Scared of the Car. Scared of Traffic. Systematic Desensitisation

Barney is very scared of the car. He won’t get in.

scared of the carHe is very frightened of traffic also.

This is becoming a problem. Not only does it limit where they can walk him but they will need to take him to the vet soon.

Four months ago the two-year-old Staffie came to live with the couple. All they know about his past is that he was in rescue kennels for the previous eighteen months of his young life.

Possibly a mix of things are responsible for Barney’s fearfulness of both traffic and being in their van. He very likely was inadequately socialised or habituated to the outside world at a young age. They believe he had been ditched from a van beside a busy road.

Whatever the cause, he now has a lovely home and it is what it is.

An emotional mix.

Barney is an emotional mix of being extremely friendly, over-excitable and scared stiff of the world outside his house and garden.

The have worked hard over the past four months. The lady has been training him. Where before he wouldn’t go out at all, by taking it one house at a time, she can now get him down the road to the local park – albeit fearfully.

Strangely and like many scared dogs scared of traffic do, he pulls towards it. He is scared of loud noises and of anything different. He is on high alert from the moment he goes through the garden gate. In his highly-charged state he strains on the lead to the nearby park, probably in order to get as far away from traffic as quickly as possible.

They can’t take him somewhere quiet because he’s so scared of the car.

The other day he pulled out of his harness.

When they rescued him, they had agreed to attend six training classes which involved a car journey. Classes were a disaster for the terrified dog. They had to force him into the car which they did by putting him in a crate and lifting it in.

Barney feels unsafe.

The issues we are dealing with all have one root cause – Barney feels unsafe. There is a kind of vicious circle because every day his stress levels are topped up by the walking ordeal.

This means that, because the stress remains in the dog for such a long time (see ‘trigger stacking‘), he is stressed before even starting out on each walk, He runs off down the garden.

Poor Barney is seriously scared of the car. Without their obligation to take him to the classes, their own efforts may have got them further than they actually have. Having to push him into that situation will have set him back.

Safety First

Now we will work on ‘Safety First’. This means what Barney considers to be ‘safety’.

Feeling safe is more important for Barney than exercise, it’s more important than a walk. Feeling safe is more important than food – he won’t eat if he feels unsafe.

Our plan involves some things to do at home just to make sure his ‘stress bucket’ is as healthy as possible. This includes taking pressure off wherever possible and by not over-exciting him.

Our main work is around ultimately achieving happy walks – going out of the garden gate, progressing to walking down the road, past traffic. It also involves getting in the car.

Traffic and getting in the car

I have broken into tiny increments these two areas, scared near traffic and scared of the car. It begins by standing at the open garden gate without going through. Then it will be working till he’s happy out in the driveway. They will, from a safe distance, work on his fear of passing cars.

Then they will get to the kerb. Then across the road.

They will make sure Barney feels happy and safe at each step before pushing forward to the next. They may need to add extra steps. As they progress, they may even find they can skip some.

Each step will involve Barney simply helping Barney, bit by bit, to feel safe and confident.

At a distance where he feels relaxed enough to eat, they will rain tiny bits of chicken down on him when a car passes. At each point where he always becomes anxious and agitated (currently this starts just through the garden gate), they will feed him chicken. His anxiety intensifies at the kerb.

If he won’t eat, they have simply gone too far too fast and must backtrack. 

Scared of the car – a systematic plan

They will approach his fear of getting into the car in the same systematic way.

We discussed whether they would use their car or van and decided he might be less scared in the car than the van. Next we discussed where in the car – the boot, the back seat or the front foot well. We plumped for the foot well to start with.

Looking at the photo one can see he sits awkwardly. Does he have pain? It’s possibly that jumping in the car has hurt him in the past and contributes to his fear of the car. It’s Catch 22 because he needs to get into the car to go to the vet. Probably the vet will need to visit their house.

This is how the plan looks at the moment:

They will open the car door in advance and sprinkle food around the ground beside it. When Barney is happy going out onto the drive they will walk him past the open car. He will find the food. If he looks at the open door they can drop more food.They won’t stop or do anything to try to entice him in.

When he is happy with this, they will drop food on the car sill. When he is happy with this – on the floor of the car. Next a little further in…..

Next the lady will sit on the passenger seat. He may or may not get in by her feet…..Gradually, taken slowly enough, he will be in the car. She can shut the door. She can get in the driving seat. Engine start. Move a bit…..and so on…

Next I suggest, before starting out on the walk (by now he should be happier walking down the road), the lady parks the car fifty yards away on their walking route.

At the end of the walk they can drive the short journey back home.

An exercise in patience

The more work they put in now, the more slowly they take this with lots of short sessions, the more progress they will make. They should get there in the end.

It will largely be an exercise in patience (which they have already proved they have in plenty by the progress they’ve made so far).

Very good news at the end of the first week. “…we have got him a Thundershirt no problems last night with fireworks. Had a nice walk today in the park no pulling on lead have not tried to get him near the van yet maybe this week  he is so much better this week….”
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete report. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog, you can do more harm than good. Click here for help

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