Canine Behavior/Extreme Fear Of Outdoors and High Anxiety
Hello Jody. A month ago my Wife and I brought home a 6 year old Weimeraner from the dog warden. His paperwork from the previous owner said he was "shy," but that is an understatement! First of all, he refuses to go on any walks at any time of day. We got him out a couple of times only for him to do his potty business a few doors away and then drag us back home. Second, the only time we can easily get him to go out into the backyard to go potty is at night after we've both got into bed. He'll come over to my side of the bed and wimper quietly that he needs to go out and then I'll get up and let him out. He'll quickly do his job and run back in. This happens three times a night on the average, but he will not go out at all during the daytime unless my wife and I corner him by the back door - then he'll relent and go out, most times peeing all over the deck instead of going down to the grass - anything to get it over with and get back inside. It's getting to where he sometimes won't even eat his food because his dishes are near the back door and he's afraid we'll make him go outside. It's also becoming more usual for him to poop in the house because he'd rather do that during the day than face going outside when the sun is out. He is also very sensitive to sound. The rattling of leaves or the sight of a squirrel makes him bolt to be let back inside.
I know this is alot of info, but I want to give you as much detail as possible. Wondering is a thundershirt would make a difference in this case. Or maybe putting some Captain Morgan in his water so he'd chill out. (Just kidding.) Anthing you can suggest would be much appreciated.
Thank you for your question. Do you know the dog's history - the environments in which he lived prior to coming to you? It sounds like he might have been a puppy mill dog or similar; a life where he was never exposed to the outside (at least not by day) and so it's just terrifying to him.
The first thing I'd do is move his food/water dish to the opposite side of the room from the door to the back yard (or to a different room altogether). It's important that he feels comfortable enough to eat.
A Thunder Shirt may be helpful as a starting point to help bolster his confidence to go outside. If you try this, I'd do it systematically as an initial bad/traumatizing experience with the shirt on can cause him to fear the shirt which is counter productive. So, the first thing to do is introduce the shirt to him. Let him just sniff the shirt. You can hold it or put it on the floor and invite him to come over and investigate it. You can put a few treats on the shirt and allow him to eat the treats off the shirt (use good treats, not his regular kibble - string cheese, chicken or turkey breast, hot dog, etc). Lay the shirt over him like a blanket (don't attach any of the Velcro) and give him treats. Attach the part around his neck (like a cape) loosely so it's not strangling him. Give him treats. Attach the under flap around his chest, give him treats, attach the outer flap to hold it all in place, give him treats and play some games. Let him wear it for 5-10 minutes while you continue to feed him (this can coincide with a meal time and you can toss a few yummy treats into his regular food), then take the shirt off.
Later that day or the next day, do the same thing. Coincide putting it on with his evening meal (near or past dark). Once he's eaten and the shirt has been on for about 10 minutes, take him outside. Don't put too much pressure on him, try to make it a fun experience with his favorite toy. Feed him only half his meal on this occasion so you can use super tasty treats to try to lure him outside. See if he seems more comfortable this time (dark, so he's already a bit more comfortable). Then, try this again in the morning. Start with just trips to your own back yard. Allow the yard to become a safe place for him. If weather permits, you can leave the door to the yard open for a couple hours at a time and allow him to sneak out there on his own. Pay attention so that if you see him do this, you can be ready to offer him gentle, quiet praise for his bravery.
I should point out that the effectiveness of the Thunder Shirt only lasts between 30-90 minutes and then the brain habituates to the sensation and tunes it out. It's not harmful to leave the shirt on for several hours (so if you put it on in the morning and then leave for work, that's OK, just understand that it wore off after about 90 minutes). Taking it off for a few hours and then putting it back on will reestablish the effect for an additional 30-90 minutes. You should NOT leave it on 24/7. It should be off for at least 8 consecutive hours out of every 24 so that we avoid rubbing irritation (similar to bed sores).
I would also encourage you to get a referral to a veterinary behaviorist in your area, or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB)for a formal evaluation. The former is a veterinarian who has gone on to do a specialty in behavior. They are able to evaluate the behavior issues and devise an appropriate behavior modification protocol for you. If they feel that an anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication would be helpful to get your dog through this, they can prescribe it for you and they will monitor the dosing and help you wean off it when the behavior has improved. Rarely, it is determined that the dog would do better to stay on the meds, but most often it is a temporary assist to help even the dog enough to allow the behavior modification to be effective. The vet behaviorist does NOT replace your regular vet. Think of them as the specialist (the psychiatrist of the animal world). They will work with your regular vet and oversee this particular issue, providing records for your vet, and will likely request records and blood work from your vet at the start of treatment. But they do not replace the regular vet.
A CAAB holds a PhD in animal behavior. They are skilled at evaluating and may be familiar with appropriate drug options (if deemed necessary) but they are not licensed to prescribe. They will work with your current vet to prescribe and monitor the dosing. They will also work with you to devise an appropriate behavior modification protocol.
Behavior modification protocols typically consist of training and use a process of Counter Conditioning (CC) and Desensitization (D) to help the dog feel better. D increases the dog's tolerance of the thing that scares him while CC works to actually change the dog's emotional reaction from the current fear to one of pleasure.
Whomever you choose to work with, you should know that drug therapy (antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds) are specifically meant to be used in conjunction with behavior modification. They are not a "fix" in themselves. If there are no vet behaviorists or CAABs in your area, ask your vet for a referral to a trainer that the vet trusts - ideally someone with experience with canine anxiety issues and timid/fearful dogs.
A formal evaluation may determine that meds are not necessary - that would be GREAT! But the level of anxiety you describe certainly puts it on my list of potential treatment options that I would have in mind if I were doing the evaluation.
Below is a link to my blog on my experience with a Thunder Shirt - from my initial skepticism to my success with my very sound sensitive, very timid dog. It is certainly worth a try to see if that works, but you may need a bigger assist than that, and I encourage you to invest in a proper in-person evaluation. It would also be useful to have a complete physical, including blood work and checking the thyroid levels as we should rule out any physiological/health issue that may be contributing to the fear he's exhibiting.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist