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 paediatrics at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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?

Your dog needs a structure and framework to feel secure and to behave appropriately. Knowing when she will be fed, walked and played with on a regular basis can help make her feel 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. How can routine-dependent dogs be buffered against life’s inevitable 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 demands and stresses when something is late for instance.
The same things happen at the same time, in the same order or in the same place every day. May not any unexpected deviation cause a sensitive or nervous dog to be vulnerable?
An example. If a walk is always along the same route, an insecure dog may refuse to walk anywhere else. This then can put strain on the dog should the walker decide to deviate. The dog may even 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 to start a pattern. I may walk into the room having been upstairs. I then go straight to the door to take them out. After a few days of this my dogs will 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 or she starts to stress for food at a certain time. This makes him vulnerable to stress if for some reason the meal is delayed. He may even begin pacing and worrying earlier and earlier for his food, ending up with having to be fed on demand.
Surely a dog that is too dependent upon routine will be thrown should something happen. He may have to go into kennels. The family may move house.  There may be a new baby or something unforeseen like the owner going into hospital.

And what about variety being the spice of life?

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 also 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, training games, enrichment exercises etc. could be more random. This should help to prevent under-stimulation and boredom.
It also helps us to keep the dog’s attention on us if we at any time could do something unpredicted and interesting.
All dogs are different and we must be very sensitive to how much variety a dog can accept and enjoy.

Leaving the dog alone

One very important routine is the ritual a person uses when they leave the house. Part of this is 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. If walks are always at the same time and following the same sequence of events, we could be asking for trouble. The dog could be even more stressed as he has to wait and pester for his walk if for some reason it’s delayed or cancelled.
I believe that the more variety a dog can cope with the more bomb-proof he will be. Think of assistance dogs and guide dogs).

Puppy security

A little puppy needs a very rigid routine while he learns about life. He needs routine for his toilet training and to learn what is chewable and what is not. Bit by bit, we introduce little changes like varied walks (town and country), leaving him alone briefly and so on.
It would benefit many anxious and stressed dogs with issues to go back to a very rigid routine indeed. They will know just what is happening and when with fixed and consistent boundaries. Gradually they will accept 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 C.C.B (Certified Canine Behaviourist) INTODogs). I have helped over 3000 dog owners over eighteen years. In addition to online consultations all over the world, I cover Beds, Herts, Cambs and Bucks for home visits. 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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