Canine Behavior/Anxiety of outdoors, especially at night
Hi Jody, I have a 3 year old staffordshire bull terrier cross. She's a big healthy girl, 25kg, and usually scared of nothing (except maybe the vacuum). Firework season has just ended here in the UK, and I know this upsets her a lot as we went through it last year. However this year it seems to have affected her much worse. We've now gotten to a stage where she won't even leave the house at night time for a walk. She will go out in daylight, but she won't go very far before she puts the paw down and starts dragging me home. And she jumps at any sudden noise, a car door slamming, which she never did before. She still goes into our own garden, to do her business and have a little stretch. But she becomes very distressed when I try to walk her at night, and I'm starting to worry as she's getting nowhere near the excersize she needs. Have you got any advice on how I can start to coax her out at night time? I'm wondering if this is a common problem that is easily overcome? I'm terrified this will be a lasting effect. Thanks in advance for your help. Darina.
Sudden, loud noises from unseen "monsters" can be very distressing to many dogs. Fireworks, thunder, cars backfiring can all do in a sound sensitive dog. And I'm finding that many of my staffie clients are very sensitive souls to both sudden noises and sudden movements.
For now, if it's possible, you might try starting her walk before sunset since she appears to be comfortable going out while it's still light out. Plan the walk so that you are returning home just as it's getting dark. Stop a house or two away from your home, ask her for some basic skills or tricks that she knows - sit, paw/hi-five, focus, a brief stay, down if she's comfortable with that, etc. Especially if she has tricks that she really enjoys doing (my older dog loves to do "who's shy" where he puts his paw over his eyes, and my little terrier mix loves "Who's a giant" which prompts him to stand tall on his hind legs). Asking for tricks or playing a quick little game that your dog loves as the sun is going down while outside can do wonders to help her feel more secure.
In fact, I'd say that while on the walk, you should stop every 3rd or 4th house and do 2-5 different skills. Mix it up so that you ask for the skills in random order. Or bring her favorite tug toy and play a brief game of tug, always asking for a Drop or Out to end the game politely before walking on. You can even dance a little jig or just stop and sing her a silly little song to keep her engaged with you. This process not only helps to distract her from the fact that she might be getting nervous, but it also helps her come to see you as ever entertaining and she never knows what bit of fun will come next. This can dramatically improve her overall walking skills because she's paying more attention to you and staying closer by.
You may also want to try a Thunder Shirt. The company claims an 85% success rate, which means that roughly 85 out of ever 100 dogs who wears the shirt shows a decrease in anxiety related behaviors (which can be include over arousal all the way through total withdrawal). Anxious behaviors include excessive panting, lip licking, yawning, sudden intense interest in some unseen thing on the ground (sniffing), slowed movement, freezing, refusing to go forward, trying to escape, offensive barking, growling and other distance-increasing signals, cowering, tail tucking, and many others.
I have had very good luck with my older (sound sensitive dog) with his Thunder Shirt. He's even sought it out and requested it to be put on. Many of my client dogs have also shown great success with it. I encourage you to introduce the shirt to her first when there is no stress. Let her sniff it, put a couple treats on it and let her eat them off the shirt. Put the shirt on the first time for just 5-10 minutes and see how she behaves. We want her to be comfortable and moving freely with it on. She should seem completely unfazed by having it on. If she shuts down and freezes, then she's afraid of the shirt and you'll have to do some serious acclimating/counter conditioning to help her be comfortable with the shirt (may be more trouble than it's worth at that point). But if you put it on and she does her behaviors for you, eats without hesitation, plays, etc. then I'd say give this a shot. I have found that with regular daily wearing for 2-3 weeks, I've seen a lingering effect of increased confidence, even when the shirt isn't actually on. This is just anecdotal with my own dog, but that's a reasonable starting point.
It's important to know that the effect of the shirt wears off between 30-90 minutes after putting it on (like being very aware of your shoes when you first put them on, but then you forget you stop feeling them - your brain tunes out that bit of stimulation as unnecessary to your survival and so you stop noticing it). So, I usually encourage having the dog wear the shirt for 1-2 hours at least once per day, but twice per day is even better. When I do this with my dog, he wears it for a couple hours in the morning, then I take it off mid-day and then put it back on around dinner time until bed time. It can't hurt if it's on longer than 2 hours, it's just lost its effect, so taking it off for a few hours and then putting it back on reestablishes the effect of the shirt. The shirt shout NOT be worn 24 hours per day. It needs to be off for at least 8 consecutive hours out of every 24 so that we avoid irritation and rubbing.
The shirt works in a manner similar to the weighted vests used by autistic people. The subtle, constant stimulation of the shirt causes the portion of the brain that registers external stimuli to trigger. In doing this, it appears to help dogs process other external stimulation without becoming so overwhelmed by it.
In your dog's case, I'd put it on at meal times so that she makes great associations with it. Then, I'd put it on between 3-10 minutes before going for a walk (vary how long before the walk you put it on so it doesn't become a cue to her that a walk is imminent). Leave the shirt on until you've been back from the walk for 5-15 minutes. This may help her feel much safer and recover faster when she does hear a sudden noise while out at night. I'd put it on for her daytime walks as well (or even garden play) so that she gets used to it in all sorts of situations where she's already comfortable.
This is a link to my blog called Chewie's New Thunder Shirt
which shares my initial skepticism with the product and my experience using it. There's also a link to their website to purchase it, though you can now get them in many major pet store retail chains as well as mom-and-pop stores.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.