Scared Dog Indoors

Poor Boris looked uneasy all the time.

His family, unable to read his subtle signals just hadn’t realised how his uneasiness went a lot further than the problem I was there for – his fear of going near particular pieces of furniture and on certain routes through the house.

When they first adopted him a month ago he was very reluctant to enter the house at all.

He may be a very scared dog indoors, but outside Boris is a different dog. He loves to be outside in the garden.

The three-year-old Labrador Boxer mix has now landed on his feet with a couple, their two young daughters and a lovely home.

As soon as I arrived, the young girls cuddled and fussed him, probably for my benefit. Neither they nor mum could see that with his looking away, lip licking and even freezing he wasn’t enjoying it at all. He was wagging his tail, but taken in context this was more in appeasement than joy. Then Dad arrived home and welcomed him with rather vigorous stroking and again he looked away and licked his lips. I would say he was simply enduring the fuss.

Boris sleeps and eats in a utility room at the back of the house, but won’t go through the kitchen and down a short passage to get in there. He will only walk around the outside of the house and in the back door.

We sat in the kitchen – another room where he’s not happy – and because we were all there he did venture in. As he crept through the door, warily, he wouldn’t turn around but would then back out again. Reading him, he seemed to want the company without the fussing. He eventually quietly sat between the gentleman and the lady, away from me, but his eyes were constantly darting.

Each doorway or corner to another area seems to hold terror for Boris.

His behaviour looks to me very much like that of a dog that has been punished by someone unpredictable, not knowing when something might happen and why, which may tie in with what is known of his past. His body language and the backing away is symptomatic of the use of a remote-controlled electric shock collar – a beep comes out of the blue to the dog followed by a zap if he doesn’t comply. Possibly as a puppy he had been shocked to stop him chewing furniture or zapped for going into forbidden areas.

I usually avoid conjecture but want to explain what it looks like. One can only guess and the past is the past, but his behaviour is typical of fallout from the use of excessive or unpredictable punishment of some sort. Whatever it was will only ever have happened has caused  indoors which would explain why he’s so much more comfortable outside.

His new family’s kindness and wish to make him happy has resulted in rather a lot of added pressure on him. The enticing in an excited voice to encourage him out of his room and through the passageway is making things worse as is too much fussing in general. We listed the things where he may be feeling pressure, and they need working on.

When nobody is about he has, on a couple of occasions, ventured out of his room and they have found him at the front door when they arrived home. He has never, though, gone back into his room from indoors.

That route from hall to his back room needs ‘exorcising’. I have suggested they lace the area, starting near the door where he’s least wary, with his favourite food chopped up small. They should scatter it there with him out of the way and then leave him to discover it, always with an escape route back into the hall. This way it is the room and the floor that is offering him the food, not his humans using bribery. (See more about Sprinkles TM here).

Eventually, if taken gradually enough, they should be able to lay a trail down that passage so long as they themselves keep out of the way.

If this psychological approach is very slow, then we have another tack using clicker training – a way in which he won’t suspect that he’s being lured into ‘danger’.

Boris’ body language must be respected and I have sent a couple of excellent videos for the children to watch – mum and dad too, helping them to read dogs. As little pressure as possible should be put on him while he builds up trust in humans and in the safety of his environment. This will take time because things that may have happened to him at a young age will be fairly well implanted in him now. There may be a genetic element to this, but I’m am pretty sure that humans have not always been nice to him. It’s a big tribute to his lovely nature that it’s not resulted in aggression.

Feeling unsafe overwhelms everything else. It’s a survival thing. An animal that feels unsafe won’t even eat. Changing this is a priority. Over time he should be getting his trust back in humans.

In some areas they have already made some great progress in the month he’s been with them.

Feels Unsafe. She Runs for Home.

Eight weeks ago Holly came from a pound in Cyprus to live with my lady client. Holly is a Beagle mix, three years of age.

Holly feels unsafe with sudden soundsAlthough initially spending a lot of time in her bolthole under the kitchen table, she didn’t start off particularly spooked by sudden sounds. This is may have been because, trying to adjust, she was simply shut down.

Whilst becoming more confident at home, over the time she has become increasingly spooked outside.

With hindsight things should have been taken a lot more gradually, one new thing at a time, but she seemed to be coping. I believe things have been stacking up to a level where she’s lost her resilience.

It was, and still is, a world of new and unpredictable things. There will have been the cage for the aircraft, the flight, the car journey and then arriving to a house. Had she ever lived in a house before?

She was then taken out for walks. On lead, she was very scared of traffic, particularly lorries. She is scared of all wheels.

To start with the lady would let her off lead in the nearby park and she ran free. She was in her element.

Holly was waiting at the front door.

Then, after just a few weeks, she had run out of sight. The lady, in a panic, called and called, but Holly didn’t reappear.

With much more sensitive ears, Holly must have heard something the lady didn’t hear. It sent her running in panic.

She had run across roads and was waiting at the front door. There were scratch marks on it as she tried desperately to get in to where it felt safe.

It soon became apparent that she was becoming increasingly scared of sudden sounds.

As Holly adapts to her lovely new, but very different, life, increasingly she feels unsafe. Having run for home a second time she now has to remain on lead. A dog that feels unsafe will feel even more so trapped on a lead. It’s most likely, whatever her history, that she will have spent some of her life either as a stray or on the streets. No leash.

Now she is resisting going out on walks. The lady had been carrying her to the car and trying to find new places, not associated with previous fears. She’s now wriggling to escape from her arms.

When I arrived she quietly took herself off out of sight, to one of her sanctuary places.

She did appear eventually and was actually very friendly. ‘Holly-Come’ brought her running for food. People aren’t the problem. ‘Sudden’ things are, noises in particular – and they don’t have to be loud or nearby to spook her.

Poor Holly feels unsafe most of the time when out of the house.

We sat out in the garden, some distance away from the open back door. Holly joined us.

All was well for a minute or two and then there was a noise from a neighbour. It sounded a bit like a metal ladder being moved. It wasn’t loud. Holly turned and slinked across the garden and indoors.

She came back out. This is a brave little dog.

She was aware of other, softer noises and I immediately rained food around her. Fortunately she is very food motivated. If I heard something that she didn’t actually react to, it still produced food.

A little later I tried tapping my hand softly on the metal table, ready to throw food. It wasn’t softly enough and sent her running indoors again. It demonstrated clearly to both of us how, to work on this, we have to begin at an extremely low level.

“Desensitization consists of exposing a subject to the thing they fear in graded exposures, starting with a form that is dilute and non threatening, and working up to full exposure to the scary thing. Counter-conditioning consists of changing an emotional response (usually from fear to neutrality or to a positive response), by pairing the trigger of the undesirable response with something that evokes a desirable emotional response. Combining these two methods creates a non-threatening but very effective way to alter phobic fear responses.” Eileen Anderson

There will be two kinds of sudden sounds, those that the lady generates herself and those uncontrolled sudden sounds that occur in the environment.

Sudden sounds generated by the lady. 

She can control both intensity and the timing. I suggested she sits near the open kitchen door if in the garden. Holly’s feeling safe depends upon an escape route.

She can tap on the table. The tap has to be even softer than mine was. Simultaneously with the tap, she can gently say ‘Yes’ and drop some food. Saying ‘Yes’ with every sound is helpful because it’s not always possible to be sufficiently immediate with food alone.

The lady can gradually increase the heaviness of the tap to gentle bang. She will watch very carefully not to send Holly over her threshold. If she does so, then they go back to a level Holly that happily tolerates before ending the session.

Over the days and weeks this can be expanded to someone else making sounds in another room. They can download or buy sound effects and use it in the same manner – in another room and very softly indeed initially.

Sudden sounds that she has no control over.

Like the neighbour moving the ladder, sounds that ‘just happen’ are a lot more tricky.

If poor Holly feels unsafe in her own garden when there is a fairly gentle noise over the fence and an open kitchen door, imagine how she must feel when out on a walk and something like a bird scarer goes off or a motorbike roars past.

As soon as there is any sudden sound, however soft and even if Holly seems fine, the lady should say ‘Yes’ and drop food. It will undoubtedly take her some practice to perfect her timing and to be consistent.

She will hold back from walks for a while. A walk is useless when the dog feels unsafe. It does more harm than good.

Because of the ladder incident Holly now may be a bit scared of the garden.

Sprinkles! Unseen by Holly, the lady will sprinkle food all over the grass and then let her out, leaving the door open so she always has an escape route. The environment, not the lady, will be delivering the food.

Holly feels unsafe on walks.

It will be like starting all over again, gradually building up Holly’s confidence. Several very short sessions a day will work best, not going beyond the garden. If she is spooked, the lady should stop straight away.

She will begin by walking Holly around the house – being encouraging – and using rewards.

Next they will go around the garden. The door should be open and if there is any sign of fear the lady should say ‘Yes’, drop food and drop the lead.

When it’s going well, she can open the back gate. They can step through it and come back in again, many times, making a bit of a game of it…and so it goes on.

All the time the lady will keep counter-conditioning bangs and anything sudden with chicken raining around Holly!

This is just the start of the plan. How long will it take before she can walk to the park? When getting a rescue dog from a completely different life, people don’t dream of challenges like this. Realistic expectations are vital. It could take a long time to build up Honey’s confidence. There is no quick fix.

Three months later: ‘Honey has regained her love of the garden and she reached right round the side of the front garden and towards the centre of the front of the house yesterday.’ It’s great how she has turned a corner. I have found time and again that if people can be patient enough and follow our plan exactly, the dog gains confidence more quickly in the end.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approaches I have worked out for Holly. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where fear is concerned. Everything depends upon context. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dog (see my Help page).

Never Goes Out Beyond the Garden

Benji is just seven months old and never goes out beyond their garden.

The dog never goes out beyond the gardenThe German Shepherd, Standard Poodle mix lived in a barn on the farm where he was born until he was four months old when he went to the young couple.

He had never encountered the real world of cars, noises, lots of people or other dogs beside the farm dogs and so on. He’d not been walked on lead.

As might be expected from a pup that had not being in a house until four months of age, he still has toilet accidents indoors.

He is scolded for this. They have a cat which he may want to chase but generally he is good with, and again he is scolded for going near it. He may steal socks or other clothes and chew them, which makes the young man angry with him.

A lot is expected of him.

His lifestyle isn’t ideal for a large, clever and active young dog but he is surprisingly good-natured. He greeted me with friendly interest.

At seven months he should be seeing sights and sounds outside and, most of all, he needs the exercise. He would love to play with another dog I am sure.

I suggested to the young man that Benji was probably going out of his mind with boredom and it’s surprising that the worst he does is to occasionally chew up clothes. Can he imagine being shut in all day with no TV or mobile phone and with nobody to talk to who understands him?

Even while Benji never goes out they can do a bit more about fulfilling his needs with appropriate activities and things to chew and do. The house is small and the garden isn’t big either, but they can feed him in a treat ball and sprinkle it all over the grass so that even meals can be used to give him some release.

It’s probably the lack of stimulation for Benji and the resulting stress that leads to some slightly worrying behaviours.

Besides drinking a lot he gets very excited around his water bowl, which is odd. If after a couple of weeks when his general stress levels should be lower this doesn’t change, then they will need to somehow get him to the vet. This is hard while he never goes out.

He pants, he scratches and nibbles himself and he sometimes chases his tail. He has some Punter3patches of skin showing.

The only way the man has managed to get him out at all has been to drag him by collar and lead, but he doesn’t want to do that again. He did once take him out with no lead at all – very risky.

Like all people who call me, they do it for love of their dog and wanting to do their best, and it’s a question of pointing them in the right direction.

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Benji simply refuses to go outside the front door or garden gate.

They will now use comfortable equipment – a harness and a longer lead. The first step is to acclimatise him to the equipment around the house, associating with good things and food.

We have a plan of tiny increments involving, over the days and maybe weeks, holding the lead inside the door and then dropping it, touching the door handle, opening the door and standing in the doorway, letting him listen and look – and eat. Then stepping out. Then at the garden gate and so on – always leaving the front door open so he can bolt back if necessary.

From now onwards he must be allowed to make his own choice about going out – no more force. This is the only way to change a dog who never goes out into a dog who loves his walks.

When he’s no longer a pup that never goes out but a dog that can happily walk down the road and run around the fields, his life and general health should be transformed, but it could well take time. How will he be with other dogs after all this time? How will he be with traffic?

Most importantly, they can now see the benefits of reinforcing Benji with food for doing what they want instead of scolding The young man saw for himself how he himself can cause the dog’s behaviour. He stared at Benji in a ‘warning’ sort of way and the dog immediately ran to find the cat!

I could sum it up my advice in a few words: kindness works best.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Benji and I’ve not gone into exact details for that reason. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. 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)