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Canine Behavior/Westie experiencing fearful episodes


I have a male Westie that is nearly six years old.  Twice recently, in the last 30 days or so, he has experienced two episodes in which he acted in a way that I would describe as "skittish."  Nothing like this has ever occurred in the entire time that we've owned him, except in the two instances I will described presently.  My Westie is not normally a fearful dog, no more than what I would consider within the realm "typical" or "normal."  He doesn't like to use the stairs to go into our basement, though he will use other sets of stairs, particularly if they are visibly carpeted (I believe this is due to the fact that he knows they aren't slippery), he dislikes the vacuum but tolerates it (he mostly just avoids by going into another room until it's done), and he is particularly uncomfortable with thunder storms and fireworks, which cause him to pant and wander around in search of a place to hide.  However, he has a "thunder shirt," which has virtually eliminated his discomfort during storms and fireworks.  He is otherwise a healthy and well-behaved, well-trained dog, who likes to watch TV shows that feature animals, but especially dogs and horses, he is well-socialized with both people and other dogs, has no separation anxiety, is affectionate, and has an overall friendly, playful disposition.   

The first time he behaved in a skittish manner was around Christmas time, when we noticed he was hiding under the kitchen table, keeping close to any family member he could, and wandering around aimlessly with his tail tucked under and his head low.  We allowed him to go outside, where he continued his odd behaviour of wandering around aimlessly, and when we invited him in, he immediately wanted to go out again, and when we didn't follow, he scratched frantically at the door to get back in, as if he expected us to follow; this happened for several exchanges.  We took him for a walk, and the behaviour continued.  It seemed that he wanted us to follow him, so when my dog began frantically scratching at the gate like he'd done with the door, my dad was curious and allowed my dog to wander off leash in an attempt to understand what the problem was.  My dog continued to walk around rather aimlessly down the street, then came back and the behaviour continued in the house once again.  My mother had been baking that day, and it turned out one of the burners on our gas stove had been turned slightly, likely bumped, and soon after we realized this and turned the burner off, the behaviour skittishness and otherwise atypical behaviour abated.  

Last night, my dog acted in a similar way, and it lasted into the day and this evening.  It was almost an exact repeat of the behaviour he'd exhibited when the gas had been left on, so logically I checked the gas, which was off.  This leads me to surmise that the behaviour he exhibited when the gas was on, was not related to the gas at all, and was due to some other factor, my only guess is environmental.  My dog is currently sleeping in my room, when he typically sleeps in the living room or my parents' room, for when I went to lead him into the living room, he creeped out of my room, tail tucked low, all the while looking back to ensure I was following.  He walked to my parents' room, then followed me back to my room, which again, is atypical (he bonded with my dad, and generally prefers to be wherever my dad is).  My dog has spent the majority of the day in my room, which is unusual.  

To the best of my knowledge, there has been no specific trigger for either of these events, and whereas in the first scenario there was a resolution of the behaviour when the gas was turned off, there has yet to be a resolution in the current scenario.  I'm trying to identify similarities in the situations, but there are few if any, except for the behaviour, and the fact that applying my dog's "thunder shirt" caused a reduction in my dog's anxiety (however, my dog wearing this shirt is not a long-term solution).  In the first scenario, the behaviour began in the afternoon during daylight, while this time it occurred in the wee hours of the morning, and continued into the day and this evening.  In retrospect in the first scenario, we realized that my dog had been giving the stove a wide berth on his way in and out of the house, whereas this time he's showing no particular adversity to any object, just a preference for my room, which again, is odd when one considers my dog's behavioural history in conjunction with his skittish behaviour.  

We've been trying to figure out what exactly is causing my dog to behave in this way--trying to have him lead us to what might be bothering him, or attempting to pick up on any cues, without indulging and thus reinforcing the behaviour--but we're at a bit of a loss.  Do you have any suggestions as to what might be causing my dog's fearful "episodes"?  And the best way to go about resolving them when they arise?  

Thank you for your consideration.

Your dog appears intelligent, biddable, well trained, socialized and a marvelous companion.  When ANY such behavior problem suddenly begins, the first stop is the veterinarian.  I don't know if you will be able to find a veterinary behaviorist in Canada (Ontario) but I'm sure there is a large veterinary teaching university/college somewhere within reasonable reach and I suggest you call there and ask for referral to a Veterinary Internist.  It's worth traveling a bit (even in the bitter winter cold) to have such a professional give this dog a thorough evaluation (blood, urine, stool, orthopedic, opthalmologic, neurological).  Most veterinary Internists in the USA do not see clients unless referred by a Veterinary generalist but perhaps a referral from a teaching facility will be sufficient.  Just as you would take a Human who suddenly experiences "lapses" in cognition to a specialist, so should you take a dog.  A veterinary generalist will not have the sophistication or the tools to adequately assess the dog.  Please use followup to tell me what the specialist had to say.

Meanwhile: Do not allow the dog off leash for any reason; do not "coddle" the dog when he is fearful; put a leash on him (not only physical restraint, but this is also psychological restraint and can help if this is seizure related) and keep him near you without remarkable anxiety on your part.

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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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