were talking about 14 months and has two lunging behavior one is when someone is talking to him and has there head my daighter kissing him and saying she loves him.. The other is maybe thinking you have something in your hand. He’s a male English bill dog

  6. Hi Robin, I appreciate this article. Our 2 year old dog has always been better with new dogs than with people, but his lunging at strangers and other dogs while on a leash has increased recently. The lunging at dogs is easier to manage and deter because it’s predictable, but the strangers is tough because some he completely ignores and some set him off- the best we can tell is he doesn’t like people looking him in the eye, but that’s hard to manage on walks with passerby! Any suggestions? I would hate for this behavior to get worse and would love to nip it in the bud now.

    • Hi Laura, It’s good you can tell to some extent that certain things cause him to be more reactive than others. I would try having him look to you when he is walking by people. You can usually do this by bringing something really tasty on your walks (like chicken, cheese or steak). When you see strangers, show your dog a good portion of food and feed him consistently as you pass by the person. You may need to stay far enough away that your dog is able to eat the food. But if you do that often, your dog will start seeing strangers and looking at you for a treat.

  7. My nine months old terrier mutt really, truly just suddenly started barking at people we see in the woods we walk every day. He was fine before, would mostly ignore humans and just zoom in on the dogs, happily greeting them. How he runs up to them, barking – his tail up and hair raised. He also growled a couple of times at my kids when they tried to move him (say to the side because he is in the middle of the couch). Can it be that he is trying to establish dominance over them now that he is getting older? He was such a friendly pup before, happy to meet dogs and kids and mostly ignoring adults and so letting him off the leash has not been a problem.

    • Hi Patricia, It’s likely that your dog was ignoring people before because he was uncomfortable around them, but now that he’s a bit older he is willing to show his discomfort by barking at them. I would recommend working with a trainer who can give you specific advice, but as a starting point, I would start rewarding him on walks when people approach or come by (You will most likely need to keep him on a leash to prevent him from practicing the behavior of barking). I would also work to teach him an “off” cue so that the kids can get him off the couch without physically moving him. You could start by having the kids offer a treat and toss it on the ground while saying “Off” to get him off the couch. As dogs get older they get more confident in their behaviors. Its not really a matter of establishing dominance as much as it is a matter of your dog just being more comfortable telling people what he likes or doesn’t like. However, we don’t want him to continue this behavior because practice makes perfect. hope that helps.

  8. My 7 month old Maltese who was recently neutered about 10 days ago, has suddenly become skittish with me. He moves away when I try to pick him up, and he also motions to come up on the couch, and when I go to lift him up on the couch, he scoots away from me and almost makes me “chase” him, and I’ve done nothing to make him feel ‘afraid’. (if thats what it is?). He’s not skittish with my husband but he is with me. When my husband has the night shift, he’s attached to my hip and he goes to bed with me and sleeps in my bed. But since I’ve brought him home from the vet, his behaviour is changing. I am trying not to take it personally because I love cuddling with him, and it makes me feel like he doesn’t want to be cuddled by me anymore. Is this normal behaviour for a 7 month old puppy? I’m very discouraged because I’m so attached to him that I don’t want him to feel this way towards me but I realize I have to nip this behaviour in the bud but I’m not sure how?

    • Hi Cheryl, I would make sure there is no medical reason for his change of behavior first. Assuming there are no issues, then i would start reinforcing your puppy for coming to you (using treats or a toy). It is not uncommon for puppies to go through another fear period when they get to be about 7 months so I would just work with your puppy slowly and let him come to you for rewards. Right not it might be good to reward him and then let him move away if he would like to do so. Hopefully you can help him become comfortable again.

  9. Our dog is about 7 months old she is mastiff and boxer mix we think. One minute she is very laid back and relax then out of the blue she tries to get very aggressive with our other dogs for no apparent reason. She also tonigjt tried to bite at me and my wife while just sitting next to us letting us pet her. What can cause this rwction and how can we fix this.

    • Hi Jeffrey, Without seeing the dog it’s hard to say what is going on. I would recommend having an evaluation by a positive, force-free trainer who can give you some tips to working with your dog. It is not uncommon for dogs to start to test the boundaries at 7 months so hopefully with positive training you can get things more under control.

  10. Thank you for this. It really eased my mind. In the last 2 weeks, my previously outgoing and friendly pup “suddenly” started barking at some strangers and growling at children. It was really concerning me. She turned 7 months old on Sunday!

    She is well socialized and attends doggy day care during the week. She also already does obedience classes. We just finished beginner training and are getting ready for intermediate. I had a super nice lady at petsmart tonight hang out and talk to me with her kids until my girl calmed down and she and her son were able to pet her. It was above and beyond because my puppy (Echo) was growling at her kids when we first encounteted them.

    I think I’ll start throwing training treats in my purse to give to strangers if she’s growly. Again, thank you for this post. It made me feel much better about what has been going on!

    • Hi Linda, Your plan to bring treats with you when you go out is exactly what I would do. Great job!

  11. Hi Robin! I have a 16 month old beagle shepherd mix and she’s always been so sweet and excited to see strangers. We just recently got a very young teacup puppy and she has been an absolute dream with her! However, she’s started to act out lately, especially when it comes to barking and lunging at
    Strangers. I’m not sure where this behavior came from, but it only happens at night. We go to the dog park in the daytime and she’s perfect and suddenly at night all people are her mortal enemies. I don’t know what to do, I’m just scared she’s going to bite someone someday and I’d be so devastated without her. Please help me!

    • Hi Myla, It may be that she is more nervous at night because her vision isn’t as good so she becomes more suspicious. You might try taking her out a few times and seeing if you can reward her and allow her to relax around people in the evening. I would take really tasty treats with you in the evening so you can get her attention and focus so she can learn that the barking isn’t necessary.

  12. Help, our 5 your old mutt (wirehaired pointer, lab/ mystery mutt) , who has always been friendly with all visitors (since we got him over 4 years ago), has started growling and lunging at visitors that are not here on a weekly basis. He is definitely protecting his family when he does. He has never been left alone with visitors, and has always loved being the center of attention until now. We are experienced dog owners with a history of working past behavioral problems, but have never encountered this before. He is 70lbs of muscle so it’s a serious concern.

    He had a big change in his world 4 months ago when we added two other mutts to our family. This aggression started in the past few weeks. The other two are not showing any aggression, so I cant say he is keying off of them.

    • Hi Elly, If this is behavior that is totally out of character for your adult dog, the first thing I would rule out is any medical issue that might be affecting his behavior. Then, you might try seeing if there is a difference in how your older dogs reacts based on whether or not the other two dogs are in the area when visitors come in. It could be that he is acting differently because they are in the room. If you can pinpoint the triggers that might help to work with him. This will take some practice to work with your dog and I would recommend working with a positive trainer in your area who can provide you with specific guidance. Hope that helps.

  13. I have a 10 month old Jack russell who runs and barks her head off at other dogs she comes across ,and as soon as any of the dog’s as much as looks her way or make a move in her direction she runs screeching away with her tail between her legs as if she was being murdered, and if she see’s a dog she wants to meet, she lies on her belly and pulls herself along the grass verge until she gets to it. It is so embarrassing at this stage, and I just dont know what to do… I have had her since she was born and she has never been mistreated , she is a very nervous dog( leaves, traffic, wind and noises ) but is full of beans and very playful and I couldn’t imagine life without her…Any advice please

    • Hi Susan, It sounds like your dog is interested in meeting other dogs but is actually afraid of them. Her behavior of reacting by barking at the dogs is something I would work on to get her to relax in the presence of other dogs before getting he close to another dog. I normally try to work at a safe distance where my dog can be calm and work for treats I offer. Gradually decrease the distance as your dog gets better.It might help to work privately in a trainer to help with this process because it can take some practice to do it correctly. Hope hat helps.

  14. My dog is a little over 4 years old and recently has been acting out of character. He has been disinterested in everything. He doesn’t want to go for walks. He goes far enough to use the bathroom then runs back to the house. He started using the bathroom on the concrete and runs from me to keep me from stopping him. I have to force feed him water through a baster and tonight he just peed on my living room floor in front of us! I’m at my wits end with him. What should I do? Please help!

    • Hi Donnell, Anytime an older dog has a significant change in behavior I would recommend a complete medical check up by your veterinarian. Hopefully he is doing ok.

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