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I would love some input regarding our rescue dogs recent behavior changes and what the best next step would be...

By way of background, we adopted our dog the middle of last July, he is a medium sized mixed breed, some kind of hound mixed with maybe lab, border collie, or spaniel. We were not sure of his age at the time of adoption, some of his paperwork said 6 months, some said a year, but given that he hasn't grown much in the time that we have had him I would lean closer to a year. He came to our area from a rescue in the south where he was picked up as a stray.

He has pretty much been a dream since we have had him. He has had a couple bad puppy-esque behaviors such as jumping up to greet, begging at the table, minor chewing, etc... but nothing major and was pretty easily corrected through training. We enrolled in obedience courses and all was going well. He loved all dogs and people, which we sometimes struggled with as he would plant himself in a sit during walks in hopes that they would come over hi. We tried to work on his focus during these times asking for a paw or asking him to play touch and this has been getting better over time.

Starting this past winter he didn't seem to want to go out for a walk either early in the morning or later in the evening when it was dark. We chalked this up to him not being used to the cold and the trainer seemed to agree that this could be the case as well. We did notice that when we did get him to walk at night he would get more easily spooked by objects out of the ordinary (i.e. a garbage can that was knocked over, a bag in the street, etc...). He hackles would raise, sometimes he would bark at it, other times he would freeze and refuse to move. I would try to encourage him to go sniff which would sometimes work and I would praise and treat heavily for any forward movement.

Come spring when it started to warm up and get lighter earlier things seemed to go back to normal which was great. However in April a couple of things happened and I think something may have caused a change in his behavior and I'm not sure what to do to get my buddy back to who he was, unless this started earlier and we just didn't realize it until now...

In April, he got bit by another dog at the dog park. It wasn't terrible, he had two small cuts to his ear. They did not require stitches and healed on their own with antibiotics. It did not seem to affect him or the way he interacts with other dogs, he still seems to love everyone he comes across. After he healed up, we began taking him to daycare three days a week. I honestly think that this has been great for him and isn't a factor but I did want to mention it to give the complete picture. He seems to love it there, runs in the moment I open the door, seems to adore the staff and they seem to feel the same way about him.

It was also around this time that he seemed to develop allergies and started to chew at his feet. We had been trying a few different things with the vet as far as diet (we limited all poultry, grain, and beef) and added omega but we have now run the blood panel and found that he is sensitive to grass and dust and are now going to begin taking the vaccination pills. I mention this because I'm sure there is a level of discomfort involved.

Also around this time he got bit on the leg by something which got infected. We didn't notice it at first and when we did we thought it was a scratch and decided to keep an eye on it for a few days before going to the vet. She thought it was a tick bite but did not see any tick. She also ran a lyme and heartworm test and both came back negative.

So what has changed you ask? His attitude towards people. If we are walking and someone goes to their car or to take out their garbage he will occasionally bark and lunge. It doesn't always happen and there doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason when it does although I find that these instances do occur more when it is dark and when the person is a man. Also if we are walking and someone says hello to us occasionally he will start barking at them. It doesn't seem to be aggressive as he does not bare his teeth, I feel as though it is more fear based. He has also started lunging at motorcycles, pick up trucks, and bicycles, but again this doesn't always occur and I can't seem to pinpoint a how or why. I will try and put him in a sit and treat when I see a possible stimuli coming but because he doesn't always react I feel like that causes more anxiety because now he's expecting it to come.

In other situations he has become very fearful. We would barely approach the vet last week when he went in for his shots and he has never had that reaction to being in their office before. He is extremely fearful of thunder (we don't recall if there had been many thunderstorms last year), the smoke detector (not proud but we have set it off once or twice recently when cooking), and the smell of burning from the stove (again, not proud). He will go to the ground floor of the house and curl up shaking. We purchased a thundershirt and have used it and otherwise tried to go on as normal during these episodes, it seems to have helped a little but not by much.

The most shocking thing happened this week. We had house guests all week, first my parents who he was great with, loving, affectionate, playful. Then my aunt and uncle came. They were already in the house when we were coming in from a walk so I kept him on leash when we came in as they are older and I didn't want him jumping on them in excitement. He went up and greeted my aunt who he had met before, perfect. Went up to my uncle who was sitting on the couch, he was super excited and wiggly. He then jumped up onto the couch next to him and then something just changed. He immediately jumped off and started barking his head off, luckily he was on leash so I moved him away, tried calming him down. Once he was tried to play look at that, tried having my uncle give him treats, anything I could think of. He would remain calm while we were doing this but the moment we stopped he would start again. I finally gave up and decided to just keep them separated which was fairly easy given that they were out of the house most days and nights and he was in daycare and whatnot so their paths rarely crossed. It was only later that I realized my uncle wears hearing aids, which according to my aunt are turned way up. Do you think that when he jumped up and got level with his head he could hear the feedback and it freaked him out? Has anyone ever heard of a dog having a similar reaction to someone with a hearing device or am I looking for excuses anywhere?

The last thing to note is that to me, and my boyfriend disagrees with me. Is that he seems somewhat lethargic in recent weeks. My boyfriend thinks he's just more tired given the increased amount of exercise from daycare, him getting home earlier and taking him to the park more often, and increases activity with us now that the weather is nice. To me, he just seems disinterested. When he does nap he'll go downstairs away from us which he never really did before. He doesn't really court our affection like he did before, doesn't seem as interested in playing fetch or tug or doing mini training sessions. Full disclosure though, we have been slacking with doing training sessions at home and we do need to work on being more consistent with that.

We spoke to the vet last week about these changes (with the exception of what happened the other night) to get her input as I will often see people on here come with similar issues and a recommendation is always to talk to the vet. She seemed to think that this is his true personality and it is just coming out now and that if we have concerns we should consult a behaviorist. I'm just not sure I agree. I feel that if we adopted him at a year he'd be fairly set in his ways personality wise and we've worked so hard to develop our relationship and any changes he's made previously have been in a positive direction these u-turn seems strange.

I'm really not sure what the next step should be. We are headed to the vet tonight for some more allergy bloodwork, should I demand a full work up? Do you think he could be ill or bothered by some sort of pain? Should we jump straight to a behaviorist? Should we try to continue working on this at home although it doesn't seem to be having much impact? Is he getting too much activity and maybe we should lessen up on the amount of days he goes to daycare? Could this be a dietary issue since we tried so hard to find limited ingredient food that he's missing something he needs? Is he mentally un-stimulated because we've been slacking with training?

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It is important to realize that the term aggression refers to actions of the dog- threat displays like snarling, growling, lunging, and barking are all a part of this, and just as barking, growling, snarling and lunging doesn't always mean that a dog is being aggressive, a lack of snarling or growling while lunging and barking doesn't mean that the dog isn't aggressive. The underlying emotional state that is leading to the aggressive behaviors varies, but it is very common for aggression to be rooted in fear. What your describing sounds likely fear based aggression to me.

I do tend to agree with the vet's assessment that this is likely just his adult personality showing. It sounds like you got him towards the tail end of adolescence, and he has shown a gradual trend towards this aggressive behavior, starting with just displaying a lot of fear. It also sounds like he may have had some scary experiences during prime fear periods (like getting attacked by another dog/bitten by something, etc) that might have given him a reason to find the world especially scary. It is very common for fear to turn into fear based aggression around one or two years of age, as a dog is more likely IMO to move from a flight response to a scary stimulus into a fight response with maturity. I was just talking to a trainer the other day with a rescue mutt that displayed perfectly normal behavior from 11 weeks when they brought her home right up until a year, when she started showing an increased fear response quickly followed by an increased threat/aggression response to strangers, other dogs, new objects, etc.

Fear aggression doesn't make him a bad dog, and it doesn't make him worse or better than a dog that just displays an increased fear response, its just good to keep in mind that he's starting to become a dog who is more likely to lash out/threaten when he's scared than he is to just cower/try to flee. It just changes the way you would manage him, IMO.

Personally I could totally believe he was hearing the feedback from your uncle's hearing aide and that's what he was reacting to, especially since it sounds like a lot of his issues have to do mostly with movement/noise sensitivity more than just not liking people he hasn't met before. Given he has issues with people taking out garbage, he might also be triggered by people carrying things. The way you're thinking is perfect for someone with a fear reactive dog- you want to identify his triggers so you can be prepared to manage him around them and so you can work on making them less scary for him.

Instead of putting him into a sit-stay around his triggers, you might instead use a combination of distance as a reward for good behavior and distraction to prevent escalation by using some leash exercises that involve him moving into a specific position and paying attention to you instead of his triggers. When he sees his triggers, wait for him to notice them from a distance and then break his fixation by moving away while executing a certain heeling/position exercise. This is a good overview of the different exercises you could try:

"Look At That" would probably also be good to try.

I'd also familiarize yourself with the concepts of Behavior Adjustment Training (B.A.T) and Desensitization/Counter Conditioning.

I also wonder if maybe he might be specifically leash-reactive, given he seems to usually be on leash when he displays these behaviors. If that's the case you want to work very hard on keeping a lot of slack in the leash, especially around his triggers.

ETA: I think the next step is educating yourself on reactivity, specifically fear based reactivity, and maybe also on some behavioral modification techniques. I also strongly echo the vet's suggestion that working with a behaviorist is a good idea. Given that his issues are based in fear, I would personally suggest trying a force free one first, because IMO the best way to rehab a fearful dog is through lots of R+, and IMO you always want to exhaust non-invasive, force free options first.
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