Worried Border CollieThey have had Max for nearly four weeks now. After a life where he was alone for many hours a day followed by several months in rescue kennels, the five-year-old Border Collie has a great deal of adjusting to do and his new owners, knowing already some of the problems they were taking on, are giving him their all. He really wasn’t doing well in kennels.

Initially they were walking him down the road or putting him in the car to take him to open places and he was only somewhat worried by sounds and bangs. It was manageable. Over the past month this has intensified until now he may often refuse to go out of the door at all. On a good day he won’t go further than about fifty yards from the house to his favourite sniffing and marking spots. He will no longer get into the car.

A sort of ritual has developed. Max frequently goes to the front door obviously asking to go out, and they will probably jump up, pleased to do his bidding. I watched as they put his lead on – he was excited and happy. The lady then opened the inner porch door and he was with her, then she opened the front door and he put the brakes on. The next thing they do is to cajole and entice him in every way they can. This is quite heavy reinforcement for refusing and may even put pressure on the sensitive dog. Upon his refusal and until she spoke to me a few days ago, the lady would then take him straight out the back into the garden for a game instead.

We experimented with the man going out of the front door ahead for a minute, then the lady following but with no lead on Max. He followed her happily outside and sniffed about. We tried then the man going out first and the lady taking Max out on lead. He refused to go out of the door. Next time, with the man outside again, the lady carried the lead. The dog was reticent but after one call joined them. He doesn’t like that lead, although he’s initially really eager to have it put on. Is it because he feels trapped so that if he does hear a sound he won’t be able to freely dash back in? Is it because he feels that with someone holding the lead he loses control and choice?

Things aren’t always all they seem. In ‘behaviour speak’ the clue is in the A and C of the ‘ABCs’ – the Antecedents preceding the Behaviour, and the Consequence – what happens as a result. Leading up to going, they do just what Max wants in terms of when they try to take him out – going when he indicates at the door and putting his lead on. Then when the door opens he completely changes. Tail stops wagging and he refuses. What are the consequences? Immediately following this is persuasion and lots of effort and attention to encourage him go out with them. When they give up he is immediately rewarded with fuss, food and fun in the garden.

A and C are things we can change. They will no longer try to take him out when he is asking, but when they decide. They will experiment with leaving the lead outside and putting it on after he is out. They will experiment with putting his lead on, calling him casually out of the door and coming straight back with no further attention given if he refuses. On the occasions when he does go out to his favourite sniffing and peeing places, they must come back in well before he has had enough – while he still wants to stay outside. Coming back must then be boring!

The fear of sounds wasn’t so bad when they first got him home and may almost be a separate issue.  It needs first to be dealt with in the garden where he reacts less intensely as he can always run back in and also with noises on a CD. With some hard work and lots of repetition he will be taught a self-rescue strategy of running to his people for pieces of chicken instead of running indoors or dropping to the ground in panic. They aren’t really sure that his panic attacks are always due to sounds as they often can hear nothing themselves. Walks will have to be very near to home until this is firmly established. Bit by bit each new place he goes to has become ‘contaminated’ until the whole world away from home is a dangerous place to Max.

Max’ new owners are, understandably, very concerned about getting him out on walks – for his own good – and their very concern will be exerting pressure on him. It’s very natural for any beings to resist pressure. The Border Collie needs exercise, stimulation and interest but any forcing him out will do a lot more harm than good.

About six weeks later: ‘He is now happy getting into cars, visiting other walk areas. Getting him to walk from house.  Have got a long training lead, he appears to be more relaxed on this than with the previous 2m length lead, we can still bring him close when required.’

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Max, particularly where fear issues are concerned, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).