Keeping A Daily Journal to Better Understand Your Dogs Behavior

Keeping A Daily Journal to Better Understand Your Dogs Behavior

By Don Hanson, PCBC-A, BFRAP

< Updated 29MAY23 >

Dogs exhibiting a discomforting level of reactivity (cowering or lunging, barking and growling, snapping and biting) are typically in a high state of arousal or stress triggered by negative emotions (anxiety/terror or frustration/rage) or positive emotions (content/hyper-excitement). Therefore, to help these dogs, we must first understand the specifics that trigger these reactions.

Determining what triggers a dog’s reactivity can be challenging and can range from;  “My dog reacts fearfully to all men,” “My dog reacts aggressively to women carrying a big purse,” and “My dog reacts to some strangers at random. I see no clear pattern.” The situations highlighted with people can also apply to dogs and other animals. To help change your dog’s behavior, we need to understand with certainty what triggers their reactivity which can be very different from what you believe triggers their behavior.

PLEASE do NOT set up situations to trigger your dog’s reactivity. By doing so, you are creating unnecessary stress and are potentially making the problem much worse. Instead, when an incident happens, please immediately and quietly get your dog out of the situation.  Then record everything in a journal, as described below.

A behavioral journal for your dog can be as simple as an old notebook; however, I suggest you keep it as a digital file on a word processing program to make it easier to share with the pet care professional you are working with. This makes the information easy to update, to share and makes it easy for others to read. Most smartphones have this ability. Some will even automatically translate the spoken word into readable text; however, some editing may be necessary as speech-to-text can be unreliable.

This journal can be very useful in helping a pet care professional understand why your dog is reacting, which is essential information to develop a behavior modification protocol to help your dog feel better.

Most of the time, reactivity will involve your dog and another living organism; a dog, a person, a cat, etc. Any time two living organisms interact, both can affect the behavior of the other. Therefore, you must be very observant, noting what both organisms are doing and what is happening in the environment.

When a dog is in a high state of arousal due to positive or negative emotions, they may exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Actions – fighting, freezing in place, grabby/mouthy, inability to settle, jumping up on people, lunging, nipping, running away, etc.
  • Body Language
    • Body – backing away, crouching, leaning back, lifting one paw, projecting forward, rolling onto their back, or groveling.
    • Ears – back, forward, neutral.
    • Eyes – avoiding eye contact, blinking excessively, dilated pupils, staring, whale eye, or white eye.
    • Head – looking away.
    • Mouth & Teeth – closed tightly, licking lips, open with tongue hanging out, showing teeth, yawning
    • Tail – Elevated, neutral, tucked.
    • NOTE: A working knowledge of canine body language will be essential to interpreting your dog’s emotional state. The following are recommended references; On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas, A Kids’ Comprehensive Guide to Speaking Dog! by Niki Tudge, and Doggie Language: A Dog Lover’s Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend by Lili Chin. In addition, an accredited Professional Canine Behavior Consultant may also offer programs teaching you basic body language skills.
  • Vocalizations – barking excessively, growling, snarling, whimpering, etc.

To best understand your dog, we must know what a non-stressful day looks like. Therefore, I recommend you make a few brief notes about your dog every day, citing the following:

  • Record general comments on your pet’s overall emotional state. Are they mostly; happy, sad, afraid, angry, unsettled, or neutral for that day? What body language did you observe?

  • Also, note comments on your overall demeanor for the day. A dog is very good at reading your emotional state based on your body language and scent. In other words, your emotional state can affect your dog’s emotional state. More than once, I have seen the dog’s human be all or part of the trigger for reactivity.

  • Record general comments on your overall day (hectic, relaxed, etc.).

  • Describe any additional potential stressors that may have occurred that day or within the previous 24 hours (daycare, dog park, veterinarian, visitors, workers in your home or on your property, etc.). Stress can build over time, finally reaching a breaking point.

  • Describe in as much detail any positive events that occurred that day. Note the following; time, location, other living things in the environment, what happened, and your dog’s body language throughout the event.

  • Whenever your dog is reactive, record the following; time, location, other living things in the environment, what happened, and your dog’s body language throughout the event. In addition, pay attention to the following:

    • People – gender, appearance (size, facial expressions, clothing), tone of voice and volume, behavior (walking or running, arm movements, stature-bending over, squatting, upright), scent, etc.

    • Dogs – gender (if known), appearance (breed, color, size, ear type, tail, mouth, body language), behavior (cowering, running, lunging, snapping, etc.), vocalizations (barking, growling, whining, whimpering).

  • At the end of every day, rate your dog on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 = and don’t know if we can keep doing this to 5 = a perfect dog. Understand that this Rating is subjective, but as long as it is the same person rating every day, it can help monitor progress. Do not expect to reach 4 or 5 and stay there. It is usual for your dog to have good and bad days; we are looking for a trend to indicate we see more 4s and 5s than 1s and 2s. Looking at these trends as things improve will reinforce you to keep doing what you’re doing.

  • Remember, please record as many details as possible.

Samples of what a journal entry might look like

Day 1

Both of us woke up relaxed.

7 AM – Rex woke up, did his morning business in the backyard, had breakfast, and lay beside my desk while I worked from home.

10 AM – I gave Rex a stuffed Kong to provide mental enrichment.

1 PM – I took Rex to a quiet area where encountering others was unlikely. We had a slow meandering walk for about 30 minutes. I let him stop and sniff and pick our path. No people or dogs were encountered.

2 PM – Back home, me working, Rex taking a snooze.

3 PM – The neighbor’s kids are back home from school; Rex got up to look at them through the window and settled after about 5 minutes.

5 PM – Fed Rex dinner, then we returned to our quiet places for another 30-minute walk/sniffing outing. Rex was intrigued watching some ducks.

Today’s Rating – 5


Day 2

I woke up somewhat anxious, knowing Rex had a veterinary appointment today. He seems unaware.

7 AM – Rex woke up, did his morning business in the backyard, had breakfast, and went to the vet for a check-up. By prearrangement with the vet, we waited in the car until they were ready for Rex. We walked into the side door of the clinic, and Rex saw another dog about 20 feet away. His body stiffened, his ears pulled back, and he started licking his lips. The other dog was looking at him but was relaxed and seemed non-threatening. It appeared to be a Pit Bull or mix. Using treats, I was able to coax Rex into the exam room. The vet sat down on the floor and allowed Rex to approach him at his own pace, and they were quickly best friends. As we left the clinic and were getting into the car, a person got out of their vehicle with a Golden on a retractable leash. The dog charged Rex barking and growling. Rex panicked and started jumping up on me and grabbing at my sleeves. Rex had his ears pulled back and avoided eye contact with the Golden. Fortunately, the other person got the Golden somewhat under control, barking as they walked into the clinic. I put Rex in the backseat, but he seemed unsettled, pacing constantly. About a mile from home, I heard a fire truck with its siren on and pulled over to let it pass. Rex lunged and barked at the window as it went by, something I had never seen him do before. When we did get home, Rex pulled on the leash to get inside.

1 PM – After all the stress this morning, Rex and I just sat outside in the backyard for about 30 minutes to enjoy the sun.

2 PM – Back at my desk working, Rex is in his bed napping when the doorbell rings; he races to the door and see’s the UPS driver and is barking and lunging at the door. His ears are back, but he’s throwing himself at the door, so it’s hard to describe his body language. However, he is highly agitated. He won’t take a treat which my Profession Canine Behavior Consultant has told me can mean Rex is extremely stressed.  It takes a bit for me to get him in the other room before I can closer the door. Finally, after I sign for the package and the truck leaves, I let Rex out of the room, and he immediately runs to the window looking for the man or the truck, still clearly aggravated.

3 PM – Back at work, Rex is still unsettled and pacing, panting, and drooling a bit. When the neighbors come home, I hear a door slam, and Rex runs to the windows barking and lunging while watching the neighbor’s kids. It takes him 30-plus minutes to settle down.

5 PM – I feed Rex,  and due to all of the incidents today, we decide to watch a movie together… one without sirens.

Today’s Rating – 3

The above example illustrates how a series of little stressors can escalate a dog’s stress and reactivity.


Day 3

We both slept well, but it may have been due to emotional exhaustion.

7 AM – Rex woke up, did his morning business in the backyard, had breakfast, and lay beside my desk while I worked from home. Mindful of yesterday’s stressors, I decided we would take it easy today.

10 AM – I gave Rex a stuffed Kong to provide mental enrichment.

2:30 PM – To avoid the neighbors when they come home, Rex and I went for a quiet ride in the country and stopped at a quiet park with no people for a short walk. As we returned to the parking area, a big man sat on the park bench, and Rex avoided eye contact. The man quietly asked if he could say hi to Rex, and he could see I was hesitant, but I could also see Rex had relaxed a little. I suggested seeing if Rex was interested in meeting him and asked him to remain on the bench. Rex slowly walked toward the man, who remained silent, avoiding eye contact. Finally, Rex approached and started playfully wagging his tail as I gave him a treat for approaching the man. I was pretty surprised when Rex jumped onto the bench next to the man, who talked to Rex softly while I kept giving treats. Not wanting to push things too far, I had Rex jump off the bench, and we returned to the car. I thanked the man for his patience and good dog skills.

5 PM – Fed Rex dinner, then we returned to our quiet places for another 30-minute walk and sniffing adventure.

Today’s Rating – 4, Rex was still edgy from yesterday, but I gave him a four because he did so well with the man we met at the park.

Don Hanson lives in Bangor, Maine, where he is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( and the founder of, an online educational resource for people with dogs and cats. He is a Professional Canine Behavior Consultant (PCBC-A) accredited by the Pet Professional Accreditation Board (PPAB) and a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP). Don is a member of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), serving on the Board of Directors and Steering Committee and chairing the Advocacy Division. He is also a founding director of Pet Advocacy International (PIAI). In addition, Don produces and co-hosts The Woof Meow Show podcast, available at, the Apple Podcast app, and this blog. The opinions in this article are those of Don Hanson.

© Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved

Subscribe to this Blog