Routine – How important is it to a dog and should we deliberately introduce change?


I am posing a bit of a debate this time. Routine or variety?

Writing about children, Liza Asher of ClubMom Inc says regular schedules provide the day with a framework that orders a young child’s world. “Knowing what to expect from relationships and activities helps children become more confident,” says Dr. Peter Gorski, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachussetts.

Asher continues: Be consistent but flexible: Routines are essential, but allow some room for flexibility. On the downside, she quotes a parent, “I was completely rigid about my oldest son’s bedtime, and he is now incapable of veering from that routine. If we are out later than his bedtime, he becomes upset.”

So, what about dogs?

An article in Petco on stress and the importance of routine for dogs states that routine is a key element in developing an obedient, stress-free dog. Your dog needs a structure and framework within which to feel secure and to behave appropriately. Simply knowing when she will be fed, walked and played with on a regular basis can go a long way to making her feel more relaxed and secure. Without routine she will not adapt well to unavoidable life changes.

My internet searches can find nothing about the importance of flexibility in order for a dog to be buffered against life’s necessary interruptions in routine.

I would like to propose that if there is too much or rigid routine the ‘tail may wag the dog’. Sticking to routine can mean the dog starts to control you.

If the same things happen at the same time, in the same order or in the same place every day, then any unexpected deviation can cause a sensitive or nervous dog an inability to cope. A good example is that if a walk is always along the same route, an insecure dog may become too dependent on that route and refuse to go anywhere else – to go willingly where the walker chooses. This then can put strain on the dog, putting him into a vulnerable position of being the decision-maker out on a walk. The dog may even simply sit down and refuse to walk.

Connected to routine are patterns or rituals.

With my own dogs, it takes little more than a couple of occasions if, when I walk in the room having been upstairs, I then go straight to the door to take them out, for my dogs to get excited whenever I walk into the room after coming downstairs. They are so easily conditioned for something they like! If a dog is fed following the same triggers daily, the same thing happens, he starts to stress for food at a certain time which makes him vulnerable to stress if for some reason the meal is delayed. He may even start pacing and worrying earlier and earlier for his food, ending up with the dog being fed on demand.

Surely a dog that is too dependent upon routine will suffer much more if he has to go into kennels, the family moves house,  or upon the arrival of a new baby, or if something unforeseen happens like the owner going into hospital.

And what about variety being the spice of life?

Whilst I agree the day needs to be ‘pinned’ to a few unchanging routines (the more insecure or nervous the dog, the more should be unchanging while we work on that), I suggest that various things between these anchor points should be variable. Fixed should be where they sleep, where they eat, where they stay when we go out and so on. Playtime, walks – where and when, training games, enrichment exercises etc. should be more random and which must surely help to prevent under-stimulation and boredom. It also helps us to keep the dog’s attention on us because we at any time could do something unpredicted and interesting.

All dogs are different and we must be very senstiive to how much variety a dog can accept and enjoy.

One very important routine is the connection between whatever ritual a person uses when they leave the house and the fact they are always definitely coming back. Another is the dog can expect to be let outside first thing. There will be a routine before going for walks involving leads, collars or harnesses. However, if walks are always at the same time and following the same sequence of events, we are asking for trouble – and the dog could be even more stressed as he has to wait and pester for his walk if for some reason it is delayed or cancelled.

I believe that the more variety a dog can cope with the more bomb-proof he will be (think assistance and guide dogs), but it’s best if started early. The little puppy needs a very rigid routine for his security, toilet training and to learn what is chewable and what is not, and gradually, bit by bit, little changes can be introduced like varied walks (town and country), leaving him alone briefly and so on. The most traumatic experience for a young puppy must be the huge change of being left alone for the very first time during the night in his new home. This in my mind isn’t a good start.

It would benefit many anxious and stressed dogs with issues to go back to a very rigid routine indeed, where they know just what is happening and when, with fixed and consistent boundaries – and gradually, using positive reinforcement, get them welcoming small and then larger deviations.

Here is the story of a little dog I went to whose life was chaotic. A strict routine based on calm has done wonders.

Theo Stewart, The Dog Lady 

Go to my main website:

About Theo Stewart

I am a dog Behaviourist having helped over 3000 dog owners over sixteen years (INTODogs - ICAN Companion Animal Behaviourist) and trainer covering Beds, Herts, Cambs and Bucks, a 'Victoria Stilwell' Positively Dog Trainer (VSPDT) and a full member of the IMDT. Graduate ISCP, International School for Canine Practitioners. My main site:
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