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Canine Behavior/Dobermans scared of backyard


QUESTION: We recently moved into a new home and had the backyard fenced so that we could give our two 4-year old doberman bitches access to go out when they needed. Being in Florida they love to sub bathe and generally check things out so as I work from home I tend to leave the patio door open all day.

For the first 3 or 4 weeks things were fine to the point that they were rolling around in the grass and chasing each other up and down.

Then all of a sudden the elder of the two would not go past the end of the small deck area onto the grass. She just stood there, not exactly shaking with fear, but certainly not happy.

We encouraged her, and myself and my wife went and sat on the grass. But she would not come to us, even for treats. Then about a week ago out other Dobie started  acting in the same manner, and she LOVES being outside.

If they are desperate, they will slide down the side of the house along the plant bed and then do their business on another area of the yard, but you can tell they aren't even keen on this approach and they immediately come straight back in.

We're stressing a bit as this is the first home we have owned since moving from the UK and it may be a real issue to get round as we don't have a front yard with much of a grass area.

At our previous house I have seen them take on armadillos, raccoons and even snakes with no fear, so I don't think it's animal scent or that they have viewed an animal. I am completely lost and any help would be gratefully appreciated.

ANSWER: Alligators?

Something has frightened both these dogs.  They have either seen or scented the presence of an unknown animal or have been deliberately frightened by a neighbor or passer-by (never put anything past a member of our species, unfortunately).

Call animal control in your area.  Ask about whether or not there have been alligator sightings.  Talk to your neighbors.  GO OUT WITH THE DOGS.  Bring large, bright halogen flashlight with you after dark.  Put the dogs on leash and use the front door, if you must.

Investigate this possibility.  Then report back using followup feature.  If this is absolutely an impossibility in your area, we have to investigate further.

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QUESTION: Thanks for your quick response Jill!

I'm 99.9% sure it's not gators as surprisingly for central Florida we live nowhere near any water. I know they can walk back to old mating grounds through new developments, but to get to us any gator would have had to have crossed a 4 line highway first, past a number of other houses and then up a 100 yard rise.

Also our yard is fenced with 6 foot solid panels, so the only way in would be under or through it bringing it down and there's no sign of either. Our neighbors have been great (to our face) and a number have dogs themselves. We also make sure ours don't annoy anybody and bring them inside if they start barking.

My wife just had a thought. She seems to think it all started after the night the older Dobie had diarrhea. In the middle of the night she never made the door and exploded right by it. My wife opened the door and let her out and started to clean up. Unbeknown to her the sprinklers came on and Ella got soaked. When we opened the door she was shivering and looking very miserable.

That seems plausible but doesn't really help us understand what's going on with the younger one as she seems worse that her sister now and didn't start for at least a week after. Could she just be sensing her sisters fear and reacting to that?

Yes.  Fear is contagious and the dog's ability to smell adrenaline (the body's response to automatic fight/flight) is enormous.  The older Dobie acquired a conditioned fear response to something (in her sight) during that experience and began actively avoiding "it" (whatever "it" is), and the other followed suit without any reason other than the other dog's obvious fight/flight response.

I suggest you do the following:

Take both dogs out, on leash, through the front door.  Go into the fenced yard (I assume there's access via a gate otherwise you could not cut your lawn) AFTER the dogs have eliminated.  Upon entering the back yard, stand still, make no eye contact with either dog, say nothing.  Wait for both dogs to show "attention" (look AT YOU for direction) and observe their body language carefully (ear set, in the Dobe if tail is docked that's your best bet).  If they are relaxed, ask for "sit", heavily food reward (high value treat, hot dog bits or string cheese bits), continue forward.  At the FIRST SIGN of discomfort IN EITHER DOG, STOP.  Stand, do nothing as above, wait for "attention" (and be absolutely certain both dogs are now no longer on automatic "pilot" but actively looking AT YOU with cognition), ask for "sit", heavily reward, move forward.  Do this (no matter how long it takes) until you reach the back door.  At the back door, be ready to "jackpot" both dogs AS THEY ENTER THE HOUSE ACROSS THE THRESHOLD (jackpot means: fist full of treat for both dogs).  Do this until BOTH DOGS are NO LONGER visibly upset and are actively WATCHING YOUR every step (for stop, "sit", reward).  Until then, do not use the back door.  It's impossible for me to say how long it will take to desensitize the dogs to the back yard, the door to the back yard, etc. It could happen in a few days or it could take longer.  What you are doing here is SLOWLY introducing a "and now for something totally different" approach to the back yard from ANOTHER DIRECTION (not out the back door).  It will work.  Give it time and patience.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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