This picture isn’t actually two-year-old Springer Spaniel Jimmy because he didn’t come out of hiding for long enough for me to take his photo, but it’s similar. Jimmy lives with another confident and calm Springer, Jasper.
Jimmy’s Working Springer breeder kept the dogs outside in a barn, so Jimmy had been very little contact with people and no contact at all with the real world until he was nine weeks old.
Then, instead of his new family being able to catch up with carefully planned positive experiences for him, disaster struck. He screamed in pain throughout the first night, ending up in a veterinary hospital with some complication of a serious worm infestation. He then moved on to be with the local vet, still screaming – and still away from his new home. Alone for the first time in his life.
It’s so important for puppies to be exposed to people, other dogs and life in general very early on (and people often still don’t realise this should start well before they leave the breeder), but it goes without saying that these exposures have to good ones. He was a terrified puppy and he is now a terrified dog, only relaxed and happy with his immediate family and one or two close friends. When he is at his most terrified, he will poo himself.
It is all so distressing for his family, who love him dearly and have tried everything they can think of including training classes. But – you can’t ‘train’ fear out of a dog.
Weirdly, out of the confines of the house and particularly off-lead, Jimmy becomes a different dog. He is fine with other dogs and accepts people so long as they don’t try to touch him. Interestingly, he will only toilet away from the house and garden.
Back at home he spends much of his time stretched out in his own little world behind the sofa. When someone is at the front door he rushes to the sanctuary of his crate in the dining room, barking. If it’s family he will come and say hello, but if anyone else is coming in they will be walking past his crate, so he then runs behind the sofa or a chair, still barking, and may well not come out again despite being enticed and persuaded.
This sequence of reaction to anyone coming into the house has gone on for so long that there will be an element of learned behaviour to it. Backing up this theory is that when he’s at the son’s house he’s a lot less reactive when people come in, even men, and he doesn’t bark or run at all. There are quite a few other little odd things that I found out. He may be under their bed during the night, but if someone gets up and goes out of the room, he will bolt to his other crate which is in their bedroom when they come back into the room.
People entering through a door, whether family or not, causes him particular stress. He probably feels trapped.
The big question is what to do about it. It looks like the two main factors involved in his fear are people arriving – most particularly people he doesn’t know and especially men – and his own home territory. We can work on both. They can work at making the garden the best outside place in the world which involves using food rather than fun – Jimmy isn’t playful at home. Fortunately he does like his food when he’s not too scared.
Work can be done around knocking on the front door, starting by the lady or gentleman simply standing inside the door and knocking on it whilst feeding Jimmy, moving on to knocking from the outside and so on. They will save cooked chicken for this work. Whenever anyone comes, they can throw chicken to him, wherever he is. When he does venture of hiding, the visitor can gently roll chicken in his direction. We will refine this as we go along. Basically – when someone enters the house the ‘chicken bar’ opens. When they go, it closes.
He has four bolt-holes: behind sofa, behind chair, under the table and his crate. We will work at very slowly shutting down a couple of his bolt holes to try to break the sequence – the habit element, leaving his crate of course. The crate is the furthest away from the door but still within sight from the sitting room. People coming to the house must not walk past it anymore. We will block just the chair or sofa initially and see what happens. All the time we must leave him the choice whether he comes out or not – never force him or even entice him. Persuasion is a form of pressure and the fuss could possibly be reinforcing.
It’s entirely up to Jimmy whether he stays out of sight, but the further out of hiding he comes the more reinforcing it should become. At present it is the opposite.